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Movie Review: It could have been a stranger “DREAMLAND”

Tuesday, June 9, 2020 | Review

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Starring Stephen McHattie, Henry Rollins and Juliette Lewis
Directed by Bruce McDonald
Written by Tony Burgess and Patrick Whistler
Uncork’d Entertainment/Dark Star Pictures

Maybe I’ve been at this job for too long and have seen too many darkly stylistic genre-blenders, but I can’t quite comprehend other observers’ descriptions of DREAMLAND as one of the strangest, most bizarre movies in recent times. It’s certainly unusual, though paradoxically, it’s unusual in familiar ways. Director Bruce McDonald has stated that he “embraced the guiding spirits of filmmakers Luis Buñuel, David Lynch” and other individualistic artists, and thus it’s not surprising that DREAMLAND feels more like a crazy quilt of offbeat inspirations than a singular vision, though it does have its intermittent pleasures.

The setting is a neo-noir world of conflicted killers, tormented creatives, eccentric criminals and occasional horror elements. The first of those archetypes is represented by Johnny Deadeyes (Stephen McHattie), a hit man who, in the film’s startling opening, reveals what he’s all about, taking out a bunch of upper-class lowlifes who are getting what’s coming to them, since they traffic in young girls. Then the fluid morality of this environment is revealed when Johnny discovers that his action has only enabled his boss, underworld kingpin Hercules (Henry Rollins), to gain a monopoly on the city’s underage-prostitution action. Then he receives his next target: a trumpet player called Maestro (also played by McHattie), whom Hercules wants to send a message by having Johnny cut off his pinky finger. Johnny catches up to Maestro fairly early in the running time, and you can’t get much better than two McHatties at a table, trading hardboiled dialogue. You quickly wish the whole movie could focus on this pair together.

Instead, Johnny takes on a mission of his own: rescuing 14-year-old Olivia (Thémis Pauwels), whom Hercules is forcing into marriage with a decadent vampire (Tomas Lemarquis), whose sister the Countess (Juliette Lewis) is another crime boss who runs the Palace, an exclusive gangsters’ club where Maestro is set to play during the ceremony. It’s a tangled web that screenwriters Tony Burgess (who previously collaborated with McDonald on the zombie cult fave PONTYPOOL) and Patrick Whistler have woven, and as McHattie’s dual protagonists wend their way through it, there are twists and betrayals and further odd supporting characters who turn up. Plus, stylish lighting by cinematographer Richard van Oosterhaut, an exotic score by Jonathan Goldsmith and occasional bursts of bloody violence.

It’s all engaging on a surface level, and the always magnetic McHattie carries it nicely. In the end, though, the film (billed as being “shot on location in Dreamland”) doesn’t add up to much more than the sum of its eccentric parts, and it doesn’t go whole hog enough into its craziness to really get you catching your breath. Part of the issue is that the actors, as noted above, are playing types rather than fully imagined and detailed roles, though for the most part they play them well. Rollins is properly vicious, Pauwels properly sympathetic; Lewis gives the Countess her all but doesn’t seem quite otherworldly enough. On the other hand, Lemarquis (the bald-headed character actor seen in numerous international films and, briefly, in BLADE RUNNER 2049, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE and SNOWPIERCER) is perfectly creepy as the creature of the night with a taste for young blood.

There are amusing details, like a blood-transfusion bit, scattered throughout the movie, along with a few pokes at greater meaning (Hercules operates out of a club called Al Qaeda), and a great deal of craft was brought by a team from all over the globe to this Luxembourg-Canada-Belgium co-production. For all that, you leave Dreamland and DREAMLAND wanting to have been more involved in the story taking place within it.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.