Back in the aughts, following the success of The Sixth Sense (1999), Hollywood assaulted horror fans with a slew of knock-offs featuring big-name actors and increasingly predictable twist endings. The appeal was obvious. For the producers, big stars meant big money. For the stars, big twists meant a chance to show off by portraying one narrative while insinuating another: “Everything you thought you saw is wrong! Again!” The fad eventually drowned in its own monotony, but you can imagine my apprehension when Dream House was announced.
In fact, I might have hated Jim Sheridan’s supernatural yarn if it didn’t switch gears partway through. You see, Dream House comprises three movies, only one of which proves any good. The first tells of Will Atenton (Daniel Craig), a successful editor who quits his job to spend more time with his wife, Libby (Rachel Weisz), and two daughters, Trish (Taylor Geare) and Deedee (Claire Geere). The Atentons have just bought a lovely new home in the suburbs, but they soon discover it once belonged to Peter Ward, who allegedly murdered his family but could not be charged for lack of evidence.
Nothing is as it seems, naturally, and the movie goes out of its way to taunt us with its supposed cleverness, what with all the mysterious glares and ominous music whilst nothing is happening. As in Secret Window (2004) and The Skeleton Key (2005), the filmmakers take so much time setting up their parlour trick they forget to tell a story proper. Fortunately, Dream House drops the act early on, revealing after twenty excruciating minutes what most viewers will have guessed from the first scene. That is, provided they didn’t already know because the trailer, of course, spoils the big surprise.
The second act proves considerably more interesting. Cards on the table, the film is free to explore the implications of its gimmick as Will and Libby fight over which version of events their family should live by. We’ve got a clearer idea whom to believe, but it’s worth noting neither turns out completely right. Either way, the stars get to show off indeed, beautifully illustrating the struggles of a slipping mind, and I wish their poetic conflict took up the rest of the runtime.
However, the mystery of the Wards’ murder must be solved, and Dream House devolves into a cookie-cutter thriller right down to the convoluted showdown in a literal inferno. It’s too bad, given David Loucka’s screenplay actually had me guessing. At first, I thought former neighbour Jack might be the killer for no other reason than Marton Csokas plays him as such a douchebag. Then my suspicions went to his ex, Ann, whom Naomi Watts portrays as way too nice. Heck, I even considered Libby, who may know more about the house than she lets on, and Will just because it’s that sort of movie.
As per Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, I had to guess right with one of them (emphasis on “guess” because the film doesn’t provide enough clues for us to deduce), but to say the resolution gets mishandled would be an understatement. It plays like a bad cartoon with the villain threatening a new life for no discernible reason and the hero spending an eternity getting closure in the middle of a fire emergency. For that crime, though, I have as my prime suspects the producers, who gave Sheridan the boot after a poor test screening.
I’ve no idea how the original cut ended, but it couldn’t have been worse than this. Consider the theatrical version’s clichéd epilogue, the way it insults our intelligence by shoehorning the title. As I mentioned, three movies are presented here: one in which a family acquires its dream home only to learn appearances can be deceiving, one in which a house holds both a couple’s dearest fantasy and its worst nightmare, and one in which a man’s dreams are torn asunder because of his place of residence. Did we need a fictional novel to explain why the film is called Dream House?