Dream House: Plot Device Nightmare

By Tiffiny Whitney · October 3, 2011

Once upon a time, there lived two girls in a house with their parents, in a movie that while interesting in concept, suffered from severe, gaping plot holes, leaps in logic, false advertising, and ultimately, poor critical reception that could have been avoided had the filmmakers (writers, directors, editors, and the studio) simply just sat down and thought about it for a little while longer.  That is the story of Dream House, a Daniel Craig and Rachal Weisz vehicle that initially showed a lot of promise, but failed overall to adequately deliver.

The film is about a successful book publisher by the name of Will Atenton (Daniel Craig) who quits his job in bustling New York City to focus on a writing career and settle into his “dream house” in quiet New England with his darling wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and their two children.  Things are not as blissful as they might seem, however, when the family discovers that a grisly murder took place in the house, where a man shot and killed his wife and two children.  The shocking similarities between Will’s family and those of the murder victims, especially with rumors swirling in the community about how “everyone who lives in that house gets murdered,” spurs Will to embark on an investigation into the house’s history and why the ghosts of the past have yet to move on.           

The original trailer for Dream House basically gives almost the entire movie away by revealing that, yes, there was a murder in the “dream house” perpetrated by a guy named Peter Ward.  After visiting the psych house that treated Ward as part of the investigation, however, Will Atenton is given information that helps him realize that he actually is Peter Ward, and that he potentially killed his entire family.  The rest of the plot revolves around Will/Peter trying to figure out why he would have done such a thing, why he came up with an alter-ego for himself, and how he has somehow lived the past five odd years or so not thinking a darned thing about being Peter Ward and magically imagining an entire career as a publisher while actually sitting around in a mental institution and having the occasional bouts of insanity.

Oh—and his wife and kids are sentient ghosts that live in the dream house and don’t realize they’re actually dead, because in some weird way, Will still interacts with them and lives out entire days in their company not realizing that he’s really only living in the weird, paranormal space-time continuum of his mind.  Again…this is all in the freaking trailer for the film!  Yeah—that thing that is supposed to pique your interest into seeing the film? 

Despite the horrible move by the studio to basically spoil the film in the marketing, as much as I like the concept, Dream House spoils itself by giving up most of its secrets almost less than halfway into the film.  So, even if there hadn’t been a trailer in the first place, I was basically done as soon as Daniel Craig realizes he’s actually a mental patient.  The performances are generally good (at least those delivered by the principals), but one of the biggest things you learn as a writer of any kind of entertainment media is to not give too much away up front.  Your audience sticks with you as you continue to “up the ante” on your conflict—not decelerate halfway through the film.  Dream House is essentially trying to pull off the same psychological mind boggle employed by The Sixth Sense—except in their effort to try to not be The Sixth Sense.

I will say the film does keep a few secrets (after all, James Bond has to figure out if he really killed his family)… but really, you sort of lose interest after you realize that there isn’t any kind of nefarious presence in the house, and you’ve been duped by the marketing into thinking you’re seeing a Halloween show.  Plus, the film’s second “big surprise” really doesn’t come as much of a surprise at all.  And, you spend half your time asking yourself how someone has managed to live in a dilapidated house for who knows how long with his ghost family and not starved to death, been picked up by the cops as a transient, or beaten to death by members of the community who are convinced that he’s a murderer.

Dream House, overall, isn’t a bad movie.  Just poorly executed.  I’m not sure who I have to blame for that, because apparently the final version of the movie changed hands more times than a well-circulated dollar bill.  So, it’s unclear whether the premature revelation of its most important plot device is a result of a writer more in love with a detective story than a ghost story, or the editors at the studio who had no idea what the term “rising conflict” meant. 

Regardless, I’d rent Dream House more than I’d suggest seeing it in theaters—and be aware up front that it’s definitely not what you expect.