A bad 'Dream'

An isolated house. A snowbound countryside. Malevolence and violence. Telepathy. All of it taken from the pages of Stephen King.

Have the elegant horrors of "The Shining" returned to theaters everywhere?

In your dreams! The new movie fitting that description is "Dreamcatcher," which stirs a similar batch of ingredients into a vastly less flavorful stew.

The heroes are four young men (there's hardly a woman in this movie) who've been close pals for 20 years. What they have in common is a gift for reading minds, picked up from a mysterious friend they did a good deed for when they were kids.

You'd think mind reading would come in handy, especially for the one who's a psychiatrist. But no, it frazzles his nerves and makes him insult his patients. The others seem equally clueless about turning a superpower to their advantage. They're just ordinary guys whose idea of a big thrill is the winter vacation they share in New England every year.

That's where they meet the stranger who sets the story in motion, showing up at their cabin with an illness that's as yucky as it is bizarre. Turns out there's a man-munching monster growing inside him, and soon it's on the loose. So are a lot more of the same, plus larger aliens who look like E.T. on steroids. Also present is a military officer who's supposed to stop the invasion, but sometimes seems to be the loosest cannon of all.

"Dreamcatcher" is mildly entertaining for a while; think "Stand by Me" meets "Alien," with a soupçon of "Starship Troopers" tossed in. You can almost agree with Mr. King's publicity comment that his supernatural thrillers are primarily "stories about human beings," and that the best adaptations come from filmmakers who recognize this.

He's right in principle. Good movies like "The Shining" and "Misery" bear him out - but he's wrong about this particular example. The men of "Dreamcatcher" aren't fully rounded characters, they're glib compendiums of Generation X clichés, spouting dialogue that sounds like the product of a computer program, not a pair of skilled screenwriters like William Goldman and Lawrence Kasdan.

The acting is equally shallow - unseasoned stars like Jason Lee and Donnie Wahlberg can't transcend such a silly script - and director Kasdan doesn't seem to mind, so determined is he to fill the screen with creepy-crawly visions and make-you-jump special effects.

At isolated moments - most of them featuring Morgan Freeman as the macho army man - "Dreamcatcher" seems to aim at something higher, satirizing modern xenophobia and the American way of war. But this is more hinted at than developed, representing another lost opportunity in a movie nowhere near as smart or scary as it sets out to be.

Rated R; contains violence and vulgarity.

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