Having shown greater interest in soul-searching than bodysnatching, director Lawrence Kasdan seems an odd choice to tackle Stephen King’s return to supernatural horror, “Dreamcatcher.” As full of holes as the web-like Native American talisman that provides its title, this overlong and unwieldy grab-bag of vintage monster-movie elements starts intriguingly as a snowbound deep-woods chiller, but gradually dissolves into a mess of other-worldly invasion and military counter-offensive. Skimping on the humor that made other revisitations of Z-grade ’50s drive-in fodder like “Tremors” or “Arachnophobia” work, the Warner release looks to scare up modest theatrical numbers before finding its natural niche on video/DVD.
Despite his early experience as co-scripter on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the last two installments of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Kasdan, whose regular domain stresses emotional and interpersonal issues, here shows no connection to a story driven by the fantastic. And while the scope exists for the kind of supernatural thriller with fully developed characters and relationships that this pairing of director and story would suggest, it’s precisely those elements that are most conspicuously absent from the script, co-written by Kasdan with William Goldman.
Third encounter between the veteran screenwriter and bestselling frightmeister King is closer to the former’s work on the unmemorable “Hearts in Atlantis” than on “Misery,” one of the best of King’s screen transfers. “Dreamcatcher” hitches sci-fi horror about an alien menace to the story of four friends telepathically linked by a childhood incident — basically, this feels like an autopilot retread in which “The Stand” and “The Tommyknockers” meet “Stand By Me.”
As children in small-town Maine, four friends — now a shrink, car salesman, college professor and carpenter — saved a handicapped kid named Duddits from bullies, and were somehow imbued with powers of thought transference, mind-reading and precognition. In a choppily structured prelude to the main action, one of the guys, Jonesy (Damian Lewis), suffers a near-death experience when he’s hit by a car after being summoned by a vision of Duddits to walk into heavy traffic.
Six months later, the quartet reassembles for a weekend in the woods, with Jonesy showing no sign of injury. A lost hunter stumbles into their cabin, delirious with hypothermia, scarred by a deep red stain that quickly spreads across his face and stricken with uncontrollable belching and flatulence.
The helpless stranger’s upset stomach soon turns into the mother of all irritable bowel syndromes as he births a massive alien razor-toothed worm that promptly, and monstrously, kills Beaver (Jason Lee). Out in the woods, a second angry serpentine intruder rips up buddy Pete (Timothy Olyphant), while back in the cabin, another alien inhabits the body of Jonesy, causing him, for no particular reason, to speak with a British accent. This leaves Henry (Thomas Jane) as the only uncontaminated group member. Having defied death once, Jonesy’s true self also survives, retreating into labyrinthine memory archive for help in combating the evil force.
While Goldman and Kasdan effectively create a mood of impending dread, the attempt to play, mostly with a straight face, the appearance of the “shit-weasels” — as the guys so eloquently dub the anally birthed aliens — sends the film careening into ridiculousness. Only Lee and Olyphant come close to hitting the right note of tongue-in-cheek humor that might have made all this palatable. Unfortunately, they’re the first to go. Further problems stem from the miscasting of Morgan Freeman in a thankless role as a bullish army colonel determined to wipe out the alien marauders, and not afraid to take human casualties.
The film bears signs throughout of extensive recutting, but nowhere is this more apparent than in the chaotically orchestrated climactic action, involving the insane colonel, his more ethical second-in-command (Tom Sizemore), chopper blitzes of the alien mother ship, Jonesy’s maniacal quest to slip a worm into the water supply and Henry’s recruitment of leukemia-afflicted Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg), whose mental powers are harnessed to second-guess and intimidate the monster inside Jonesy.
A skilled genre manipulator like John Carpenter made this kind of material scary in “The Thing,” limiting visual access to his alien. But Kasdan bares all in an approach too earnest for such high hokum. Effects work is polished — though, like the film’s tone and the story’s jumble of poorly unified elements, the monsters assume far too many different shapes and forms, making them a somewhat amorphous threat. James Newton Howard’s creepy chiller score establishes a teasing, ominous mood, while John Seale’s nervously prowling widescreen lensing and magnificent aerial shots of the woods at times recall “The Shining.” Perhaps in an attempt to squeeze some additional box office mileage from a rickety vehicle, Warner is hitching the worldwide “Dreamcatcher” release to 11-minute short feature “The Final Flight of the Osiris,” a breathless computer-animated primer for summer tentpole “The Matrix: Reloaded,” written and produced by the Wachowski brothers and directed by Andy Jones.