Make It Stop: DREAMCATCHER
Bad Stephen King movies are a dime a dozen (perhaps literally, if you’re searching the bargain bins), but Dreamcatcher has a very special pedigree. Director Lawrence Kasdan ain’t nobody; with four Oscar nominations he’s one of the best screenwriters in the business. You might know him from little films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. As a director he’s not one of the all-timers, but he’s got some damn fine movies to his name - films like The Big Chill and Silverado. And then there’s William Goldman, the screenwriter of Dreamcatcher. He’s got two Oscars on his shelf and is considered one of the great screenwriting gurus of all time. He had previous King experience - he wrote Misery, easily one of the best King adaptations ever. But he also wrote Hearts in Atlantis, so maybe we should have seen this coming.
Still, Kasdan and Goldman teaming up should be good for at least a regular bad movie, not one of the worst films ever made. And they’re just the top guys - the cast is filled with otherwise fine actors like Damian Lewis and Morgan Freeman, and even the ‘less great’ actors are people like Timothy Olyphant and Thomas Jane. The film does look pretty amazing, so I guess Oscar winning cinematographer John Seale comes out mostly unscathed here, the only person really stepping up to the level of their abilities.
Surely much of the problem lies in the source material. The worst dialog comes verbatim from King’s book, and the grindingly familiar storyline is King on autopilot. It’s hard to completely blame the author, since he was dealing with massive trauma and likely hopped up on pain pills (he wrote the book longhand while his shattered leg healed), but that’s part of the mystery of the movie. This wasn’t King at his best, and anybody who read the book would understand that - so why bother? It’s like there’s a cosmic force at play that makes people adapt King works, regardless of quality. And that force got to Kasdan and Goldman (who has not yet written another movie since).
The movie opens with a scene so goofy, so over the top, that you feel like you’ve surely just seen the best Dreamcatcher has to offer. Wrong! In the opening scene Thomas Jane is a psychiatrist dealing with a hugely obese man. The patient gives the film’s opening line, giving us a first line that would go unmatched in sheer bizarre badness until M. Night Shymalan unleashed his masterpiece The Happening upon us:
Carl’s Jr. has this $6 burger, which really only costs $3.95 so you think you’re getting some deal but the truth is, it may be the best franchise burger out there. I went there yesterday and ordered three. By golly, those suckers almost filled me up. Ah, when I got home, I still had to have a box of Eggos but that doesn’t take away from Carl’s achievement. I mean, here’s a guy who’s got to go through life as Carl Junior, right?
This is the start! The first line! And then Thomas Jane, using apparent psychic powers to find out the patient’s secrets, taunts the guy until he runs from the office (after breaking the couch upon which he lays - that’s how fat he is. Funny, right?). And you think ‘Well, that was weird but I guess the movie starts now’ but you’re wrong because Jane then pulls a gun from his drawer and puts it to his head and sits there.
It’s like this series of non-sequiters; the opening of Dreamcatcher is almost avant garde in how weird and unsettling it is. The movie opens by daring you to keep watching - “We’re starting with this nonsense, imagine where we’re going to end up!” And where you end up is a movie about shit weasels and Morgan Freeman’s baffling eyebrows.
The next fifteen or twenty minutes is spent introducing the rest of the main cast in a series of vignettes. Dreamcatcher is more or less a horrible version of It, so the concept is that these four friends who grew up in Stephen King’s Derry, Maine have become adults and drifted apart and now have weird, mostly useless and plot-pointless psychic powers thanks to an event in their childhood. Timothy Olyphant sells cars and tries to use his psychic powers to get laid, but succeeds only in massively creeping out women (since he looks like a bug eyed psycho in this movie I’m not surprised). Jason Lee apparently has the psychic ability to dispense the worst catchphrases imaginable (Jesus Christ bananas!). And Damien Lewis is a college professor (that’s the other Stephen King stand-in profession besides novelist) who uses his powers to catch students cheating. They’re just about the worst group of failures you could imagine, people with extraordinary powers who seem to have no clue how to use them. And what’s amazing is that they will never, at any point in the movie, really use them any better.
