Two little girls stand at the end of a hallway, backs to the camera, staring at whatever might be behind the stained and peeling wallpaper. It’s a gratuitous image, perhaps made as a red herring for the poster and trailer or perhaps as homage to The Shining, which Dream House does not resemble in any other aspect. The two girls are indeed in a haunted house, but they don’t know it. Their parents (Rachel Weisz as Libby and Daniel Craig as Will) have recently relocated from the city to a worn suburban ranch, and everyone is making the adjustment quite well, though the neighbor lady across the street (Naomi Watts) seems questionably aloof. Relationships are thoughtfully revealed: Will and Libby have an enviably happy marriage and are equally delighted with their daughters. So no wonder Libby rarely leaves the house, telling her husband, “I feel so safe with you here.” And that’s before their younger daughter sees a man spying on them through a window. The first real jolt comes later, when Will surprises a group of goth teenagers reenacting a horrible crime in the basement. Seems the real estate agent neglected to tell the new homeowners that the house had been the site of a mass murder.
The plot is familiar, the frightening elements too tepid to even qualify Dream House as a supernatural thriller—in fact, horror fans will find it an even bigger disappointment than The Village (M. Night Shyamalan’s first big flop). And yet, there is something, some peculiar, occasionally disturbing quality to Dream House that doesn’t have anything to do with a script (by David Loucke) and that feels reigned in by too many marketing tests. What it has to do with is how the characters interact with each other, and the pacing, and small disquieting touches such as a vase of flowers mysteriously left on the doorstep. The film isn’t going to give anyone nightmares, but as directed by the Irish Oscar winner Jim Sheridan, it casts a spell that seems to have enveloped the actors, too—the eerily nuanced performances by Craig, Weisz and Watts are more suspenseful than the grisly findings in the basement. If you don’t think of Dream House as a horror movie, you just may experience an autumnal chill more lasting than usual big-screen bloodletting.