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DREAMLAND ***

Directed by Bruce McDonald.

 Starring Stephen McHattie Henry Rollins, Juliette Lewis, Tomas Lemarquis,
Lisa Houle, Hana Sofia Lopes, Astrid Roos.

Canada / Luxembourg / Belgium 2019 92 minutes Certificate: 15

 

Released by Bulldog Films on DVD and Digital on April 13th 2020

 

Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald’s directing career encompasses everything from episodes of THE BILL through to imperfect horror curios like HELLIONS, though his stand-out movie to date remains PONTYPOOL, a microcosm of apocalypse confined to a radio station where mischievous late night host Stephen McHattie unwittingly plays his part in broadcasting the end of humanity. At a time when post-9/11, post-28 DAYS LATER infection movies were commonplace, McDonald presented a witty, chilling tale of a lethal virus spread by the English language and kept almost all the horror off-camera. McHattie, afforded a rare leading role, closed the story with a defiant final on-air speech before a countdown signalling The End – a devastating monologue with its origins in alarmist 1950’s sci-fi (notably, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD), even if the overriding nihilism nodded more to Carpenter’s reinvention of THE THING.

 

DREAMLAND, as eclectic as anything McDonald as put his name to, reunites the director with his magnetic star, alongside PONTYPOOL’s screenwriter (and author of its inspiration, “Pontypool Changes Everything”), Tony Burgess. Perhaps not surprisingly, its strongest suit is McHattie, wholly deserving of the two lead roles bestowed upon him here – and cannily walking off with the movie despite much showier, campier performances among the supporting cast. The first image we see onscreen is McHattie’s bewigged incarnation as a throwback anti-hero with the marvellous name Johnny Deadeyes. In a movie unravelling in an unspecified period, modern communication devices exist alongside the retro attire of Johnny’s fedora and trench coat. This dour, intense hitman-with-a-conscience works for the seriously unhinged Hercules (Henry Rollins in a harsh buzzcut and a series of eyeball-hurting jackets), who owns a club named Al Qaeda and, to Johnny’s downplayed horror, has expanded his business to accommodate underage people trafficking, noting as justification that “they’re as big as the big girls”.

 

McHattie doubles up as a genius black-clad, heroin-addicted jazz musician known only as Trumpet Player – and a man who has entered Hercules’ bad books thanks to a single moment of human weakness in which he forgot the intimidating brute’s name while signing an autograph for him. Hercules hires Johnny to snip off the pinkie from Trumpet Player’s right hand – but, horrified by the imminent arranged marriage of his 14 year old neighbour to a vampire known as The Count (Tomas Lemarquis), Johnny uses this task as a means of both rescuing her and undermining Hercules’ latest morally bankrupt venture.

 

Set to a distinctive jazz inflected score by Jonathan Goldsmith and strikingly shot by Richard Van Oosterhout with an yen for the primary colours of modern Italian horror, this exists in a halfway house between old Hollywood film noir and David Lynch, with more than a whisper of William S Burroughs and Takashi Miike haunting its black heart. Bursts of brutality explode in between eccentric bits of comic business (note the scene-stealing pawn shop owners) and assorted unpredictable plot turns that sometimes suggest that McDonald and Burgess were making it up as they were going along.

 

How much you respond to DREAMLAND will hinge on your appreciation of self-conscious genre-blending and wacky casting. Juliette Lewis relishes the chance to go…full-tilt Juliette Lewis as the Countess, overseeing a suitably bizarre international wedding hosting politicos, crime barons, gunrunners and “new world idiots” (“No Union Jacks” though) while missing the good old days of fat men and monocles for some unspecified reason. She seems positively restrained compared to Lemarquis’ bizarre turn as her grinning, feral brother, licking blood from the floor and lip smacking his way through a performance that’s like some kind of high camp hybrid of Max Schreck and Hannibal Lecter. Against these two, the imposing thuggery of Rollins (“You don’t wanna suck me, I’ve got AIDs”) seems positively restrained, while McHattie smartly underplays in both roles and leaves you wanting more.

 

Things lag a bit when you realise there isn’t a lot going on beneath the surface – but then McDonald unleashes a riotously mental climactic wedding reception in which the Countess’ cultural melting pot collapses into a bloody shootout, with all the guests (including the kids) tooling up while Trumpet Player delivers an oddly poignant live performance at The Palace. Between this and his other prominent turns in terrific recent fare like MOTHER! and COME TO DADDY, DREAMLAND confirms a deserved renaissance for its distinctive star.

 

Steven West.

 

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