In Dream House – the new suspense thriller from Jim Sheridan (In America My Left Foot) – Daniel Craig plays Will Atenton a successful New York publisher who disavows his high-powered Manhattan lifestyle and relocates along with his wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and two daughters (Taylor and Claire Astin Geare) to a picturesque New England hamlet. Their new home a quaint fixer-upper bears imprints of the family that lived there previously: Old tools and other belongings are strewn about the basement a secret room abutting the children’s bedroom is filled with discarded toys. Will and Libby see the items as charming artifacts signs that their house has a history a soul.
The new neighborhood is not so bucolic as it seems. The children complain of a man peering in on them from the front yard – a suspicion confirmed when Will discovers footsteps in the snow the next day. If that weren’t ominous enough Will later learns that five years earlier his new home was the site of a grisly murder spree in which the previous owner Peter Ward was alleged to have killed his wife and two daughters. Acquitted due to a lack of evidence Ward spent a brief time at a psychiatric facility before being released. Could the shadowy figure glimpsed outside the window be Ward returning to the scene of the crime preparing to kill again?
At this point Dream House pulls off a whopper of a mid-game twist that effectively re-frames the entire narrative. (I won’t spoil it for you but if you want to know what it is just watch the trailer which rather stupidly gives it away.) Until now Sheridan has worked steadily to foster the guise of a relatively conventional haunted-house tale presenting a portrait of idyllic domesticity while simultaneously building an atmosphere of looming peril. After the story drops its bombshell the film morphs into a sort of supernatural murder mystery with Craig’s character scouring for clues within his own tortured psyche. Characters and scenes that might have been dismissible as red herrings – a neighbor (Naomi Watts) appears oddly stand-offish; her ex-husband (Martin Csokas) cartoonishly gruff; the town cops inexplicably apathetic – gain sudden relevance.
It’s a clever gambit; it is also patently absurd. A talented cast helps make the twist easier to swallow but the film’s second half sheds credulity seemingly by the frame at points devolving into schlock. Which in a different film might bode well for some silly fun but Sheridan aims for a restrained tone that seems more suitable for a somber character study than a flagrantly preposterous suspense thriller. As it is Dream House is neither thrilling nor suspenseful.
Caroline (Hudson) is a hospice nurse who goes from one terminally ill patient to another. The Devereauxs--stroke victim Ben (John Hurt) and his supposedly caring but overprotective wife Violet (Gena Rowlands)--are her next case. It all starts off innocently enough with Caroline seeing Ben's misfortune as a means to pay for her nursing school tuition. But once she arrives at the foreboding house a manse set on a bayou in the boondocks surrounding New Orleans (as if N'awlins isn't inherently spooky enough we have to contend with the city's desolate outskirts?) it's clear that this place comes with history. Seems the former owners' black servants used to practice "hoodoo"--a local folk magic--way back when in the attic and were strung up for it. Now their spirits could still be up there. So when Caroline hears noises emanating from above the (conveniently) curious houseguest investigates. Ben too seems spooked. Despite being deemed bedridden by Mrs. Devereaux he's escaping out of windows. Caroline believes someone--or something--may be tormenting him (you think?) and she searches for the answer which may or may not be lurking in the attic.
How The Skeleton Key does at the box office is pretty important for Hudson. Coming off her stellar Oscar-nominated turn as the groupie with a soul in Almost Famous the young actress hasn't been able to pull off the same magic since. Each of her last three films --Alex & Emma Le Divorce and Raising Helen--have been under-performers. So she needs Skeleton to work and thankfully as the doggedly inquisitive Caroline she holds up her end of the deal. Hudson refreshingly doesn't scream or over-emote like so many horror heroines have done before her--but her cutesy demeanor does rear its pretty head on occasion. Oh well can't win them all. Film veteran Rowlands puts on a fine show as the matriarch with something malevolent brewing behind the fading Southern belle routine. And poor John Hurt who is relegated to being tormented one way or the other as Ben. You can't help but feel badly for his character whose plight takes on a cartoonish form at times made even worse by the fact the esteemed actor has virtually no coherent dialogue throughout the film. And then there's the indie darling Peter Sarsgaard who plays the Devereauxs hands-on lawyer who's maybe a little too hands on. Although his screen time is limited he still adds a nice element to the proceedings.
Director Iain Softley's films up to and including this point are as disparate as can be: the underrated Beatles dramatization Backbeat; Hackers computer-lovers' cult favorite that gave Angelina Jolie her first big role; the critically acclaimed period drama The Wings of the Dove; and finally 2001's other-worldly K-PAX. Now with Skeleton Key it's ghost stories and Softley makes a critical decision not to reveal any sort of monster. The decision to only hint at something wicked without showing it in a summer full of the same tired gory special effects is a gutsy choice that pays off for the most part. It unequivocally leaves room for the audience to use their imagination--and Softley wants our collective imagination to run rampant. But even with this technique the scare factor still seems to be lacking. It's only at the very end do we feel any tangible danger--and that's a long time to wait.