Stephen King, Tom Clancy and John Grisham are like security blankets to the major studios—something they can cuddle up to when they’ve had a run of bad luck and aren’t quite sure what the future will bring. Directors treat these best-selling authors in pretty much the same way—as a near-foolproof method of getting on the pop culture radar, courtesy of pre-sold and thus commercial material. A-list filmmakers John McTiernan, Philip Noyce and Phil Alden Robinson have made films of Tom Clancy’s books; Sidney Pollack, Alan J. Pakula, Francis Coppola and Robert Altman have all tried their hands at adapting Grisham. King trumps them all, though. His books have been adapted by almost every significant horror filmmaker of recent decades, plus a smattering of respectable auteurs (including Stanley Kubrick, whose fitfully brilliant version of The Shining was all but disavowed by King).
Lawrence Kasdan is no Kubrick, but he’s the most outwardly respectable Hollywood director to have adapted King in quite some time, and his new movie Dreamcatcher is certainly the weirdest King adaptation to come down the pike. I say it’s the weirdest because it’s the most faithful to King’s preferred tone—alternately sentimental and giddily repulsive. Plenty of filmmakers have made interesting movies out of King’s material—the best overall were The Shining, John Carpenter’s Christine and George Romero’s The Dark Half—but only a handful found a tone that captured the sensation of reading King on the page. King is no master stylist, and he knows it; he’s mocked his own blunt populist style in essays about the writing process, even likening himself to a cook who specializes in big, greasy cheeseburgers. But he’s a fantastically gifted yarn-spinner. He’s so entertaining that you often find yourself reading King’s doorstop-sized tomes all the way to the end, even though he has nothing especially new to tell or show you, and even though his fusion of genres is ungainly to say the least. (As creepy as they were, neither the book nor movie of The Shining found a way to combine the psychic stuff and the ghost story stuff in a way that really dovetailed.) King’s secret is Steven Spielberg’s secret: he knows how to juxtapose everyday (often suburban) facts with images drawn from classic sci-fi and horror. (Think of Spielberg’s messy suburban houses in E.T., Poltergeist and Close Encounters, or the scene in the Stephen King-Peter Straub collaboration, The Talisman, where the boy hero watches his werewolf buddy devour a Big Mac.) The everyday details in the margins of a scene help sell the unreal action at the center.
Dreamcatcher is a big, dumb, loud, needlessly bloody movie—the kind of movie 13-year-old boys will want to see five times—but it understands the King strategy inside and out. The story has some of the same genre-fusion problems as The Shining—it mixes psychic bonding stuff and sci-fi stuff willy-nilly, in ways that don’t always make narrative sense. But you stick with it for the same reason that you stick with a King book: to see what absurd, funny, disgusting image the writer will serve up next.
Jason Lee, Damian Lewis, Thomas Jane and Timothy Olyphant star as the yuppie professionals who’ve been bonded ever since that day 20-some years ago when they saved a mentally retarded boy from being tormented by bullies. The grateful boy gave them the ability to—well, I’m still not sure what ability he gave them. Sometimes it seems precognitive, other times it seems like the ability to peer through space and find things that everyone thought were unfindable; I guess it’s an ability that does whatever the plot needs it to do. Their eerie skills come in handy during a traditional hunting trip into the snowy Maine woods. Mighty odd things start to happen—a stampede of animals fleeing the forest; the appearance of an obese hunter with a weird red fungus on his face and a horrible case of gas. (The hunter’s burps and farts are pure King—evil represented as bodily corruption, played for laughs, then fright.)
(Warning: plot spoilers ahead.) In due time, we learn that both the fungus and the animal stampede herald an extraterrestrial invasion. A spaceship has crash-landed nearby, and the military—overseen by Morgan Freeman’s psycho colonel, head of an alien extermination crew called Blue Unit—has already quarantined the county. (Freeman has a white brush cut and huge white eyebrows that curl off his face like wisps of cotton candy; he looks like a bad guy from a Rankin-Bass puppetoon.) King draws on all his favorite alien invasion stories—the mass panic of War of the Worlds, the shape-shifting dread of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing. The film’s highlight, both for King as a writer and Kasdan as a director, is a baroque, silly, truly frightening set piece that finds Lee sitting atop a closed toilet lid, desperately trying to restrain a razor-toothed alien worm expelled from a hunter’s infected hindquarters. (For reasons I still don’t understand, Lee keeps leaning forward to grab a toothpick off the floor, even though his action risks letting the worm escape.) In a later scene, a worm stalks a man taking a leak in the snow, then bursts through a urine hole, teeth bared and leaps straight into the poor guy’s crotch. (If Kevin Smith and George Romero had a son, this is the movie he would make.)
I enjoyed the stupid panache of Dreamcatcher, even though I’d never defend it as anything other than hyper-expensive B-movie garbage. There’s no law that says every Hollywood movie has to be ennobling, or even artful; Kasdan seems liberated by the chance to make something loud, violent and juvenile, and the result feels looser and less reputable than anything he’s made since Silverado. Still, I felt depressed afterward. I recently read someplace that the average cost of a Hollywood movie is around $89 million, and judging from the sheer number of effects onscreen, Dreamcatcher probably cost more than the average. How many meaningful movies weren’t made by Warner Bros. so that Dreamcatcher could be? For that matter, how many low-budget horror films by promising unknown directors will go unseen—either in theaters or at Blockbuster—so that Warner Bros. can instead push Dreamcatcher?
I’d keep complaining, but I have to go now. There’s a weird noise coming from my bathroom.
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Dreamcatcher is shown with a short film, Final Flight of the Osiris, a 9-minute computer-animated elaboration on situations from The Matrix, which is being sequelized with two movies this summer and fall. Final Flight was directed by Andy Jones, the maker of Final Fantasy, and it’s equally pointless. Yes, the movie’s "human" characters look real, but only when they stand still (when they move, they resemble the puppets from the old British sci-fi kids’ show, Thunderbirds Are Go). And in the end, the pursuit of totally lifelike computer-animated actors strikes me as a needlessly expensive, time-consuming, stupid exercise. To quote my late grandfather, it’s like driving around the block backwards to get to the house next door.