Dream House: Film Review

Despite the talent involved, this is more a snooze than a dream.

Despite the A-list talent involved, this haunted house tale is a thrill-deprived, inert misfire.

NEW YORK – Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz at least got a marriage out of Dream House, which might be one reason to keep the title in their bios. But co-star Naomi Watts, director Jim Sheridan and pretty much everyone else involved in this inert misfire are going to want to forget it fast. That goes double for whatever audience Universal’s thrill-deprived pseudo-supernatural psychological chiller can muster.

Given that the trailer already divulges the film’s big twist, while dishonestly selling it as The Shining in leafy suburbia, the mystery is not what happened in the residence of the title, or who killed the family that once lived there. The real puzzler is what merit did this project initially show to attract such pedigree talent, not to mention a director who has carved a career telling emotionally engaging stories about real characters. Nothing in David Loucka’s hackneyed genre mishmash of a script – or at least what made it to the screen -- will supply the answer.

Will Atenton (Craig) quits his job as a star editor at a New York publishing house to spend more time with his wife (Weisz) and their two adorable daughters (Taylor Geare, Claire Astin Geare) while working on his novel. But they barely settle into their small-town New England home when bumps in the night, faces at the window and teenage Goths holding candlelight rituals in the basement start creeping everybody out. The family’s neighbor (Watts) obviously knows plenty but isn’t talking, while her angry ex-husband (Martin Csokas) snarls with such sadistic menace we suspect he knows even more.

Will learns that the wife and children of the family who lived in the house before them were murdered five years earlier, and that the father was suspected but never convicted of the killings, spending the interim period in a psychiatric facility. As he begins digging into the investigation, poring over news coverage, questioning cops and doctors, looking at old surveillance tapes, he makes an alarming discovery. But anyone who has ever seen a family-in-peril horror movie will be ahead of him, only to have the rug pulled out from under their expectations by the more-than-faintly ludicrous developments of Loucka’s screenplay.

Dream House seems uncertain what kind of movie it wants to be. It’s an old-fashioned haunted-house tale, a poignant story of ghosts conjured out of grief, a warped-perception mindbender, a reality-based murder mystery, a solve-it-yourself audience challenge. But in the end it’s none of the above, just a convoluted yawn.

Sheridan approaches the material as somber drama, bringing a restraint that’s classy, if unjustified. But he rarely cranks the tension above a mild hum, and the crescendo of violence and danger in the inorganic final act, as the true villains step forward, is too silly and over-plotted to fuel either suspense or shocks.

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel is probably incapable of shooting a film that doesn’t look decent, and in another context, the snowy settings might be atmospheric, while the lustrous, warm interiors of the early action might encourage us to invest in the loving family at the story’s center. But the movie is too terminally muddled even to offer visual pleasures, though Craig fans will be pleased that no mere New England winter can force buff Will to keep his shirt on for long.

Watts has little to do but look fretful and compassionate, while Craig and Weisz deliver the required picture of blissful domesticity under threat, despite being undermined at every step by Loucka’s script. The two actors do display an easy chemistry and tenderness that hints at the romance blossoming off-camera, where let’s just assume they were having a better time.

Opens: Sept. 30 (Universal)
Production companies: Morgan Creek, Bobker/Kruger Films
Cast: Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts, Rachel Weisz, Marton Csokas, Elias Koteas, Jane Alexander, Taylor Geare, Claire Astin Geare, Rachel Fox, Brian Murray
Director: Jim Sheridan
Screenwriter: David Loucka
Producers: David Robinson, Daniel Bobker, Ehren Kruger, James G. Robinson
Executive producers: Rick Nicita, Mike Drake
Director of photography: Caleb Deschanel
Production designer: Carol Spier
Music: John Debney
Costume designer: Delphine White
Editors: Glen Scantlebury, Barbara Tulliver
Rated PG-13, 92 minutes.