It's to assume based on the terrible ad campaign and the all-telling lack of critics' screenings that Dream House is a stone-cold stack of shit. The reality is far sadder: it is a completely ineffective and in no particular way incompetent movie that has absolutely no excuse not to be very good.

This is, after all, a movie with Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Elias Koteas, and Jane Alexander in the cast - one can dislike some or any of these actors while acknowledging that they are not, any of them, inclined to take crap parts in crap movies* - as directed by Jim Sheridan, who has more or less built his career on the backs of movies that turned out far better than they had any right to: inspirational disabled person movie My Left Foot, ripped-from-the-headlines political picture In the Name of the Father, and particularly heartwarming tale of immigrant children and their family In America, which has absolutely no right to not suck. Hell, even most of the ideas of David Loucka's script are pretty intriguing, especially one that comes right at the ending, and since I don't want to spoil the movie any more than the atrocious trailer already has, A character we've been lead to believe was a crazy man's hallucination turns out to be a for-real ghost, though only by implication - a little thing, but an awesome bit of misdirection in a movie that needs it, desperately.

The film concerns the Atenton family, who have just purchased a new home in the Connecticut suburbs: Will (Craig), who has just quit his miserable job as an editor to start work on his first novel, his wive Libby (Weisz), and their daughters Trish (Taylor Geare) and Dee Dee (Claire Geare). It's hardly any time at all before strange noises and things start to happen, and by the time that Will finds a cluster of goth teenagers swapping scary stories in his basement, he's begun putting together the pieces: five years ago, the family that lived in that house was killed, with suspicion falling primarily on the father, Peter Ward, who proceeded to go bugfuck insane. Nobody is willing to talk about it, though everybody seems to know something, especially the Atentons' across-the-street neighbor Ann Patterson (Watts).

It has come out that the film's production was mercilessly unhappy: Sheridan clashed with Morgan Creek Productions over the cut of the picture and what was released does not, apparently, come very close to wishes; perhaps in retaliation against the movie, the studio cut a trailer that reveals a huge goddamn spoiler that crops up right at this point, in the most willfully self-sabotaging piece of advertising since the ads for Robert Zemeckis's 2000 thriller What Lies Beneath effectively rendered the first two-thirds of that movie completely redundant. I will not say what happens in Dream House, though if there's any real purpose to my caginess, I can't say what it might be.

It's entirely possible that the movie might have worked better without that foreknowledge making the first 40 minutes at least of a 92 minute film play like a waiting game; maybe not. I'm even tempted to say probably not, for as galling as the ad gambit was, it has the benefit of keeping the viewer from wondering what's going on and mistaking the film for something else: something which, incidentally, the trailer was very eager to suggest even while it was ruining everything for everybody.

The biggest twist about Dream House, you see, is that it's not a haunted house story; not even a horror movie or a thriller at all. It starts out pretending that it's going to be, with all the half-seen shapes in the trees and brooding music, but it's actually a psychological study of... see, I can't even say that without wrecking it. But it is, anyway, the case that the film ends up being much more about the darkness within rather than the darkness without, and the scariest thing in it is the possibility that we can never truly know our own minds and identities.

If we think about it that way, Dream House makes a hell of a lot more sense as a vehicle for Sheridan, and for that particular mixture of actors. It's about people, it's tragic, etc. The worst part is, it comes so goddamn close to working on that level. There were a solid two-dozen points during which I found myself thinking, very clearly: "It's possible for that to work. There is no reason that shouldn't work. And it's not working." There are, I believe, a great many ways for the content of Dream House to result in a very good movie: it is possible that Sheridan and/or writer David Loucka and/or producer James G. Robinson have managed to stumble upon the only treatment of this material that doesn't work (I'd dearly love to blame the editing, because it's not hard to imagine a significantly better version of this film that handles the first act differently and de-emphasises the genre elements; but it's pretty clear that the problems at least started prior to the editing room). I can't quite say whether it's the film's wild tonal inconsistency, or the stiffness that drifts in and out of the three lead performances, Craig's especially, or the godawful "ooh how brooding!" score by John Debney. Certainly, the film looks like ass: no fault of crackerjack cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, at least not so far as I can make out, given how thoroughly every millimeter of Dream House has been violated with digital color correction: after 2011 has seemingly eased-back on the plague of orange and teal that ruined every big movie in 2009 and 2010, it's downright shocking to see a movie use it so shamelessly as this, undoubtedly a godless side effect of all the snowy night exteriors and artificially-lit interiors.

But for all that, the film is not ghastly. It is merely inadequate in every respect. That's a small comfort at best, and it might even make the experience more dispiriting: for in just about every scene, you can figure out exactly what differences would have made the thing actually work. And working, I deem, is not too much to ask from as many top-shelf professionals as we have assembled here. But apparently I have in this belief overestimated Hollywood.