Damien Lewis is walking home from work when he thinks he sees something across the street (we’ll later learn he sees a boy wearing only underwear. Awkward!) and, despite being a psychic manages to get nailed by a car while crossing. Apparently Lewis’ character Jonesy dies not once but twice in the ambulance; in his fog he sees a vision of that young boy again, trying to warn him of something. Something that sounds like Jar Jar Binks outing Anakin: Issa Gay.
Jump ahead six months! The first twenty-five minutes of the film are basically prologue; now we find the four guys at a snowy cabin in the woods. They’ve come together for a hunting trip as Jonesy finishes recuperating. Kasdan tries to show the camaraderie of these men in a long dinner table scene, but it’s a scene that serves only one purpose: to make you hate Jason Lee. And I know that you already hated Jason Lee, and have hated him for years, but this scene at the table, where Jason Lee is holding forth about how people in movies don’t ever wake up with bad breath, except for this one Meg Ryan movie, will make you hate him anew, with a fresh and rekindled fiery passion.
Watching the scene you’re acutely aware that this is when you’re supposed to be getting to like these guys and to see the connection they share. But Dreamcatcher is so bad, and everyone is so bad in it, that you begin to wonder if Kasdan isn’t adapting Sartre. Hell is other Stephen King characters. It’s here that we begin to get a sense of just how wildly wrong this film is, how it hits every note incorrectly.
There is a vital bit of plot that’s dispensed in this dinner table scene, and it’s where Dreamcatcher first starts to really come out of the closet, like your dad just showing up to your softball game in lipstick one day. See, it turns out that Jonesy has a ‘memory warehouse,’ where all of his memories are organized, sorted and stored; at first it would appear that this is just a metaphor but we quickly come to see that there is an actual warehouse that the movie shows us. Jonesy walks around in his memory warehouse, making room for new memories by burning old ones. For like half a second there’s a thought of ‘Hey, this is a cool visual representation of something we all have going on in our brains,’ but the movie literalizes it to a completely silly extent.
Another element that begins coming up: Duddits. He’s the fifth friend, strangely absent. All of the guys are reverent of Duddits to the point of making the viewer uncomfortable (“He’s the best person I have ever known,” one of them says). Duddits has been coming up for the first half hour, but only now do we begin to learn who he is; in a Vaseline-smeared flashback we find our four pals as kids walking down a country road. They’re looking for an abandoned building that apparently has a naked picture of a cheerleader or something inside but what they find instead is a bunch of characters too broad to have been villains in The Karate Kid tormenting a retarded boy in his underwear.
Here it is. Here’s the moment when Dreamcatcher really goes off the rails. The kid speaks the kind of retardtalk that people who have never been around the mentally handicapped imagine, while the four heroic kids who rescue him engage in a sort of banter that couldn’t be convincingly delivered by the greatest thespians of our time, let alone a bunch of rando child actors. The bullies are cartoon versions of cartoon bullies, barely convincing as three dimensional figures in a landscape. Our heroes save the simpering tard and he lets loose his trademark catchphrase that will echo throughout history: “I Duddits!”
In the present day Jonesy and Beaver stay at the cabin to hunt while Thomas Jane and Timothy Olyphant go out to buy beer. The hunting doesn’t go on for long, though, as some guy comes stumbling out of the woods all sick and farting. Farting A LOT. He thinks that he poisoned himself eating some berries, but his symptoms are pretty fucked - he first has a hugely swollen chest but then his stomach swells. And he keeps farting. And Beaver makes fart jokes.
They put the guy to bed, and then they see a truly hilarious procession of animals walking through the forest in front of the cabin. Like hundreds of the fuckers (but actually really a dozen, repeated again and again). It looks like a weird version of the animals getting on the ark, and I think it’s supposed to be scary or creepy but it’s actually pretty funny and sort of adorable. Then a helicopter comes out of nowhere; the snow is really bad and Jonesy and Beaver hope that the chopper can medevac the farter out of the cabin because otherwise he could be stuck there.
But that’s not to be. The chopper pilot tells them the area is quarantined, and in some of the most baffling script writing I’ve come across Beaver says “Quarantined? Get us the hell out of here!,” showing a complete lack of understanding of the basic concept of what a quarantine is. The chopper goes away and the bears and the raccoons and the squirrels just keep prancing by.
Meanwhile Tom Jane and Tim Olyphant are driving back to the cabin with their beer and their irritating, forced and shitty conversation when they crest a hill and see a woman sitting in the middle of the snowy road. They swerve their truck and wreck and Olyphant’s leg gets all fucked up. Since Dreamcatcher was written while King was on heavy medication nobody seems to be too upset; both guys take the whole thing in jokey stride as if they’re in the same codeine fog their author was. The reality is that they’re nine miles from the cabin and ten more from civilization, in a blizzard, with a guy with a wounded leg, and they’re laughing it off.
The woman in the middle of the road is comatose, so they drag her off to the side, start a fire and try to warm her up. Olyphant starts making all sorts of creepy jokes about her being his date and stuff and Jane takes off, ostensibly to get help but probably actually because Olyphant really seems like a rapist just waiting to happen and he doesn’t want to be there when he defiles this woman - who, by the way, is all bloated up like Fartman back at the cabin.
Which brings us back to the cabin. Fartman gets out of bed and heads to the toilet, leaving a trail of blood behind. To make a long, unsuspenseful sequence short, it turns out that he had an alien inside his belly that exploded out of his asshole while he was on the toilet, killing him. Our intrepid heroes knock the dude’s corpse off the toilet (revealing the ravaged cave of his anus!) and trap the alien inside the crapper.
And here’s one of those moments where you kind of can’t believe what you’re watching. Our heroes have a space slug trapped inside the john at their hunting cabin, and it keeps trying to pop the lid and get out. It’s silly and not scary and kind of dumb, and it gets dumber when Beaver sits on the toilet to keep the monster trapped while Jonesy runs to the shed to get friction tape to seal the toilet. Jonesy’s all perched on the john when the alien bumps him and spills his toothpicks, which have been omnipresent until now (earlier he even did a shot with the toothpick in his mouth). Here’s the scene of terror: Jonesy is flipping through drawers in the shed while Beaver keeps eyeing that toothpick. Besides the complete fucking idiocy of the guy needing a toothpick THAT BADLY, said toothpick has landed amidst the exploded remains of Fartman’s asshole - surely it’s a bad idea to put that in your mouth. But no, Beaver needs it and Kasdan plays this out like we’re on the edge of our seats when in fact we’re just willing this fucking moron to die.
Sure enough Beaver gets knocked off the toilet and the alien - which looks like a big long shit log with a vagina with teeth - comes at him. It bites off his fingers, which he takes pretty well, and then it munches him as Jonesy, finally arriving with the tape, shows up and watches.
Jonesy traps the shitlog in the bathroom but then he’s confronted by something much bigger and even sillier looking - a giant embryonic alien who stares him down and then turns into red dust and gets sniffed into Jonesy’s sinuses, taking him over. Jonesy is still in there, though! He’s hiding inside the memory warehouse as the alien - called Mr. Gray - begins enacting his master plan. Which is going to involve throwing a dead dog into a reservoir.
And now Dreamcatcher fully goes from being just a terrible movie to some kind of surreal masterpiece of badness (before it goes back to being really boring and regular bad. But for a little while it’s transcendentally bad). The quarantine is part of a massive military black op. Morgan Freeman, with caterpillars made of Wampa pubes for eyebrows, is a man who has been fighting aliens on Earth for 20 years. We know this because he delivers a monologue to this effect in his trailer, while Tom Sizemore, who is sure that this whole job is just a crack-based delusion, watches on in befuddlement. Morgan is Colonel Curtis (changed from Kurtz in the book because even for this horrible piece of shit Colonel Kurtz as the name of your crazy military villain is too on the nose), and he has a gun that John Wayne personally gave to him - which makes me think that John Wayne was, in some way, involved in the fight against aliens. Probably not, though, as that would be too interesting to be an element of Dreamcatcher.
Col. Curtis and Major Tom (Sizemore) are chatting it up about the latest alien incursion. Seems that the ETs are coming atcha in a red mist, and the people infected with it get a red fungus on their skin. The troops call it ‘Ripley’ for no reason other than it allows the characters to reference Alien; seriously, the red stuff is much more from War of the Worlds than anything in the Alien mythos. The Ripley doesn’t just infect people (and the infected people are being herded and penned up), it also infects animals. We know this because Curtis’ trailer is lined with pictures of wolves ripped from National Geographic upon which the art department has spray painted red patches.
Curtis shoots a dude’s fingers off because the dude let a woman escape the quarantine zone, so you know that our guy is not just crazy, he’s volatile crazy. What you can’t know is that this will have no impact on the plot of the movie in any major way, and will just serve mostly to humiliate Morgan Freeman when it comes time to make his Oscar in memoriam montage and to pad Dreamcatcher out to an unreasonable 136 minutes.
Back in the woods Jonesy is fighting Mr. Gray in his head. You can tell which of them is in control because Mr. Gray has an inexplicable and terrible English accent (made doubly inexplicable AND terrible when you realize actor Damian Lewis is English). He’s riding a snowmobile towards the last known location of Olyphant and Jane, but he doesn’t get Tom Jane. Using his weak ass psychic powers, Jane realizes that Jonesy is sharing his brain with a butler of an alien (‘You’re not Jonesy!’ Jane says to himself in the tone one would say to a prank-playing friend pretending to be from the Publisher’s Clearinghouse. ‘You’re not Ed McMahon!’) and hides off the road, leaving Jonesy to get to Olyphant.
But whatever, since Olyphant is already fucked up. That woman they found in the road died and an alien came out of her asshole; they call these things ‘shit weasels’ in the movie, which only adds to the huge feeling that either nobody was taking this seriously or nobody was sober. The shit weasel proves itself to be a cock weasel as well; while Olyphant is taking a whizz in the snow it jumps on his dong. Dreamcatcher is a movie about being profoundly uncomfortable with your own waste functions; it’s a Freudian nightmare writ large. It’s like Anal Fixation: The Movie.
Anyway, Olyphant manages to get rid of the shit weasel (“Motherfucker tried to bite my dick off, Jonesy. I always thought it’d be my ex-wife did that,” he says in another line that makes it seem like every character in the film is immaculately stoned), but not before Jonesy/Mr. Gray shows up on his snowmobile. He makes Olyphant use his magic power - which is a Donnie Darko-esque morph tunnel that points you to stuff - to find the highway. A map is probably beyond the alien.
Inside Jonesy’s head our heroic ginger is trying to keep certain memories away from Mr. Gray, especially those of Duddits. He does this by taking a dolly and piling boxes of files on them and either burning them or hiding them in his ‘secret place,’ which is where I guess he hides his memories of Satanic ritual abuse and stuff. We see that the gang hung out with Duddits some more, and he sang the ‘Rooby Roo’ theme song (yes, Duddits and Scooby Doo share a speech impediment) and they all laid on the floor and Duddits was their dreamcatcher or some shit and I feel like the very molecular structure of my brain is fucking melting away right now. Anyway, they all get in on a rousing cheer of ‘I Duddits!’ and again you just cannot understand HOW THIS MOVIE WAS MADE.
Poor Jonesy watches from inside of his own head (represented by him looking out a big bay window - sometimes visual metaphors just do not work) as Mr. Gray kills Olyphant. Nobody cares. Tom Jane gets to the cabin, finds its full of gross eggs and burns the place down (fairly nonchalantly). He ends up captured by the military while trying to cross country ski out of the woods. And Curtis leads a whole bunch of attack helicopters on a raid of the alien spacecraft, which has crashlanded way out in the Maine wilderness.
As the sortie comes near the ship the pilots’ heads are filled with pleas from childlike beings, saying that they come in peace and are unarmed. It’s maybe the only cool moment in the movie, but it doesn’t amount to anything. Curtis orders an attack and all the aliens, who have been standing outside the wreckage, suddenly turn into giant spermatozoa and run around on wound up tails, looking like the Tasmanian Devil riding his whirlwind legs. The choppers rain missiles on the ship and the ship self destructs and a couple of choppers blow up but Curtis and Major Tom (Sizemore) are totally okay and never in danger and this whole segment feels like it was shot only to have something - anything! - in the trailer other than Damian Lewis talking to himself and carrying a dead dog around.
Speaking of that dead dog - Mr. Gray starts trying to find someone to take him to the reservoir. He kills a trucker and a cop and he infects the trucker’s dog with a shit weasel; the plan is to get the shit weasel (in worm state) into the water supply, which will infect THE WHOLE WORLD!!!! DUN DUN DUN! This all ties back into another flashback; the kids use Duddits to help them find a missing retarded girl; Duddits gives them all superpowers (which they never really use) and warns them of Issa Gay. It turns out that while Jonesy was dying from his car accident he saw the ghost of Duddits (who isn’t dead) reminding him of Issa Gay. Issa Gay, you must realize, is Mr. Gray.
Tom Jane’s locked up and he hears that Curtis is going to destroy the whole area and kill everybody just to be safe. Major Tom (Sizemore) is none too happy and Tom Jane uses his mental powers to find out that Major Tom (Sizemore) had a dad who would have been against slaughtering innocent Americans and uses that arcane concept to convince Major Tom (Sizemore) to let him out and help him track down Jonesy. This is a major leap right here; Jane uses the power to find out Sizemore’s weak spot, but how does he convince a military lifer to lay his life on the line to hunt down the other guy? It just makes no sense, and Sizemore’s decision is so arbitrary as to be meaningless. It’s just a plot motivation moment - they need to get this show on the road, and so they do.
Then one of the most amazing things in the history of film happnens. Tom Jane can sort of track Jonesy telepathically but he can’t quite connect, and he tries to call out to him. Jonesy hears and reaches out… in the form of a telephone call that Jane takes on Curtis’ gun (which Curtis gave to Sizemore earlier in a ‘You’re my successor’ moment). Tom Jane then proceeds to have an entire conversation holding a gun to his head like a telephone while Major Tom (Sizemore) drives, looking bemused and wondering where he’s going to score some rock. It’s like a backyard play game come to giant size life; knowing how movies are made I can guess that at least a day was spent with Toms Jane and Sizemore sitting in a fake truck, with Jane talking into a gun. Hours were spent getting this scene on film. At no point in any of those hours did anyone say ‘Wait a second… this is just plain stupid.’?
The conversation ends when Jonesy has to deal with Mr. Gray causing a ruckus in the memory warehouse. ‘He hung up,’ Tom Jane says, looking at the gun.
He hung up.
You may notice that I’m sort of rushing through the last half of the film. I have to, for my own sanity. Reliving the film is weighing on me, hurting me, dragging me down. I’m like a rape victim taking my sitting on the floor rape shower, muttering about Issa Gay and shit weasels. I’m wounded and hurt, but Detective Stabler is making me face my attacker, and all I can hope is that Stabler gets right to the edge and almost puts a bullet in Dreamcatcher but that at the last second Olivia Benson tells him that it’s not worth it but then I remind Stabler of ‘I Duddits!’ and Stabler blows Dreamcatcher‘s filthy fucking rapist brains out all over the wall.
So now Toms Jane and Sizemore are following Jonesy/Issa Gay and the dog (which is not yet dead but is about to get there). They figure out he’s headed to the reservoir, but Jonesy’s guncall asked them to get Duddits and bring him along. Duddits, who warned them of Issa Gay, is the key. So they go to Duddits’ house, where it turns out that not only does he have leukemia he’s also retarded Donnie Wahlberg. It’s insult to injury. Duddits’ mom or caretaker or whatever, knowing that the guy is frail and dying, lets this man and Tom Sizemore just take the gibberingly retarded and emaciated Wahlberg out of the house into the freezing night.
We should take some time to talk about Donnie Wahlberg’s portrayal of a retarded person. You would think that this guy could just draw on reality, but it seems like he’s just drawing on very special episodes of 70s sitcoms. He flounces about with his mouth askew and speaks a rubber-tongued babytalk. It’s so offensive, so goofy and so very very bad that it was my favorite part of the film. After The Green Mile Stephen King knew he probably couldn’t get away with another Magical Negro, but nobody told him to lay off the Magical Manchild.
Everybody gets to the reservoir, where Issa Gay has a really hard time opening a door and getting a manhole cover up. In the meantime Col. Curtis shows up in an attack helicopter, has a completely insane and phony battle with Major Tom (Sizemore), who is on the ground and wielding an automatic weapon, and then both of them die, effectively negating each other in the larger scale terms of the plot. Now it’s down to Tom Jane and Duddits, and suddenly it seems like Dreamcatcher might have one of the main characters take an action that’s actually effective, heroic, exciting or even interesting.
[caption id=“attachment_6302” align=“aligncenter” width=“568” caption=”"Hahahaha, FUCK YOU!"”]
But no! Before Issa Gay can dump the dog in the water he gets stopped, and then he sneezes himself out of Jonesy’s body and reforms as a big alien. Now it’s time for the reveal - Duddits is an alien as well! He has been all along! He transforms into a big CGI alien and all of a sudden you’re watching a batshit pixel fight that looks like it belongs in a direct to video Asylum ripoff of The Guyver. Before you really have a chance to wrap your head around the fact that Wahlberg is playing a retarded alien with leukemia, the fight’s over and both aliens are dead, Jonesy squashes the worm that crawls out of the dog and is trying for the water and the movie is suddenly, mercifully over.
The last ten minutes of Dreamcatcher are an almost psychedelic blur of terrible; there’s one last touching ‘I Duddits,’ there are phony aliens, there’s Tom Jane standing around wondering where his career shit the bed. There’s the sheer physical feeling of exhaustion, realizing you’ve spent over two hours with this grotesque nonsense; you realize that the heroes, as in so many bad Stephen King stories, serve only to transport deus ex machinas around (or deus ex mongoloid, in this case). But at least in most King stories the characters have something interesting going on; in Dreamcatcher nobody feels real, and every character seems to be sleepwalking through the increasingly silly events surrounding them. By the time Tom Jane has a Maxwell Smart-style conversation on a firearm the film has had the cinematic equivalent of a stroke. Nothing matters because nothing has ever been lent weight, and then everything matters even less because it’s all so silly.
I’ve certainly seen worse Stephen King movies (including one he directed, the subject of the last Make It Stop), but never one with so much talent and so many resources behind it. There’s the feeling of temporary insanity hanging over Dreamcatcher, and when the credits roll you wonder if Lawrence Kasdan went to the premiere and saw the completed film and felt like the guy who wakes up after a blackout bender with a butchered whore in his bathtub. And so Dreamcatcher leaves us all wondering how nobody saw what was happening and stopped it, how no one stepped in and talked sense, how no one sobered the participants up with copious black coffee and supportive pep talks. “You don’t have to make a movie about shit weasels, Larry and Bill. You’re better than that.”
I didn’t have to watch a movie about shit weasels, Larry and Bill. I’m better than that. I’ll never forgive you.