“Dreamcatcher” 20 Years Later – Why It Failed So Miserably

Known as the master of horror, Stephen King has written some of the most iconic horror stories of the last half century.  And while his books are beloved, the countless film and television adaptations of his work are very hit or miss.  For every Pet Semetary and Carrie, there’s a Langoliers and Maximum Overdrive.

One such adaptation that didn’t quite catch on with audiences or critics was 2003’s Dreamcatcher.  Sporting an abysmal 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, Dreamcatcher (both the novel and movie) has a pretty bad reputation.  So, in honor of its 20th anniversary, we wanted to take a look back at it and see if it’s as bad as we remember, and why it never caught on.

Too Goofy For Its Own Good
Co-written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan (the screenwriter of Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens), Dreamcatcher is a very bizarre movie.  Not just because its premise feels a lot like Stephen King’s “It”, with a dash of E.T. and sizzled in a bit of Independence Day, but because there are some very odd choices.

The cast of characters are old friends from Maine, and we quickly learn how each of them uses their “gifts” (which are essentially just the same powers of “shining” that Danny Torrance had) in their everyday lives.  Although, they’re way too brazen about how they use them, so it would definitely attract way too much attention.  For example, one scene shows Thomas Jane’s character, a therapist, reading his patient’s mind, and freaking him out further that his shrink can somehow read his thoughts.

But it’s not just that.  We get weird sound effects, like in one scene when the infamous “Mr. Gray” villain pulls his hood up, it almost sounds like a lightsaber turning on.  And when he turns his head, the music cues in a strange way.  Perhaps these details were meant to give him a creepy, otherworldly vibe, but it just comes off as unintentionally hilarious.

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Damien Lewis almost turns into a Looney Tunes character at a certain point.

Damien Lewis famously becomes “possessed” by the alien villain Mr. Gray, and when the latter is in control, he speaks in a voice that sounds downright cartoonish (although Lewis himself claimed it was an impression of Malcolm McDowell).  The movie also refers to its alien creatures as “shit weasels” and expects the audience not to laugh.

And it’s frustrating because all of these components have the making for a hilarious horror comedy or satire, but the rest of the movie seems to take itself way too seriously to even be aware of the funnier moments.  So the result is a movie where you really don’t take the drama seriously because of how ridiculous everything else is about it.

Let’s not forget, this is a genuinely talented cast with the likes of Thomas Jane, Damien Lewis, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant, Morgan Freeman, Tom Sizemore (RIP), and Donnie Wahlberg; all of which have been amazing in other roles.  They’re all clearly doing the best they can, and it’s not even fair to blame Damien Lewis for his over the top, goofy portrayal of Mr. Gray, because an actor places a great deal of trust in their director.

Dreamcatcher 4
Morgan Freeman is so much better in this than the material he’s given. He plays a fascinating villain that you kind of understand where he’s coming from. Had the story focused solely on him and his extra-terrestrial exploits, it could have been a classic.

Lawrence Kasdan even admitted that the failure of Dreamcatcher led to him losing out on projects that were previously lined up.  He wouldn’t direct another movie for nearly a decade.  Although, it’s unfair to blame Kasdan entirely.  Yes, some of the choices were ridiculous and odd, but he was working with source material that also had quite a few issues.

Author Disownment
The novel “Dreamcatcher” was first published in 2001 and was famously (or infamously), the first book published by Stephen King following his nearly fatal accident in 1999, when a van struck him while he was walking outside.  He has since admitted that the novel “isn’t very good” and that it was very much written under the influence of Oxycontin, which was prescribed at the time post-accident.

Watching the film, you can’t definitely tell it’s trying very hard to include more source material than it has time for.  But that source material feels a little too close to previous Stephen King works.  It hits quite a few of the King-isms that he’s so infamous for.  We have a group of friends originally from Derry, Maine, and psychic powers that seem inconsistent with what they can and can’t do.

We also have a character named Douglas (or “Duddits” as they call him) who seems problematic in his portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities.  And then (spoiler alert), when it’s discovered that he was alien all along, that kind of makes it even more problematic in what it’s implying about people with intellectual disabilities.  Again, we don’t think King or Kasdan was trying to be offensive, we just think that so many bizarre choices were made, and this was among them.

Dreamcatcher 2
Wahlberg is almost unrecognizable here. He gives a great performance for a role that was insultingly written.

What’s most frustrating about Dreamcatcher is that its basic premise and plot is an interesting one.  There’s a whole special division of the army that deals with aliens, there are parasitic worms that invade your mind, and a kid who was an alien all along that knew about this looming threat.  All these basic ideas have the working of a great story, this just wasn’t it.

Retroactive Absolution/Condemnation
One of the main highlights of Dreamcatcher was the way in which it portrayed the mind as a physical place.  The characters often referred to it as their “memory warehouse”.  As Damien Lewis’ character is taken over by the alien Mr. Gray, we see him barricade himself in certain rooms of his “memory warehouse”, trying to keep the alien out.

Memories and thoughts are kept in file cabinets, and it’s a genuinely cool way to visualize how our minds might work like that.  It’s cool to think that every time we recall a memory, we’re going to that shelf and pulling that file, so to speak.  It’s one of the most interesting aspects of this movie, but it’s lost in a sea of goofiness and ridiculous creative choices.

However, nearly 20 years later, another Stephen King adaptation would portray this “memory warehouse” as a physical place, and do it much better.  2019’s Doctor Sleep was amazing in how it managed to reconcile King’s source novel and Kubrick’s film adaptation (which King famously hated).  And one of the most interesting things it does is portraying Danny and Abra’s “shining” as a physical place in the mind that feels very close to what Lawrence Kasdan did with Dreamcatcher.

So while Dreamcatcher isn’t fondly remembered by critics, audiences, or even the people who made it, some good did come out of it, in that it helped pave the way for a much better Stephen King adaptation down the road.

What did you think of Dreamcatcher?  How did it compare for you to other Stephen King adaptations??  Let us know in the comments!

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