Review by Craig Draheim
Director: Bruce McDonald
Writers: Tony Burgess and Patrick Whistler
Starring: Stephen McHattie, Henry Rollins, and Juliette Lewis
Because I want to get it out of the way, words could not describe the level of excitement I had at the thought of the team behind Pontypool reuniting and joined by Henry Rollins to do a surreal noir. Pontypool is in my top three of personal favorite zombie/outbreak movies and the most innovative concept. Check out the podcast, Faculty of Horror’s episode on Pontypool if you want to listen to two people that can articulate why that movie is so special way better than I ever can. When the opportunity arose to review this for GNOH, I jumped at the chance, willing to power through the spotty internet I am currently isolated in. I went in as best I could with no expectations and tried to avoid synopses or other reviews. Let us begin…
Taking away all the surreal moments, Dreamland is the story of a hitman (McHattie) who is tasked by his boss, Hercules (Rollins), to cut the pinky finger off a famous jazz musician (also McHattie). Once the hitman learns that Hercules has expanded his criminal activities selling child brides, he tries to find redemption in saving one of the girls. However, she has already been sold to the Countess’ brother (who’s a vampire), leading the hitman down a trail of poorly executed plans to find redemption. And yes, I said a vampire, but is treated more like a creepy pedophile (which aren’t all pedophiles creepy?) than a bloodsucker.
Dreamland is one of those movies that sadly will never escape the commentary of it being inspired by David Lynch/Alejandro Jodorowsky. Are there other surrealists that may be connected a little better as inspiration? Yes, but those are the two that primarily get thrown around in reviews. It fits the surreal movie checklist:
X Plotlines/dialogue that abruptly end
X Eccentric villains whose personalities counter the dark lifestyle they live
X Characters prone to hallucinations or premonitions
X Smokey cabaret club
X A bohemian-like dinner party
X Hypnotic jazz
I don’t mind using those elements at all, and based on the resources I believe McDonald had, he did well making one of those movies. The issue for me came from it feeling like it was trying to be one of those movies, which then you are left with this gut reaction of people creating something to show how smart they are. Don’t get me wrong, all of those involved are incredibly talented and intelligent. Pontypool despite its minimalism is very smart, but its focus is on the grounded characters, the well-developed world, ultimately putting the storytelling first. You can have a film that has more visual imagery (look at Terrence Malick); or a film that requires a shift in approach to create something more in line with cinematic poetry, but this is a film that is intended to be style over substance. However, there’s not enough style to counteract the lack of substance.
I’m sure there’s the assumption of, “well you’re biased because of your love for their older work.” I wish that were the case, unfortunately I think my love for all of their prior projects is why I’m defending it more than I normally would.
Stephen McHattie is superb at showcasing his acting chops in both roles and even Henry Rollins is fun to watch. Do not get me wrong, a gold bar is buried within that movie and it’s trying its hardest to unearthed. Some parts I wished if they cut back on the surreal elements, you would have a nice little stylish noir. Other times I think if they just went weird with it, then you’d have a trippy joyride. The film could have gone either way and been great, they just needed to make that decision during the writing phase.
I’m sure there will be an audience for this, willing to debate every one of my concerns. For me, this was one of those frustrating cases where so much talent came together to create something that lacked an artistic destination. It felt safe, getting lost in the idea of trying to be someone else’s movie. And the more distance that comes between my initial viewing and these final words I’m typing, I grow less forgiving.
2 out of 5