Will Atenton seems truly blessed. He’s a high-powered book editor with a beautiful wife, two cute-as-a-button daughters and an awesome new house. But what good are all those perks if you don’t take time to enjoy them? So he punts his job, packs his things and heads home to write—and, of course, spend more time with his practically too-good-to-be-true family.
Alas, things are not as idyllic on the home front as he might’ve hoped. It appears as though their house has attracted unwanted attention from … someone. His girls start seeing mysterious faces in the window. Will sees foreign footprints. One night, he hears voices in the basement and, when he goes down to investigate, he finds a slew of teens conducting perhaps the creepiest party ever—festooned with candles and graffiti and dolls that’ve been colored to look like they’re bleeding.
And then, one of the kids says a curious thing as he dashes away: “He’s back.”
Turns out, Will’s new house was the scene of a grisly murder—one in which a woman and her two cute-as-a-button girls were killed. The murderer was never caught, but suspicion fell on a guy named Peter Ward, who’s been holed up in a sanitarium for five years. Or he was, before being released just a few days ago. Is it possible, Will asks himself, that Peter is still obsessed with the house? Could he be, in his own way, haunting the place?
Will, naturally, tromps down to the asylum where Peter was held to ask some difficult questions—and he receives the most difficult answers imaginable: Peter is hanging around your house. Peter is obsessed with your family. Peter is … you. Your wife and girls? They’re dead. You probably killed ’em. And even though we can’t keep you locked up any longer, you’re still stark-raving mad.
Note: I know it seems like I just gave away the whole plot of this film in the very first section of the review. But don’t blame me. Blame Universal Pictures. The concept that Peter and Will may in fact be the same person and some of the film’s main characters might be dead is blithely presented in the movie’s 2-minute trailers. Which seems equivalent to the commercials for The Sixth Sense intoning, “I see dead people … and Bruce Willis is one of them!”
For our purposes here, it doesn’t much matter whether the family’s alive or dead, because Will loves ’em either way. The family’s just brimming with love and affection—so free from internal strife and worry that, had the twist not been spoiled so casually, their sheer happiness might’ve actually been a clue that something was amiss.
And it’s a given that if Will did shoot them all, he feels really, really horrible about it.
Neighbor Ann Patterson shows a great deal of kindness to Will—particularly noteworthy since he’s obviously still insane and could be a dangerous killer. After a little early uncertainty, she lets the man into her house and tries to explain things to him as well as she can. And she allows him the use of her bathtub once Will realizes that his house doesn’t actually have any running water.
Dream House is loaded with a smattering of spectral beings. You could argue that Will’s wife (Libby) and daughters (Trish and Dee Dee) are imaginary beings, pieced together in his mind through an interplay of insanity, grief and, perhaps, guilt. But there are indications that these spirits are real: Libby opens a door and hits wind chimes, for instance, the physical affects of which are seen by others.
The afterlife seems a rather uncertain thing in the narrative—though there would at least appear to be one. Libby tells Will that she allowed herself to die after getting shot because she saw that her daughters were dead: “I knew they needed me to take care of them, so I went with them.”
“I’ll always be with you,” she says to Will. “But you knew that.”
We see a big cross hanging on a wall in a dorm-like room. When Libby tells Will that there’s something wrong with the house, Will says he’ll try to hire a priest (presumably to perform an exorcism) or get someone to “feng shui the place.”
Will and Libby smooch on several occasions and engage in some playful foreplay in bed. She straddles him and strokes his chest. He begins to tickle her. Libby wears a sensual nightgown. Will is shown naked in a bathtub (we see him from the waist up) and sometimes walks around shirtless.
Reminders of the murders are everywhere. Will finds a newspaper graphic of his house, showing where the bodies lay. Libby finds bullet holes in the wall. Will discovers bloody bullet wounds on his eldest daughter’s neck and shoulder. Libby uncovers a bloody hole in their youngest’s belly and a painful-looking exit wound in her back. The girls complain of pain and that they can’t breathe, and then they appear to die in their parents’ arms.
Later, we see the actual murders in flashback mode. The scene is not bloody except for a trickle of red running down Will’s forehead, but it is painful to watch.
Will, while institutionalized, is prone to flying into rages, and we see his fits via video replay. We also see grotesque-looking stitches on his head. A man tries to run Will over with a car. When police come and do nothing, Will threatens to kill the car’s driver himself. He scuffles with and threatens an innocent man. Someone is shot twice in the gut. Two people are hit and kicked before being knocked unconscious with chloroform. A man catches on fire. (We see the flames engulf him for a second.) A woman is tied up.
One f-word, two s-words and a few uses of “a‑‑.” God’s name is abused about 10 times (paired with “d‑‑n” a third of the time). Jesus’ name is abused a half-dozen or more times.
Will and others drink champagne and/or beer at a going-away party.
Will lies about or downplays some of the stuff that’s happening in the house so as not to worry Libby. Only once he figures out that she’s dead is he completely truthful with her.
Never mind those damaging, give-everything-away trailers for a moment: Dream House still dribbles along as a rather silly, cynical bit of cinema—its promising setup devolving into a basket of loose ends and ludicrous twists.
The same could said of its spirituality. And its bursts of positivity too.
So make your choice. Spend two hours with your real-life family or a dead one. Dream House turns that into an easy pick.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.