A fledgling writer/director takes on a horror classic by Clive Barker about fear, insanity, and meat. As it turns out, he may have bitten off more than he can chew. Stephen (Jackson Rathbone) is a film student who needs to flesh out his requirements, which is how he meets Quaid (Shaun Evans) in a philosophy class. It’s not long before Quaid seeks out the budding filmmaker with a proposal: what if they were to do a documentary thesis on fear? What do people dread? What haunts them? Stephen enlists his friend, Cheryl (Hanne Steen), as their editor and they begin their interviews. Quaid soon grows frustrated with the penny-ante phobias their initial volunteers offer up, though, and wants to find people who’ve experienced real terror and trauma.
Cheryl decides to confront her own fears for the project and relates how she was repeatedly raped by her father each night when he’d come home from a meat-processing plant, an experience which has left her meat-phobic from the associated smells on him. As it turns out, Quaid has a little secret, too, one he finally shares with Stephen. His obsession with dread stems from a personal childhood horror -- watching an axe-wielding psychopath (Carl McCrystal) murder his parents. It’s haunted him his whole life. What Quaid doesn’t tell Stephen is that, for some reason, he’s decided to take the battery of medications that keep his scarred mind running on all cylinders and wash them all down the sink.
As their documentary continues, Quaid becomes even more obsessed with people’s fears and taking their project “to the next level.” What that level is, and what he hopes to accomplish with it, are never made clear. Really, Quaid’s motivation just seems to be “he’s going insane,” and we’re not asked to look any deeper than that. When he attacks one of their volunteers for giving a fake story and smashes their equipment in his rage, it’s the last straw for Stephen and Cheryl. Quaid keeps on going, though, and decides to re-interview some of their subjects to see just what happens when people are subjected to their greatest fears.
Dread is based on one of novelist/ filmmaker/artist Clive Barker’s very first short stories from The Books of Blood, written over 25 years ago. A lot has happened in the horror genre in those two and a half decades, and that’s part of the reason this adaptation by writer/director Anthony DiBlasi doesn’t go over as well as it could. While some of the ideas in Dread were groundbreaking when Barker wrote his short story, now they’re close to bordering on cliché. In the mid-eighties, the idea of torturing a helpless someone was almost taboo. Now it's the subject of radio talk shows, news reports, and an entire sub-genre of films.
I’ve also got to say, any horror story loses about a dozen credibility points with me when the bad guy’s motivation is just “he’s insane.” It’s fine if you just want to slash up some nubile teens out by the lake, but if you’re trying to elevate the rest of your film above that sort of thing, you can’t keep falling back on “he’s insane” as the rationale for why everything happens. It’s never clear why Quaid decides to stop taking his medication, why he wants to push the fear study to such extremes, or what he hopes to accomplish by doing so. There’s a brief mention near the end that his own bad dreams have been lessening since he started doing this, but it seems more like an unexpected by-product rather than a planned goal. He just does it all because...well, he’s insane.
It’s worth mentioning that DiBlasi has added a subplot, which never quite jibes with the rest of the film. It just runs alongside the main story and tries to look like it belongs there. Stephen’s friend and would-be lover, Abby (Laura Donnelly), has a huge birthmark covering a third of her face and body. She bares her emotional scars to him, but when he rejects her for Cheryl, Abby ends up taking solace with Quaid. Quaid, being the well-balanced fellow that he is, amuses himself with her in a number of ways before humiliating her in front of the entire campus. This leaves Abby so devastated she decides to...well, she decides to do something irrational and drastic. Let’s leave it at that. Her story is the most heart-wrenching part of the film, but sad to say, you could cut out every frame of Abby and it wouldn’t affect the rest of the movie at all. It’s just something to bulk up the script and give the audience another creepy scene near the end -- one that doesn’t really match up with anything else.
Which is kind of the real problem here. Like Abby’s subplot, the first hour of Dread feels like filler, only there to pass time until Quaid finally goes over the edge. By that point, though, we’ve seen him balancing on the edge for so long that his going over isn’t surprising. It doesn’t feel like character development, just an inevitable, vaguely explained insanity we all saw coming less than 10 minutes into the movie. The bad stuff that happens is bad, yes, but it’s been telegraphed for so long it doesn’t have the impact it could. And it doesn’t help that these moments are plain old torture porn, which, as I mentioned above, has had its own subgenre for almost a decade now. Dread, ironically, never develops into fear and horror. Like most of the 8 Films to Die For, the Dread DVD includes a pile of self-promotional previews. There’s also a passable behind-the-scenes featurette, which gives a little bit more than the standard electronic press kit. And actor Jackson Rathbone eats a maggot just to gross out the cast and crew. So, that’s fun.
Three deleted scenes don’t offer much, so it’s easy to see why they got snipped in editing. Two of them are just more foreshadowing that Quaid is losing it, and the film really didn’t need any more of that. The other is a bit more to the Abby storyline, except it actually makes her final fate seem even more irrational.
The last of the special features has Barker discussing the story and the film with DiBlasi, where the writer/director makes the interesting comment that Barker writes “great third acts.” This may come as a surprise to anyone who thought Barker wrote complete stories, but it does explain why so much of the adaptation feels like it only exists to get to that material. Both men also note that this is one of Barker’s extremely rare stories that has no supernatural elements in it. The story’s completely grounded in the real world, which feeds into the problems mentioned above. The real world has moved on considerably since Barker first wrote this tale.
Dread isn’t a horrible movie, but I can’t really recommend it for much. The first two thirds are slow and kind of purposeless. Other movies have done the torture aspect better, and several of them have better-motivated antagonists. The most interesting character is closed off in an unconnected subplot. For a movie about studying fear, it just doesn’t feel like much thought was put into it.
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