A Review of the Dream House – A Psychological Thriller

dream_house_movie_poster_2011_1010713214Dream House. I watched it. And I am shaking my head.  The critical consensus on rottonentomatoes  for Director Jim Sheridan’s 2011 psychological thriller reads, “Dream House is punishingly slow, stuffy, and way too obvious to be scary.” Run time is 83 minutes according to IMDB.com, not a long film by any means, and yet Adam Woodward of the now defunct publication Little White Lies writes that this these not-so-many minutes of viewing time are not only “an utter waste of time” but also a “waste of talent” (quote also from rottentomatoes.com). Truly there is some recognizable talent involved in this film. It stars Daniel Craig,the modern day James Bond. It co stars Naomi Watts,  famous star of both film and television, and Rachel Weisz, who won an Academy Award for her role in The Constant Gardener. Let’s not forget the director. Mr. Sheridan directed such impressive films as My Left Foot and In The Name of the Father. So what in the heck is going on, I mean, at Metacritic.com it rates 35 out of 100. Geez, what a low score!

To repeat – “I am shaking my head.” And  I ask again “What the heck is going on?” I shake my head in disbelief and wonder about those critics because, well, I found the film to be rather enjoyable. It’s not the best thriller out there, nor does it make my top 20 list of favorite haunted house films. But come on, let’s give this flick a break here. It did its job. It thrilled me, it kept me in suspense, it unraveled mysteries that made me think, “Oh wow that was a cool setup!”. The actors performed their parts well. There was some decent direction. Perhaps the basic premise is a bit too familiar – an editor at a publishing house, Will Atenton (Daniel Craig) seeks to escape the busy city life of (New York?) by quitting his job and moving into a “The Dream House” in a quaint town in New England with his charming family to write a book. Libby the wife (Rachel Weisz) is beautiful and their two young daughters are quite the charm. Yes there is a suspicious neighbor across the street (Naomi Watts), and the house has a terrible history. A family was murdered there. We’ve seen this situation before many times, but the story moved in a direction that held my attention.There are secret rooms harboring clues from the past, there appears to be prowlers lurking around the premises, and poor Will can’t escape the scandalous glares from police and other townsfolk. More tropes. But there are surprises. Perhaps the critics don’t like the fact that the film goes from light to dark, only to end on a light note. Once the plot darkens, shouldn’t it stay dark? I guess so. But oh well. In the end it makes sense.

Dream House inspired me to think about one of my favorite subjects – haunted houses. Therefore I have to respect the film for that. These inspirations, I can’t reveal them without revealing major spoilers. And I will do that in the section below. But you have been warned. However you can skip the next section and read the final paragraph of this article, which is spoiler-free!

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When I first subscribed to Netflix, I placed Dream House on “My List,” saving it to watch later. There it stayed, a small picture of the theatrical release poster at the top of my home screen, waiting patiently, hauntingly so. Two little girls; their green patterned dresses blending in with the background wallpaper of the same color and design. Each time I logged in, the girls were there and mostly I ignored them. That doesn’t mean I was oblivious to their calling. For years, through that image, they sang out to me on each of my visits to the Netflix home page. “Come look at us, Danny! We’re waiting for you. Come! Come!” Danny; the most informal version of my name, almost sounds like “Daddy”. But it is really their Daddy that they are calling out to. “Come home Daddy!”  Are these ghostly girls calling out to their father from the grave? In a nutshell, yes. But I am Danny, not their daddy. Close enough though, don’t you think?

For maybe ten years Dream House waited for me. Never to be rotated, never to be removed from Netflix’s menu of films. Perhaps there is no demand for this film on other pay platforms, so its roots burrow deep into this site. Like that one ugly, abandoned house in an otherwise charmed setting of picturesque homes, it remains and isn’t going anywhere. So finally, after failing to find a certain film on another platform that struck my mood at the time, I settled for Netflix and in doing so, I settled once again. Let’s get this over with. To “My List” I went. Into “The Dream House” I did go. 

There were ghosts inside The Dream House; ghosts of Will Atenton’s family. They were waiting for him to come home. And come home he does in the very beginning of the film. Home from “that other place” (You mean the office in the city, where he quit his job? I “sort of” mean that, but things aren’t always what they seem.)  They welcome him warmly. For you see, Will has fond memories of them despite…well, never mind “despite” for now.  Memories can be ghosts, you see. And memories can be forgotten. But they don’t always stay forgotten. Something can trigger them, causing them to flourish again. A house can perform such a triggering, for it harbors these memories, the good as well as the bad. But these are good memories, good ghosts. And they shield poor Will’s mind from the bad ones.

It’s only inside this house that Will sees his family. For that’s where his memories lie. There these memories are embedded into the haunting that will inflict Will. Therefore it’s a haunted house. See how that works out? Never mind that the family that he interacts with might not exist outside of Will’s awareness, or that, perhaps, they only exist on account of his head injury.  That doesn’t strip them of their rightful definition. They are ghosts.

Will is the victim of false impressions brought on by both a head injury and psychological trauma. He thinks that he is abandoning a career at a publishing company to write a book in the company of his family at their Dream House. The dream is threatened when he discovers that some time ago in the same house, a man by the name of Peter Ward murdered his family. Peter was sent to a mental institution and later released. It appears that his killer is back in the neighborhood and stalking them, even trespassing on their premises. As it turns out, Will is Peter Ward. “Will Atenton” never existed; it was an alias Peter created as a defense mechanism so that his conscience will no longer have to suffer the pain of identifying with a killer. In reality, he left the institution (not the publishing house) to return to the abandoned house where he and his family once lived. He thinks his house has remained in its pristine, lived-in state. He thinks his family is still alive. In this situation, ghosts, which are normally thought of as frightful and fanciful entities, protect him for the true horror – reality.

Even though the truth is eventually revealed, things are still not as they seem. Remember what I wrote at the beginning of the article, about how the tone shifts from light to dark then back to light again?  Within this shift comes another revelation. Perhaps this shift betrays the horror of the film, but it is what it is. Also, are these ghosts really restricted to Will/Peter’s unreliable perception? Maybe and maybe not. There is a certain scene where, well, never mind. If you want to watch this movie then I will leave it up to you to look for it.

NO MORE SPOILERS /YOU CAN READ ON IN AN UNSPOILED KIND OF WAY

All in all, I thought this was a slightly above average haunted house film. I’ve seen plenty worse. So I don’t get all the negativity. Oh well. I recommend it. But if you do watch it only to discover that you agree with the preponderance of the critics, don’t sue me. Understood? Great! Bye now. 

One thought on “A Review of the Dream House – A Psychological Thriller

  1. Pingback: A Review of the Dream House – A Psychological Thriller — The Books of Daniel | Thriller/Suspense Film and Writing Festival

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