Sadly, it’s true: Dream House really is as bad as you’ve heard. If you’re anything like me, though, you might be lured into the theater anyway by the promise of a passably creepy suburban gothic thriller buoyed by a cast of A-list actors and a head-scratching mystery. After all, if they spelled out the film’s trippy main twist in the trailer, they must have saved something good for paying audiences, right?
Unfortunately, they did not. The “gotcha!” moments that are revealed, in painstaking detail, in the theatrical trailer are the only surprises Dream House has to offer.
Since every nuance of the plot up to and including the big reveal was spelled out before we make it onto Dream House’s front porch, the film’s first half seems mostly pointless. Daniel Craig stars as Will, a fancy New York book editor and aspiring novelist who leaves his job in the dead of winter to work on his book and spend more time with his wife, Libby (Rachel Weisz), and their two young daughters. They buy the titular house in a frosty suburb, only to learn that a horrific mass murder took place there five years ago when Peter Ward, the house’s former owner, allegedly killed his wife and two young daughters (somehow getting shot in the head in the process). Ward survived and is released from the local loony bin just as Will and his family are moving into their new home.
Will soon finds that home ownership isn’t what he’d hoped it would be. The local goth kids have weird rituals in his basement, his kids see strange men looking into their windows at night, and all the neighbors are either mean to Will or completely indifferent to his family’s plight, except for the mysterious woman next door (Naomi Watts, whose casting spoils the one element of the plot that the trailer doesn’t manage to give away).
Everything in the first half of Dream House is a build-up to the twist—a reveal that is clearly designed to make us rethink what we’ve seen up to that point. The moment of revelation would have been a good scene, even though director Jim Sheridan telegraphs it way out front with some self-consciously subjective sleight-of-hand tricks. (Wow, there are lots of mirrors in this movie!) An extended close-up shot lets Craig flex more than his abs as Will finally grasps the enormity of the situation he’s in, and how thoroughly screwed he might be. Too bad we’ve already seen it.
The film picks up a little once Will’s approach to the central mystery—what really happened in his house five years ago, and who are the surly, hooded strangers lurking around in the snow outside?—is dramatically altered. Dream House stops trying to be a cut-rate version of The Shining and starts to work pretty hard at being a cut-rate version of Shutter Island. The reversal is short-lived, though, as the film quickly spirals into a convoluted mess of hokey plot contrivances as Sheridan, who also directed My Left Foot and that awful 50 Cent movie, rushes toward an obvious conclusion.
When you strip away the predictable plot twists and the murder mystery that Nancy Drew could have solved before she pulled up her knee socks in the morning, the only real puzzle of Dream House is how it attracted such a competent cast. The presence of Craig, Watts and Weisz damns the film with high expectations; you can’t help but wonder if the script that first got the greenlight was a dramatically different animal. According to rumors, that’s exactly the case. Dream House was supposedly subjected to a major overhaul when it bombed with test audiences, resulting in a final product that didn’t sit well with the director or any of the principal actors.
In spite of its cast and occasionally moody cinematography, Dream House is a suspense thriller that offers neither suspense nor thrills. Even the occasional jump scares are clumsy and completely ineffective, and the creepiness promised in the ad materials is nonexistent once the opening credits roll. Perhaps it’s a different movie for viewers who go into it cold, without knowing exactly what’s coming. Really, though, it isn’t just the trailer that spoils the movie. By the time Dream House finally crumbles on itself in a perplexing mess of fistfights, fires, and chloroform-soaked rags, it’s pretty much impossible to remember why we cared, however fleetingly, in the first place.