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film: A Frightful Mess 

It's one thing after another in this overwrought horror-meets-humor melange.

The latest in a long line of Stephen King novels adapted for the big screen, "Dreamcatcher" appears to want to be the first A-movie version of this highly commercial premise.

Sadly, and yet in keeping with the original source material, "Dream-catcher" tries to cram so many recognizable horror-movie themes into its plot that none end up remotely believable, or worse, scary. Echoing bits and pieces of "Alien," "E.T.," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "Outbreak," as well as sporting a subplot about mental telepathy and a toilet humor scene worthy of the Farrelly Brothers, "Dreamcatcher's" most egregious error is its script. So convoluted as to make Fassbinder's "Berlin Alexanderplatz" flow like a linear nursery rhyme, "Dreamcatcher" is nothing short of a frightful mess. Although it will score high with males in that 12 to 25 set, other moviegoers may find themselves wondering just how much red gunk, evil creatures, deadly rashes and fatal flatulence any one movie can contain without imploding from FX overkill.

Written by Oscar-winner and longtime Stephen King cinematic interpreter William Goldman, and directed by fellow Oscar-winner Lawrence Kasdan, the movie comes closest to working when not taking itself so seriously. But those times are few and far between. In fact, "Dreamcatcher" begins with something of a false start, leading viewers to think the movie revolves around an idiot savant who's saved from dangerous bullies by a quartet of high-school friends. In return, the grateful young man confers on his saviors the gift of reading minds.

Now, one would think these four fellows would get rich off of their unique ability, but over the ensuing 20 years these four are merely ensconced in pretty normal careers. Because of this shared talent, the four meet regularly to bond and shoot the breeze about women, sports and bosses in a cabin in the Maine woods. But not one of these four is truly happy. When psychiatrist Henry (Thomas Jane) uses his gift, he so unsettles his patients that he's contemplating suicide. When Pete (Timothy Olyphant) tries to impress women with this sixth sense, it generally creeps them out, and so he turns to alcohol for solace. Apparently not getting a full dose of the original ability, Beaver's (Jason Lee) clairvoyance is so vague he can't see where actual danger lies; instead he can only warn friends like Jonesy (Damian Lewis) to be careful.

Once in the woods, "Dreamcatcher" veers sharply into the realm of horror. By their second day, not only has a blizzard hit, but cell phones are dead, animals are fleeing some alien force, a contagious disease is spreading, and a slimy, sharp-toothed worm is attacking their bodies. The next thing you know, a lost hiker with a raging rash and a terrible case of irritable bowel syndrome wanders into their compound. What happens is both the movie's funniest and grossest set piece, featuring a hideous creature the boys hope to confine to the toilet with some of that Tom Ridge highly prized duct tape. Meanwhile, Henry and Pete run afoul of another wormlike predator and before you can say "Last Year at Marienbad," the entire forest is quarantined, and an elite paramilitary force (commanded by Morgan Freeman's Col. Kurtz) decrees that every living thing must be killed.

Of course, it's only a matter of time before a wormy creature body snatches one of the four friends. The remaining three soon realize the only way to survive is to find that now-grown-up idiot savant (Donnie Wahlberg) from high school.

Although Kasdan struggles to keep all these elements from overwhelming his movie, and the likable actors try their best to stick to solid characters, "Dreamcatcher" ends up merely another costly exercise in cinematic futility. ** S

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