Dreamcatcher opens with a fairly conventional kill. A POC character, Kya (Nazanin Mandi), walks down a series of hallways before she is attacked and killed by a man wearing a mask. It’s familiar, but well executed and positions the film as a fun slasher film.
Alas Dreamcatcher has far greater ambitions, but lacks the ability to execute them.
Writer/director Jacob Johnston’s feature debut is an “everything but the kitchen sink” horror film: it wants to be all things and, as a result, winds up doing none of them well. Dreamcatcher aspires to subvert audience expectations by frequently switching the subgenre – from slasher to drama to satire to supernatural – but the result is an inconsistent tone filled with characters whose motivations fluctuate from scene to scene based on whatever the narrative needs them to do.
This contrasting genre approach is all the more disappointing because Dreamcatcher is a solidly entertaining slasher. Following the first kill, the film introduces smart, sarcastic Pierce (Nikki Koss) and her lovelorn bestie Jake (Zachary Gordon) as they watch horror movies. They’re interrupted by the arrival of Pierce’s estranged sister Ivy (Elizabeth Posey) and her queer friend/sponsor Brecken (Emrhys Cooper). Ivy attempts to make amends with tickets to an ultra-pricey and exclusive EDM music festival called Cataclysm, which is where the bulk of the first act takes place.
The headliner, DJ Dreamcatcher – aka Dylan (Travis Burns) – is a hottie with a penchant for Daft Punk/Marshmellow-esque head gear.* He’s a talented musician on the come up, but he’s stuck under the controlling thumb of Josephine (Adrienne Wilkinson), his cut-throat agent who monitors his every move.
*It should be noted that there’s some uncomfortable cultural appropriation involving Dylan’s Dreamcatcher stage moniker (the character’s great grandfather was Ojibwe, but from all indications, the Australian actor is not Indigenous). While this idea does inform Dylan’s worldview, it also could have easily been replaced by some kind of New Age practice which would have achieved the same result.
There are other characters, including Pierce’s sleazy ex-boyfriend Hunter (Blaine Kern III) and his new fuck-buddy Raye (Olivia Sui), though they’re barely defined outside of their conflict with Pierce.
As the characters congregate at Cataclysm and engage in petty disputes, Pierce extricates herself from the group so that she can spend time with DJ Dreamcatcher and trip on peyote. This leads to a horrific set-piece and the film’s single best, most unexpected development.
It’s a great sequence, in no small part because Johnston masterfully mixes the hallucinatory imagery with the pulsing electronica beats so that everything feels like a surreal, horrific music video.
Alas this subversive development is also the high point of the film and the film never successfully recovers. The slasher set-up is set aside for a contemplative mediation of grief, filled with montages of characters crying in the shower and hallucinating ghosts (presented primarily for ineffective jump scares). Yes, there’s still a killer on the loose (although no one seemingly notices when characters die), but Dreamcatcher’s attempt to explore the aftermath of trauma with sporadic, rote jump scares doesn’t gel.
This is exacerbated when the narrative shifts to explore Josephine’s plot to pay everyone off, which dovetails into a larger scheme involving the EDM industry, Dylan’s reckless party behaviour and other conspiracies. All the while characters are still being menaced and knocked off in reasonably entertaining ways, though the shift from Scream-level meta commentary to hapless idiocy in the blink of an eye is likely to induce whiplash in audiences.
Beyond the obvious inconsistencies in character behaviour, the highly questionable plotting and the subgenres at odds with each other, the single worst thing about Dreamcatcher is the dialogue. It is desperate to be edgy and quotable, but is actually tin-eared and routinely misses the mark.
Characters who are grieving, or presented as calm and level-headed, deliver quips like “I’m not a dog, so don’t treat me like a bitch” or “If I make out with you, will you let me leave?”. The cringe worthy dialogue is most egregious in two characters, Jake and Josephine, who take things to a whole new level.
The former comes off far worse than the latter, in part because Jake is an insufferable character from the get-go. When he’s invited to Cataclysm, he whines “I don’t feel like being sandwiched between wasted white girls wearing ill fitted neon leggings and flower crowns”. Later, in the film’s attempt to paint him as a red herring, Jake irrationally bitches Ivy and Brecken out…for showing concern when he returns home bloody, having fallen during an impromptu midnight run.
Josephine fares better because she’s less of a character and more of a caricature. Josephine is a clear graduate of the Gale Weathers school of bitchery when she spouts absolutely ridiculous lines like “This is America. More trigger happy than ISIS” and “You’re a DJ. DJs are not manic depressive”. Wilkinson is completely over the top and Josephine is a farce of a character, but she’s a welcome respite from the idiocy of the other characters. Sadly she’s also acting in a completely different movie.
Ultimately Dreamcatcher is a misguided attempt to fuse disparate genres together. It’s all the more frustrating because Johnston’s direction and musicality in the opening slasher section of the film is highly enjoyable. Sadly the longer the film plays, the more it devolves into a confused, muddled mess of bad plotting, unlikeable characters and ridiculous dialogue.
Dreamcatcher is available on Digital and VOD Friday, March 5, 2021