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If a Ripley gets out of this pine tree paradise, well, it just can't be allowed to do that.

Dreamcatcher
(2003)

(SPOILER) A puzzler for many. Not so much in terms of how a post-horrific car crash, OxyContin-addicted Stephen King could have written such a rotten story (at one point, before his comedown, he proudly extolled that Dreamcatcher would do for the toilet what Psycho did for the shower”, which, well…) – I think the circumstances speak for themselves – but how such luminaries as William Goldman and Lawrence Kasdan became involved in the movie adaptation, and how Castle Rock, for the most part a bastion of successful translations of the author’s work, could have tripped up so badly. Because Dreamcatcher is an unmistakably bad film.

As an unnamed production assistant told it, in an interesting interview with slashfilm.com, it was likely a way for Kasdan to get something, anything, into production after a project he’d been working on went cold (besides which, he hadn’t had anything do decent business in nearly a decade, and Wyatt Earp had seriously tarnished his resumé, even if less so than Costner’s). Castle Rock had first dibs on any King properties, on account of a string of successes with non-supernatural (Stand By Me, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption) and even supernatural (The Green Mile) fare. Of course, they’d had a few stiffs too (Needful Things, Dolores Claiborne, and most recently Hearts in Atlantis) but their track record was pretty good.

Which might lead one to wonder why they didn’t smell a stinker when they read it; they clearly hadn’t put everything he’d produced into development during this period. Perhaps they felt it was only right, given their special relationship and the significance of the novel, regardless of quality. And it was, after all, a big science fiction affair, with more obvious studio cachet, despite the shit weasels, than the King’s more intimate works.

Whatever the conversations behind Castle Rock doors, William Goldman clearly couldn’t make it work. But then, he’d shown reluctance to make fundamental changes to the Absolute Power novel, until Tony Gilroy set him straight. To salvage Dreamcatcher into a workable movie script, you’d probably have needed to jettison about sixty percent of it. And the forty remaining… Well, as has been pointed out, and obvious even to a non-King acolyte, it’s heavily indebted to It for its protagonists and arc (a quartet with a common bond stretching back to their childhoods discover that bond is particularly essential to an encounter in adult life). But I’d hazard that, if It had featured an alien creature that infects its victims through anal penetration and incubates through making them fart prodigiously, it wouldn’t have become one of his most iconic works.

Dreamcatcher more closely resembles an X-File as “satirised” by South Park. Or possibly, if Kevin Smith had made an SF movie, these would be exactly the aliens he’d come up with (an entirely derivative razor-toothed but anally-invasive worm entity; while the picture’s cinematography is pretty good in a snowy way, the creature effects are pretty awful). The Smith vibe makes it appropriate that Jason Lee (called, wait for it… Beaver) is in here, playing what is, essentially a Kevin Smith character replete with entirely lowbrow tastes and sense of humour (Lee had appeared in Kasdan’s previous film Mumford).

Lee’s also the first of the four to exit, in a particularly messy sequence following their arrival at a cabin in the Maine woods for their annual hunting trip. The entire movie is atypical of anything else Kasdan has done; it’s a bit like Barry Levinson making The Bay, when directors who wouldn’t normally give horror a wide berth decide desperate times are called for… The opening sections are at least intriguing, cluing us in to their shared psychic gift and how it links them to savant Duddits Cavell (played in adult form by Donnie Wahlberg). Thomas Jane is a kind of iffy shrink, Damian Lewis a kind of decent college professor, and Timothy Olyphant kind of sleazy (which is presumably why the alien savages his cock – the material is that subtle). However, by the time Morgan Freeman shows up as Colonel Kurtz (he was Kurtz in the book) Curtis, possessed of a pair of baffling eyebrows, the movie has well and truly gone off the rails, leading to a “special child is an alien is defeating the alien” denouement that doesn’t even stand out for how risible it is.

There are a few scenes of note that are at least interesting; Lewis is infected by the alien (they’re lazily called Ripleys, but for no identifiable similarity to Alien) but is able to retreat mentally within the walls of his “memory warehouse”, visualised as an actual library, while his external, possessed self has turned into Dickie Attenborough on a cocaine binge. At one point, all the animals run past the cabin, many of them infected, but given the CGI involved, it isn’t as peculiar as it probably should be. Yet it does elicit the line “Even the bears are scared”. Tom Sizemore is an army captain somehow persuaded by Jane to help him and manages to appear the soberest character in the movie, which is saying something. By that time, though, the movie has become an out-and-out slog.

Bad movies can be quite watchable despite themselves, but this is a self-serious bad movie, with polished production values and earnest intent, once you get past the potty-minded premise, and it means Kasdan is well and truly sunk. It’s notable that there were a couple of King pictures that did okay – Secret Window, 1408 and just barely The Mist – after Dreamcatcher but then no major adaptations outside of TV until It and The Dark Tower in 2017. One can’t help thinking the ignominy heaped upon Dreamcatcher deterred studios from taking a big chance for so long.


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