Director : Lawrence Kasdan
Screenplay : William Goldman and Lawrence Kasdan (based the novel by Stephen King)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Morgan Freeman (Col. Abraham Kurtz), Thomas Jane (Dr. Henry Devlin), Jason Lee (Joe “Beaver” Clarendon), Damian Lewis (Gary “Jonesy” Jones), Tom Sizemore (Cpt. Owen Underhill), Timothy Olyphant (Pete Moore), Donnie Wahlberg (Douglas “Duddits” Cavell), Ingrid Kavelaars (Trish Oservich), Alex Campbell (Richie Grenadeau), Chera Bailey (Rachel Mendol), Shauna Kain (Josie Rinkenhauer), Campbell Lane (Old Man Gosselin), Ty Olsson (Sgt. Andy Janas)
I have the feeling that if Stephen King wrote a book about toilet paper, someone would try to make a movie about it. At this point, King’s novels, short stories, or original screenplays have been the basis for more than 75 movies, ranging from near-masterpieces (Brian De Palma’s Carrie and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining), to the virtually unwatchable (King’s only directorial effort, Maximum Overdrive). Whenever King writes a new novel, it’s easy money that someone will turn it into a film, regardless of its literary merits or cinematic adaptability. It is testament to the power of King’s brand name that his having written something is far more important than the thing itself.
Clearly, those responsible for Dreamcatcher were hoping to cash in on the King brand without thinking about whether or not it would make a good movie. Not having read his novel Dreamcatcher (which goes for more than 600 pages), I can’t make any direct comparisons between it and the film version written by William Goldman and director Lawrence Kasdan, but if they two are anything alike, the book must have been a soggy, ludicrous read. From what I have read about the novel, it is described as a psychological horror story, which is exactly what the film is not. Although it takes several stabs at creating psychological depth, at several points envisioning a character’s mind in physical terms as a warehouse, it plays out as a slap-happy creature feature with all the finesse and style of straight-to-video schlock.
Spurting and sputtering through multiple plotlines for two hours, Dreamcatcher is bloated and silly, but it’s hard to stop watching because you keep thinking, “Could this get any more insane?” Perhaps Kasdan was thinking that, if Rob “When Harry Met Sally” Reiner could make King’s Misery into one of the revered horror author’s finest film adaptations, surely he, the writer/director behind Body Heat (1981), The Big Chill (1983), and Grand Canyon (1991), could pull it off, especially if he was working with William Goldman, who also adapted Misery. He was wrong.
Dreamcatcher tells the story of four childhood friends, Henry Devlin (Thomas Jane, who looks like Aaron Eckhart’s kid brother), Joe “Beaver” Clarendon (Jason Lee), Gary “Jonesy” Jones (Damian Lewis), and Pete Moore (Timothy Olyphant). Each one has his own problems: Henry is teetering on the verge of suicide, Beaver is stuck in a case of arrested development, Jonesy was recently in a terrible car accident that almost killed him, and Pete is fighting off alcoholism. The four of them have been telepathetically linked since their encounter with a mentally retarded boy named Douglas “Duddits” Cavell in their home town of Derry, Maine (King readers will recognize this as the small town that was terrorized in It, whose narrative structure King was clearly emulating when writing Dreamcatcher).
While on a weekend retread together in the Maine woods, the four friends get caught up in an alien invasion. The body-snatching extraterrestrials first take the form of eggs that, when ingested, grow into speedy, slithering worm-like creatures with beady eyes and a vertical mouth filled with rows upon rows of razor-sharp teeth. Unlike the xenomorph in Alien (1979), though, these slimy beasties don’t have the common decency to exit your body by exploding through your stomach. Instead, they come right out the business end of your large intestine, thus giving the film some truly nasty scatological imagery (if this had been done with even a trace of humor, it could have been one the best and most deliriously gross-out moments in any movie in recent memory). I could make all kinds of statements about how these nasties represent the male horrors of penetration, expulsion, and female genitalia, but those are issues I’ll leave that for others to dissect. I will say, though, that they provide the film’s best scene, in which Jason Lee tries to keep an alien trapped in a toilet by sitting on it—it’s a scene that’s both funny and scary, and it makes you wonder how the movie might have turned out if the filmmakers had been more focused on sustaining a consistent and intelligible tone and mood.
Apparently, these aliens also grow into larger creatures that can turn into dust and take over one’s body, which is exactly what happens to poor Jonesy. Retreating into his “Memory Warehouse,” the visualization of his mind (an interesting idea completely misplaced in this movie), Jonesy hides out while the alien, nicknamed Mr. Gray, commandeers his body and tries to escape the quarantine zone set up by the government so he can contaminate the rest of the world (or something like that—in the process of distilling 600+ pages into two hours, a lot of the story apparently got lost, including the significance of the titular Native American talisman).
If that were all there were, Dreamcatcher would have quite a lot on its plate, but it also works in government conspiracy theories in the form of Col. Abraham Kurtz (Morgan Freeman), the borderline-insane leader of a top-secret special paramilitary force named “Blue Unit” who has been fighting these aliens for the past 25 years. Freeman, normally an actor who can do no wrong, seems lost with this character, coming off as neither menacing nor particularly crazy. He is also saddled with a strikingly anticlimactic death scene that comes nowhere close to befitting someone who is intended to be so villainous, although it is not nearly as bad as the tacky final scene involving a battle to the death between Duddits and Mr. Gray.
The ultimate problem with Dreamcatcher is that it never seems sure of what it wants to be. Kasdan opens the film in Big Chill fashion, focusing on the characters and their various dilemmas, but none of them are particularly interesting or well-grounded (when Henry tries to kill himself with a revolver but instead shoots a hole in his office wall, the resulting scene is so silly that it almost induces snickers). It then starts throwing stuff at you a mile a minute—mind reading, body-cavity-invading alien worms, mind-invading alien body snatchers, top-secret military madmen, and Duddits as some kind of alien-busting messiah with a Scooby-Doo lunchbox—that the whole thing feels like several stories thrown into a blender and then dumped on the floor. Perhaps King was better able to balance the story’s near-schizo sci-fi/horror blendings on the page, but on the screen it just looks like a big, expensive mess.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick