Writing about the craft of horror in his 1980 memoire, Danse Macabre, Stephen King confessed that he some times ran out of truly frightening ideas. At those times, the master of horror fiction admitted, he would take refuge in the "gross out." If he could not generate shivers, King reasoned, at least he could make people sick. The grunt work of a horror writer occasionally demanded such ugly compromises.
I admit I have not read King’s novel Dreamcatcher, on which the new Lawrence Kasdan film is based, but I gather from the movie that he was in one of those "gross-out" zones when he wrote it. The plot is almost impossible to describe (not surprising, I guess, since the book is 800 pages long, while the movie clocks in at a cozy 134 minutes). It’s a mélange of extra-sensory perception, alien invasion, nested flashbacks, the middle-age crazies, violently upset stomachs, childhood humiliations, and mystic simpletons who inexplicably morph into gooey space creatures. And somewhere in all this crazy mess is a very confused-looking Morgan Freeman, trying in every sense to hold it together as the leader of an elite military group called in to combat an extra-terrestrial menace. The plot is so dense and intricate and yet so utterly devoid of real meaning that Dreamcatcher only manages to be scary in a Finnegan’s Wake sort of way: its sheer ungraspability is threatening. What we carry home from the theater are the "gross outs," the nauseating scenes of bodies turned inside out and the self-replicating flatulence jokes that multiply faster than the outer space worms Morgan Freeman has come to squash.
All this being said, Dreamcatcher is alive in a way that few contemporary horror-sci-fi films are. I would not be surprised at all if it eventually becomes a cult classic, and partly because it is so earnest–nowhere does it betray a sense of irony. The story, messy as it is, moves deliberately to its close, exactly as if it needed telling. Our feckless heroes, beset by alien creatures and treacherous back stories, find some peace and resolution, precisely as though we cared about what happened to them. A friend of mine said it was the best movie of its type he had seen since Howard the Duck–the collossally bad George Lucas product from the mid-eighties that failed so miserably at the box-office it almost ruined the Star Wars maverick. I doubt if Howard the Duck has much of a cult following yet, but it is an abominable movie–and, at least according to the critic for The New Yorker, so is Dreamcatcher. The thing is, in a movie climate where nearly every film can be reduced to a half-inch of advertising text, and the most lavish praise is frequently heaped on the most mediocre movies, a truly abominable film might be one to treasure.
You can read this review on our website at wfiu.indiana.edu. There, you will also find other reviews of past and current films, theater, and music. In the meantime, this is Jonathan Haynes, reviewing movies for WFIU.