Dir: Lawrence Kasdan. US. 2003. 134mins.

Castle Rock's latest big-screen take on the work of author Stephen King starts out with a spooky psychological intensity that recalls some of the company's most successful King adaptations, like Misery and The Green Mile. Before long, however, Dreamcatcher degenerates into a confusing horror/sci-fi muddle that will test the attentions of most viewers who have not read the King novel, and of quite a few who have. King readers and young male horror fans should provide Dreamcatcher with a decent theatrical audience in the US - it narrowly missed out topping a sluggish box office, taking $15m from 2,945 sites for a respectable average of $5,103 - but ancillary outlets are likely to offer better commercial prospects. In the international marketplace (where Village Roadshow is distributing in a few territories), King's mark will carry weight but a lack of major star power will probably make it difficult to scare up really sizeable theatrical crowds.

The novel, a sprawling, at times playful 600-page epic, was a worldwide bestseller two years ago. The screen version comes, somewhat surprisingly, from writer William Goldman (who previously scripted King adaptations Misery and Hearts In Atlantis) and writer-director Lawrence Kasdan.

Four male friends (Jane, Lee, Lewis and Olyphant) were endowed with paranormal powers by a mysterious Down's syndrome boy (Wahlberg) while adolescents. When the four men, now world-weary adults with little real use for their unusual powers, go on their annual visit to a hunting cabin in the woods, they find themselves in the path of an attack by aliens, which infect humans with a virus that results in vicious bouts of flatulence and the fatal excretion of angry little sabre-toothed worms ('shitweasels'). A special army unit headed by a barmy colonel (Freeman) is already on the aliens' case, but ultimately it falls to the four guys to use their dormant powers to save the world.

Dreamcatcher's most obvious problem is that King's book is too much book to pack into a film, even one which lasts more than two hours. Early on, as the friends begin to realise that there is something evil in the snowy woods, the shifts in tone from wistful to creepy to horrific are acceptable enough. But film starts to leave the rails as the toilet humour/horror rapidly gives way to monster movie kitsch and then alien invasion action. The haste of the plot exposition makes some of the action virtually incomprehensible and aspects from the novel that might have given the film more dramatic substance are pretty much abandoned.

The actors give the film a degree of grounding but even they sometimes seem bemused. Lee (Almost Famous) provides some wit and Olyphant (Go) some poignancy, but both their characters are quickly dispatched. Lewis (a British actor making his US movie debut after Band Of Brothers) has a few effectively scary moments as Jonesy, the member of the group whose mind is occupied by a shape-shifting alien. Freeman - sporting, for some reason, a pair of Father Christmas eyebrows - goes well over the top as the mad army colonel.

The effects are (presumably intentionally) on the cheesy side, with the aliens borrowing their look from any number of slimy, toothy predecessors. The one really classy element is the cinematography by John Seale (The English Patient), which gives the Canadian locations a steely grey look reminiscent of Stanely Kubrick's classic King adaptation, The Shining.

In the US and some international territories Dreamcatcher is being distributed with The Final Flight Of The Osiris, an 11-minute CG-animated short designed as a prelude to Warner's forthcoming live-action feature sequel The Matrix Reloaded. Directed by Andy Jones (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), the short does not add much to The Matrix myth but it is impressively realised and should help draw younger audiences to its accompanying features (either Dreamcatcher or other Warner titles, depending on local release schedules).

Prod cos: Castle Rock Entertainment, Village Roadshow Pictures, NPV Entertainment
Village Roadshow (Aus, NZ, Greece, Sing), Warner Bros (rest of world)
Exec prod:
Bruce Berman
Lawrence Kasdan, Charles Okun
William Goldman, Lawrence Kasdan, based on the book by Stephen King
John Seale
Prod des:
Jon Hutman
Carol Littleton, Raul Davalos
James Newton Howard
Main cast:
Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Damian Lewis, Timothy Olyphant, Tom Sizemore, Donnie Wahlberg