Director Jim Sheridan finds himself deep in arrears with Dream House, a daft and derivative haunted house horror that falls some way short of its top-of-the-market valuation.
As the story opens, literary editor Will Atenton (Daniel Craig) has resigned from his job at a New York publishing house to spend more time with his family; wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and their two young daughters, Trish and Deedee (sisters Taylor and Claire Astin Geare). Will has moved the family to a big house with a big lawn somewhere deep in the suburbs, where he is hoping the change of air and newfound quiet will help him complete his first novel, now just a tangle of scribbled false starts. With Libby giving the house a lick of paint and the two children busy exploring, everything is going well until Will has a run in with their scowling next-door neighbour Jack (Marton Csokas), divorced from Ann (Naomi Watts) and fighting for custody for their daughter Chloe (Rachel Fox).
Unsettled, Will returns to the house only to find his daughters have started seeing a sinister hooded figure in the snowbound woods and Libby has discovered eerie echoes of the house’s former inhabitants; pencil marks on a door jamb recording the children’s heights and an abandoned playroom, filled with tattered toys. The first sign of real trouble comes when Will, woken from sleep, has to chase a gang of ludicrously over-enunciated punk teenagers from his basement where they were holding a candlelit vigil for the previous inhabitants, a slaughtered family whose ghosts are said to haunt his home. This is news to Will, of course, but not to anyone who has seen The Shining, or any of the dozens of films that followed in Kubrick’s wake.
To say any more would spoil the remaining hour of Dream House, although if you have seen the two-minute trailer, the studio’s marketing people have already done that for you. The second half of the film focuses tightly on Craig’s increasingly craggy face as he starts the not-so difficult process of putting together the puzzle that the house presents, while coming to terms with a severe case of buyer’s remorse. The local police are no help but Will finds a local doctor with a scratchy surveillance tape who, between pauses and rewinds, carefully spells out Will’s part in the mystery and with it, the rest of the story.
From that mid-way point, Dream House implodes into a long parade of misjudged scenes, over-emphatic exposition, clumsy set-pieces and tacked-on special-effects sequences as the players grind out a denouement that we have already been told. The film is a mess but the real mystery is not what secrets the house might hold but why a pedigree cast and a supremely talented director saw any merit in David Loucka’s limply convoluted, unambitious screenplay. Craig does what he can to make his collection of tics and trembles into a convincing character but is continuously wrong-footed by the tissue-thin supporting characters. Weisz’s role as the dutiful wife is anaemically underwritten while Watts and Csokas struggle with momentary parts that require them to fix an expression – baffled blankness or stink-eyed menace, respectively – and stick to it.
Sheridan, a gifted storyteller once he has a story worth telling, proves a poor match for this sort of tepid genre material. Reportedly unhappy with the results and not having control over the final cut of the finished film, the director threatened to take his name off the project unless he was allowed extensive reshoots. The extra effort wasn’t worth it, with Sheridan unable to find any traction with the script’s mishmash of hackneyed inspirations and crucially, never generating anything resembling a moment of genuine dread or suspense. The film aimlessly switches between timelines and tones as the story collapses into splinters. In film, as in architecture, a lasting construction requires deep foundations.