Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we ring in the release of It: Chapter Two by exploring the various adaptations of the master of horror, Stephen King. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Whenever a new Stephen King movie comes out, “Well, In the Book…” people come out with it. Like those who accompany the release of every comic book movie or Tolkien adaptation (but, strangely, not with every Jane Austin flick), “Well, In the Book” arrive to tell us how the book did things differently. In the case of King movies, these folks make sure that we know about things like underaged sewer orgies or living topiary animals.
As those examples suggest, the “Well, In the Book” people really love the oddball aspects of King’s work. And having spent decades hearing “Well, In the Book” people pontificate about King’s wacky oeuvre, I’m prepared to make this bold declaration: Dreamcatcher is the ideal Stephen King movie.
The author’s hallmarks fill the film’s plot description, which features an annual reunion of four childhood friends going awry after their cabin is beset by both a blizzard and by alien invaders. Calling upon special abilities given to them by their mentally-challenged pal, the men must stop the aliens before a maniacal military man nukes the town.
A standard Stephen King adaptation would just work off of that plot, but that would surely attract the “Well, In the Book” people, like Langoliers to a time-displaced plane. They would point out everything the filmmakers missed while adapting the 700-page tome King wrote in longhand, high on Oxycontin while recovering from being hit by a car in 1999.
Director Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Bodyguard), revising a script from William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), avoids such pitfalls by packing his 134-minute 2003 adaptation with every bit of crazy from the book.
Our four heroes include men called Beaver (Jason Lee) and Jonesy (Damian Lewis). Even Henry (Thomas Jane) gets his name shortened to “H”, but poor Pete just gets called “Pete” — then again, he’s played by the handsome and charming Timothy Olyphant, so it’s not all bad for him. The men bonded in their youth by preventing a trio of bullies in letterman jackets from tormenting a handicapped boy named Duddits Donnie Wahlberg). And, of course, Duddits has superpowers, which he imbues upon his four new pals.
And, also of course, Duddits is an alien.
Dreamcatcher is the ideal Stephen King movie.
The first half of the film feels like a mashup of King’s Stand By Me with Kasdan’s The Big Chill, as the quartet reconvene at the cabin to make either nakedly emotional confessions or outrageous boasts about their sexual prowess, all delivered in jargon no human anywhere ever used (sample: “I’ve had many a perfectly good fuckaree turn into a fuckaroo in a flash”).
The movie devotes so much time to these scenes that one could be forgiven for remembering the narrative as a slow burn, which patiently goes from a mundane get-together to a military caper with cosmic stakes.
But as soon as Jonesy and Beaver stumble upon a straggler in the forest, things get very bad, and very weird, very quickly. Over the next fifteen minutes of screentime, a snake monster explodes from the straggler’s butt, the snake monster eats Beaver, a different snake monster from the butt of a different straggler tries to bite off Pete’s penis, Jonesy gets possessed by the alien leader Mr. Grey, and Mr. Grey eats Pete. Also, Morgan Freeman flies a chopper.
With the original main cast winnowed down to two, the second half of the film turns to Freeman’s Colonel Curtis. Curtis codifies the movie’s signature slang as military speech, insisting on being addressed as “boss” instead of “sir” and calling his soldiers as “bucko.” A veteran of anti-alien wars, Curtis plans to quarantine the woods and exterminate the infected, a plan that Freeman delivers with such calming assurance that one would think him wise, were it not for the fact that his words come from a face wearing what appear to be push-brooms for eyebrows. So distracting are these prosthetic eyebrows that they make the audience forget the presence of Curtis’s right-hand man Captain Underhill, played by the famously unmissable Tom Sizemore.
Freeman’s acting here perfectly encapsulates the Dreamcatcher experience. His motivations are one-note, his dialogue unbelievable, and his costuming silly — but Freeman gives a committed performance, one that makes his warm and patrician demeanor seem devious. In fact, the film boasts talented people in nearly every role, and they all take the material very seriously, which only intensifies its oddities.
For example, cinematographer John Seale (Mad Max: Fury Road) crafts some truly horrific scenes, including a sequence in which Beaver and Jonesy watch forest animals flee from an unseen threat. Likewise, Beaver’s death may be unbelievable — after trapping the snake monster in a toilet by sitting on the lid, he promptly gets up to retrieve a loose toothpick from the bathroom floor — but there’s still something disturbing about the incredulous look Lee gives after the monster bites off his hand.
Bad movie lovers will be quick to tell you that the best worst movies are made with an earnest love for their bizarre premises, which is why the indulgent martial arts scenes of Miami Connection work better than the winking smirk of Sharknado. Thus, Dreamcatcher seems like a perfect bad movie, as it presents its alien butt monsters with almost suffocating solemnity.
But there’s just too much talent involved for Dreamcatcher to be a mere bad movie. The writers and director and actors and cinematographer bring so much skill to the proceedings that even scenes in which Damien Lewis argues against himself in an arch English accent manage to unnerve viewers. Dreamcatcher never makes sense, and one feels ridiculous stating out-loud its plot points. But it’s still moving and scary, in spite of itself — just like Stephen King’s books.
Or so they tell me.