Canadian director Bruce McDonald serves up a beautifully imagined and gorgeously realized offering with his latest film, the genre-blending Dreamland. With its story of two very different men who look hauntingly alike and an act of violence that causes them to meet, the film mixes surrealism, horror, fantasy, and modern noir. McDonald, whose most recent genre feature was the nightmare-like Hellions , joins up once again for this United States/Canada/Luxembourg/Belgium co-production with his Pontypool (2008) writer Tony Burgess (who cowrote this film with Patrick Whistler) and star Stephen McHattie (Mother! ; Watchmen ). The reunion pays off handsomely.
Dreamland is a terrific showcase for prolific actor and genre-film favorite Stephen McHattie, who plays the two lead roles here, hitman Johnny and Trumpet Player. Johnny suffers from blood-spattered visions and possesses a conscience that rails against his boss Hercules’ (Henry Rollins) new plan of trafficking young children. Despite his disdain for this new criminal direction, Johnny is tasked by Hercules — owner of Al Qaeda, a club bathed in blues and reds that would make Dario Argento feel right at home — to cut off Trumpet Player’s right pinky finger because the musician could not remember the crime lord’s name. He needs to do this before Trumpet Player, a heroin addict bearing strong similarities to Chet Baker in his roughest years, performs that night at The Palace, which is ruled over by The Countess (Juliette Lewis) and her vampire brother The Count (Tómas Lemarquis).
Hercules tells Johnny that The Count will, that night, marry a little girl who happens to be one of the hitman’s neighbor children at a ceremony with a guest list that includes entertainers, politicos, and gun runners. When Johnny attempts to double-cross Hercules and rescue the little girl, Hercules calls on a gang of suit-wearing, gun-toting preteen criminals to put the kibosh on that plan. All this is just a small part of the wonderful weirdness that this film boasts.
Burgess and Whistler have concocted a screenplay rich with intriguing characters and jaw-dropping moments. McDonald has put his unique touch on Dreamland, bringing the screenplay to vivid life with a verve that always keeps this complex tale and its wealth of characters crackling and moving along splendidly. The film’s costume and set designs borrow heavily from the 1940s and 1950s, but the story is set firmly in the current day, with late-model mobile phones and other modern trappings. Jonathan Goldsmith’s lovely jazz score sets the mood for each scene perfectly. Veteran Belgium-based cinematographer Richard van Oosterhout’s (whose many credits include the horror films Amsterdamned  and Intensive Care , both Netherlands productions) work here is outstanding.
McHattie is phenomenal, putting on a veritable acting clinic in his two performances in Dreamland. Though both of his characters are world weary and flirting with the fringes of their own demise, he plays each one with a wholly different energy and approach. His Johnny is a keenly focused assassin with a heart, who tries to stave off death in a desperate attempt to keep his conscience clear, while Trumpet Player is slow moving and slow thinking, a man who cares only about his next fix and isn’t interested in any moral stands.
All of the supporting cast members, of which just a few are mentioned in this review, are uniformly superb. Henry Rollins, with a dyed-blonde buzzcut, plays club owner Hercules — nasty, constantly on edge, and prone to sudden violence — with fervor and swagger that borders, but never steps into, scenery-chewing territory. Lewis is clearly having a ball in her role as The Countess, who is as quick to crack wise as she is to comment disparagingly on her staff members and VIPs alike. Lemarquis gives a delightfully creepy performance as the Count Orlok-like vampire, menacing and flamboyant at the same time.
Every frame of Dreamland is a treasure, and McDonald infuses the dark, seedy world of the film with an understated whimsical sense of humor. I give the film my highest recommendation, and fully expect it to be on my top 10 list of genre films for this year.
Dreamland had its world debut at Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, which ran from 9–21 April.