Long have I been an admirer of Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald (Roadkill, Pontypool), who frequently takes his genre work into more surreal territory that sometimes threatens to/delights in dipping its toe into David Lynch territory. With his latest feature Dreamland, McDonald combines a kidnapping story with a character study of a hitman (played by the director’s favorite, Stephen McHattie), a profile of a fading, drug-addicted trumpet player (also McHattie, clearly modeling his performance on the late Chet Baker in playing, singing and drug-taking style only), a gang boss (hardcore singer Henry Rollins) who enters into the world of peddling children, a vampire (Tomis Lemarquis) who wants to take a child bride, and his countess sister (Juliette Lewis) who wants to throw him the freak show wedding of the century. Got it?
From a script by Tony Burgess and Patrick Whistler, Dreamland is a work that seems to think that the weirder a movie can get, the better it is and the more likely audiences will applaud or excuse it for not having a point. “The point is to make it strange and indecipherable, and the inevitable cult status will be sure to follow.” And to that I say, “Horseshit.” Even if your film isn’t afraid to get bizarre, there should still be a purpose to it beyond just being odd. The movie features a great deal of neon-soaked visuals that give it something of an ’80s retro vibe that serves no real function. The costume design by Magdalena Labuz is also a standout, especially when we get to the vampire’s wedding ceremony and reception, filled with the privileged, upper-crust guests.
I’m not even sure I’m clear on why McHattie is playing two characters here (who frequently interact, I should add). He’s a terrific actor, and he does a solid job creating two distinct, severely damaged human beings, but their connection is never explained, they never attempt to trade places, and it’s not even acknowledged that they look alike. They just happen to run in the same circles of criminality.
The hit man is one of the most ruthless in the world, but he seems to draw the line at killing kids (on purpose, at least), and when he sees that his frequent employer Hercules (Rollins) is starting to not only kidnap and sell children but also train some of them to be child soldiers, he snaps and decides he’s going to free a 14-year-old girl who is set to be the vampire’s wife. Hercules wants to enlist him to cut off the pinky finger of the trumpet player in retribution for a perceived slight, but he needs the musician to act as a distraction so he can get the girl out of the clutches of whoever has her at the wedding. Lewis is fun as the clueless countess, but like many of the supporting performers in Dreamland, she mistakes broad, unfocused camp for humor. And while I have certainly enjoyed Lewis as a comedic actress at times, she’s largely wasted here.
You’ll spend most of Dreamland waiting for things to come together. The problem isn’t that the overly-complicated plot is difficult to follow; I found it difficult to care about any of it. All the horn player does is mumble and attempt to escape from the Countess’s palace long enough to get heroin, so that’s fun. And the vampire just smiles big to show us his fangs, but it mostly comes across as the creepy grin of the pedophile that he is. Rollins screams a lot, and that pretty much sums up Dreamland, a film that somehow manages to look both polished and sloppy while featuring engaging and desperately unsubtle performances side by side. In the end, its attempts to be different make it feel depressingly familiar.
The film is now available On Demand and via most digital platforms.
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