Say Something Nice: DREAMCATCHER (2003)

John Seale’s cinematography is the thankless, unsung hero of the reviled Stephen King adaptation.

I’m a Stephen King fan, and being a Constant Reader can be satisfying when it comes to movie adaptations of the author's work. In this, the year of our King 2017, we have translations of The Dark Tower, Gerald’s Game, and It hitting the big screen, in addition to an original series set in his oft-used setting of Castle Rock.

It wasn’t always this good.

In 2003, there came about an adaptation of a King novel that was so underwhelming that many Constant Readers simply block out the trauma from their memories. Dreamcatcher had all the makings of cinema magic: Lawrence Kasdan of The Big Chill and Silverado greatness was set to direct an adapted screenplay written by him and William Goldman, between which lies several decades of great scripts (we’re talking everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Princess Bride to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, here). And they did tell a great story; the first half of the film follows the harrowing battle between four childhood friends and a toothy slimeball alien creature with the power to replicate its victims. Critical and commercial reception was abysmal for the film upon release, but the one thing most decriers agreed upon was that the first half of the film was the better half, and the attempt to split the narrative to tell a second story with the inclusion of the warhawk Col. Abraham Curtis (played by a bushy-browed Morgan Freeman) really salted the Kool-Aid. Kasdan himself admitted that the film's failure brought his career to a crawl, later blocking his involvement in two films. Dreamcatcher caught nothing but flack all around.

But I can say this much: the film is pretty.

At the outset are four childhood friends: Henry Devlin, Joe “Beaver” Clarendon, Jonesy Jones and Pete Moore. They happen upon a mentally challenged boy Douglas "Duddits" Cavell being bullied by older kids, and they get him out of that jam with clever deployment of their wits. Duddits is thankful for the intervention, and through their subsequent bond he provides a rickety but strong precognitive connection among them. As adults, the friends (Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Damian Lewis, Timothy Olyphant, and Donnie Wahlberg, respectively) embark upon a winter retreat in the woods following Jonesy’s (Lewis') brush with death during a car collision. This marks the point when it all starts hitting the fan.

John Seale’s cinematography is the shining diamond in the rough of Dreamcatcher. From the opening credits, Seale’s knack for setting-as-tone jumps off with wide bird's eye shots of the expansive wintry landscape. Miles and miles of snow-covered forest fill the screen with ominous beauty reminiscent of the woods surrounding the Overlook Hotel throughout The Shining (King isn’t a fan of Kubrick’s adaptation, but Kasdan is a vocal proponent). For the first half of the story surrounding the four friends, their introductions begin with that bird's eye glimpse before descending into eye-level profiles of each man. Observing, as a stealth alien creature might. Seale had previously employed this technique in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and it’s equally effective here.

More so than a beautiful sunrise or an epic one-take of a battleground, some of the best cinematography works on the sly to simply embody a contextually profound emotion. As he had done with the unforgiving desert landscapes in The English Patient, Seale utilizes the natural tones present in the setting of Dreamcatcher to foster an emotional presence that underscores the information we’re being given. The stark contrasts at play in the snowy forest are intensified with a palette of blues (and the occasional red), underlining the running emotional subtext of loneliness throughout the plot. From our first individual moments with the men, each one is slyly framed in such a way as to physically separate him from whomever he’s interacting with. As one man is replicated, the camerawork is rife with Dutch angles and slightly off-center composition, creating an uncanny effect mirroring that of the impostor posing as a human.

Later in the film, Seale does the opposite. As Tom Sizemore’s character Owen is walking through the quarantine tent, the view is from inside of his protective HAZMAT suit, creating an enclosed view from the scene’s beginning. Add to that the warped fish-eye lens through which the infected can be seen closing in on him as he passes through, and it all serves a claustrophobic feel underscoring the crushing weight of empathy he feels for the innocents caught in the middle of the fight against invading aliens. Again, the visual techniques underline what is already internally present in the characters onscreen. When Owen later decides to help Henry Devlin escape, it works because we know how Owen feels through dialogue and Seale’s application of camerawork.

But the crux of the film, as it is with most of Stephen King’s tales, lies within friendship. Joe, Henry, Jonesy, Pete, and Duddits share a bond that cultivates a power both psychic and emotional. This kinship acts as a weapon against (and is at times a useful tool for) the alien threat that descends upon them. Sure, the bond is displayed in the feast-and-drink scene we’ve seen in a million movies. But after the toilet humor and the rock ‘n roll references is another setting-as-tone sequence that most people seem to write off as hokey: the Memory Warehouse.

Inside Jonesy’s subconscious (and all of ours, by extension) lies the Memory Warehouse, where memories, trivia, and even appliance instructions are stored. Anything he would want to remember is there, until he no longer wants a memory in which case he carts the file for the memory to a furnace in the Warehouse itself. Visualized as an old library-like building with multiple iron-wrought levels, stacks of dilapidated shelving and endless rooms full of binders and file boxes, the Warehouse is a warm womb aglow in comforting hues of orange. Through the use of dancing light and a calming palette, Seale effectively indicates a mood of safety and peacefulness during this sequence. The Memory Warehouse is a good place, a happy place. It’s the place that Jonesy later retreats to when his mind and body are overtaken. Tapping into that emotional well with subtle manipulation of lighting and color provided a slick nonverbal cue to the audience in the visual representation of the Memory Warehouse.

While Dreamcatcher wasn’t the most worthwhile adaptation of an Uncle King work, the unsung endeavors of John Seale to immerse viewers in the emotional context of the characters is notable. If the guy who gave us the stunning post-apocalyptic visuals we saw in Mad Max: Fury Road can take us to the towns of Derry or Castle Rock in future Stephen King adaptations, count me in.

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