A long, long time ago a fellow by the name of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, wrote a very famous poem about a mythical place called Xanadu (“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree …” — yes, it really was Coleridge and not the rock band Rush). We now know that he penned this literary masterpiece while stoned out of his mind on laudanum (supposedly for a toothache — yeah, right, Sam).
The Stephen King novel Dreamcatcher is a not wholly dissimilar affair. It’s the first thing that King wrote after being struck by a van (an incident mirrored in the story) and, apparently, he penned the story while under the influence of pain killers prescribed for his injuries. So is it a case of “In Dreamcatcher did Kubla King a stately pleasure dome decree?” Well, not exactly, but whatever it is he ended up with is one of the strangest things you’re likely to encounter any time soon.
Director and co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan has called King’s novel “a fever dream.” That seems fair, but not too many in the critical realm seem to have much patience for the fever dream of a movie that the novel has spawned. I have to admit that I enjoyed it. Yes, I laughed in a few places I wasn’t meant to (at least I assume I wasn’t meant to), but that didn’t diminish my pleasure in the movie, even when it wasn’t making a lot of sense. It may, in fact, have increased my enjoyment.
There are enough ideas — some of them pretty screwy — running around in Dreamcatcher for three or four ordinary movies. But then this is no ordinary movie. It’s a grand, loopy pageant of ideas, schlock horror and subtle horror, and gross-out effects. In a lot of ways, it’s like a compendium of King — there are bits and pieces of a lot of other King stories wafting through the film’s narrative. Probably there are more of them than a one-time viewing reveals.
Dreamcatcher is also strangely connected — in horrific terms — to Kasdan’s most famous film, The Big Chill, which revolved around a group of old friends gathering for a funeral. The difference here is that the group of old friends doesn’t know that funerals are exactly what their own gathering will result in. Both stories, however, are at bottom character studies of people who’ve known each other for a long time. Dreamcatcher just happens to incorporate mayhem, alien invasions, a psychotic army colonel (no wonder some reviewers think his name is Kurtz and not Curtis!) and, if not the kitchen sink, then at least the bathroom toilet.
I don’t think it’s even possible to write a coherent synopsis of the movie; roughly, it involves four friends, all touched with psychic powers, who go on an outing to a mountain cabin where they plan on their standard getaway fare (drinking beer and talking about sex — sort of a testosterone-soaked variant on the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but with ESP). One of them — Jonesy (Damian Lewis) — is only partially recovered from being nearly killed when he walked into traffic at the behest (he claims) of a character from the friends’ past, Duddits, a mentally challenged boy (Andrew Robb) whom they befriended in adolescence and who passed on his telepathic powers to them. (Duddits is still alive — and played by Donnie Wahlberg when the time comes — but it’s never made clear why the four friends haven’t kept in touch with him, despite the fact that they tend to “wish Duddits was here.”)
All of these guys have problems of their own that seem to stem from their telepathy. Indeed, when the movie opens one of them, psychiatrist Henry Devlin (Thomas Jane), has gone too far with his “gift” in getting into the mind of a patient, and Devlin attempts suicide. The others have similar, but not quite so dire, difficulties — none of which are as pressing as what is about to happen to them by way of an alien invasion and the deliriously crazy Col. Abraham Curtis (Morgan Freeman).
It all starts with animals high-tailing it through the woods en masse (the effect is supposed to be creepy, but it looks like quitting time at the Magic Kingdom) and a nearly frozen man suffering from some inexplicable — but alarmingly flatulence-causing — disease. We later learn that it isn’t a disease but an alien life form growing inside of him, and one that bursts forth in a most unceremonious manner — proving that the current trend of bathroom humor infesting film translates (for good or ill) into horror just as nicely.
The alien creatures — called, aptly enough, “s**t weasels” — are slimy grotesqueries that would be at home in a David Cronenberg picture, and whose actions are inimical to good fellowship in the extreme. Just as dangerous, though, are Col. Curtis’ alien-fighting tactics, which involve killing off anyone who might be infected with the weasels (“The idea of slaughtering Americans turns my stomach,” he notes while preparing to do just that, oblivious to the fact that slaughtering anyone should possibly give him pause).
I’ll leave the plot at that. It’s a strange story that only gets stranger as it goes along. There’s the usual quota of King material, some of which works, some of which doesn’t. (I may be in the minority here, but I’m a little bit over King’s rose-colored nostalgia for childhood, which we’ve been subjected to ever since Stand by Me.) But one thing is certain: Dreamcatcher is all odd, and it’s never boring. This may be the best-paced 134-minute movie I’ve ever seen; the suspense sequences work very well.
In general, the direction is excellent and sometimes brilliant (as in the scenes of Jonesy’s “memory warehouse” and his conversations with himself, when the head alien takes him over, yet leaves his conscious mind alive). That said, Dreamcatcher is not by any means a film for everybody; it’s too strange and too full of graphic gore to sit well with some viewers. And yet, it may be the most personal thing King ever wrote, and Kasdan is respectful of this.
Whether you will want to take a further tip from Coleridge and “close your eyes in holy dread” at the spectacle laid out before you, or instead want to embrace it in all its “fever dream” wonder is a matter of personal taste.