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“Burning Down the House”

Grade: F (SKIP IT)

For sale: three bedrooms, three full baths, garage, fully furnished, crown molding, stainless steel appliances, washer/dryer, storage.  House also includes poltergeists in the form of a murdered mother and her two dead daughters.  Any takers?

Only two: city-slickers Libby (played by Rachel Weisz) and Will, a publisher with pectorals played by Daniel Craig (a.k.a. 007 du jour), who move from town to country with bloody results.  The primary problem with “Dream House,” which is set in a New England town called New Ashford with Craig as an aspiring novelist, is that there’s not a shred of newness or novelty in this film (directed by the otherwise bright Irish film director, Jim Sheridan, of “In the Name of the Father” and “My Left Foot”).  As an anguished Libby tells Will, “There is something wrong with this house.”

Wrong, indeed. The less than dreamy house at the center of this turkey is already something of a suburban legend by the time Libby and Will start unpacking boxes.  Horror-queen Naomi Watts plays Anne, Will’s mysterious neighbor who keeps her distance, and won’t say what happened inside the Ward home five years ago.  After Will catches a gaggle of Goths holding a creepy séance in his cellar, and the ever-menacing Elias Koteas (of “Shutter Island,” a superior film built on the same concept of parallel plots) peering through his windows, he complains that he has an “infestation of teenagers in the basement.”  That’s the least of his problems.  Much to his disbelief, he comes to suspect that he is the house’s former occupant, a wife-killer named Peter Ward, and that Libby and his daughters are mere visions.  After paying a visit to Greenhaven Psychiatric Institute, Will comes to wonder: am I Ward?  Am I a widower or a wack-job?

Chances are you won’t stick around to find out and for good reason.  Screenwriter David Louck stuffs his script with laughable lines like “I’m not writing a book, I’m living in a fantasy!” and “Get me the chloroform now!” And when Will and Libby realize that the iniquity inside their walls cannot be suppressed, we get this: “You can’t paint over evil!”

Any smart spectator of this claptrap would be hard-pressed to find something intelligent to say about it, but if forced to lay a cerebral layer of paint over “Dream House,” Freud’s conceptualization of the “The Uncanny” (1919) comes to mind.  To prove that the uncanny relates to what he calls “themes of the double in all its grades and developments,” Freud describes being lost in an Italian piazza: “I suddenly found myself in the same street again [where] my swift departure resulted only in my ending up in the very same place, through a different detour, for the third time.  But then I was overcome by a feeling I can only describe as uncanny […] the unintended return of the same.”   The uncanny isn’t so much déjà vu but the compulsion to repeat and return over and over again.

“Dream House” not only repeats the central conceit of the King/Kubric classic, “The Shining,” in which murdered girls leave an infectious trace behind – come play with us, Danny! – but it goes in circles like the toilet bowl in which it belongs.  When a great conflagration eventually erupts in the final reel, you won’t feel the heat since, by that point, “Dream House” has already collapsed like a house of cards.