For a film directed by Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot,” “In America”), shot by five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and starring James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, to be hidden from critics until opening day, the studio (which nonetheless advertised it widely on television) must have been awfully pessimistic about its prospects. In this case, Universal had a point. Despite its pedigree—the cast also includes Naomi Watts and Rachel Weisz—“Dream House” is more like a narrative nightmare.
Though marketed as a conventional horror movie, the picture is actually an attempt at a cerebral thriller with supernatural overtones along the lines of “The Sixth Sense” or “The Others.” But David Loucka’s script not only can’t match the clever twists in those pictures—and the studio hasn’t helped things by revealing its central surprise in the trailers—but collapses into ridiculous action in the last reel.
Craig plays Will Atenton, whom we see in a prologue quitting his job as a successful editor for a glitzy publishing firm (whose plush offices suggest that the screenwriter knows little about the realities of that business). He’s decided to spend all his time fixing up the house he’s bought for his family—loving wife Libby (Weisz) and charming little daughters Dee Dee (Claire Geare) and Trish (Taylor Geare)—in small-town New Oxford. Unfortunately, his arrival is met with coldness from most of the locals. Even neighbor Ann Patterson (Watts), while better disposed than most, seems concerned. By contrast her husband Jack (Marton Csokas), from whom she’s separated, appears downright hostile when he drops by to pick up his daughter Chloe (Rachel G. Fox). Worse, the house attracts the attention not only of some Goth kids who sneak into the cellar to perform weird rituals, but of a shadowy stalker who appears to be keeping it under watch. Maybe it’s the oddball (Elias Koteas) who was staring at Will on the train from New York.
The reason for the treatment is clarified somewhat when Will discovers that his house was the site of a triple murder five years earlier, when its owner apparently murdered his whole family. And though the man’s guilt was never proven, he was confined in a psychiatric hospital until his recent release. Will believes he might be the person watching the place, but his visit to the hospital, about halfway into the picture, reveals that the situation is much more complicated than that. Though the trailers indicate why, to go any further in a review would be a manifest spoiler, and so if you’re interested you’ll need to plunk down the price of admission or pick up the DVD when it comes out in a few months. Suffice it to say that “Dream House” really deteriorates from this point on, becoming increasingly ludicrous until it culminates in one of the dumbest last acts in recent memory, made all the worse by the fact that the filmmakers obviously thought it was clever.
It’s rather amazing that so many talented people got caught up in making this nonsense. Presumably Sheridan thought that it represented a chance to show a commercial side, in which case he miscalculated badly. And maybe Craig figured that his fans would like to watch him mope about like a milquetoast for ninety minutes rather than engage in Bondish exploits—another error. But why Watts or Weisz should have found their thankless parts worth their time is inexplicable, and why Deschanel should have thought this material worthy of his artistry—and he does, in fact, lavish a great deal of attention on it; this is a visually elegant film—is equally unfathomable.
But whatever their reasons, “Dream House” just lays there on the screen, attractive to look at but horribly sluggish and, in the end, almost criminally stupid. If you manage to arouse yourself for the last twenty minutes or so, you might get a few laughs from the sheer inanity of what’s happening on the screen. But that hardly constitutes a recommendation, of course.