Dread / The Final / The Graves / Hidden / Kill Theory
Lake Mungo / The Reeds / Zombies of Mass Destruction
RUNNING TIME: 108 min
- FACING THE FEAR: BEHIND THE SCENES ON DREAD
A CONVERSATION WITH CLIVE BARKER AND DIRECTOR ANTHONY DIBLASI
A Clive Barker adaptation that doesn’t feature a pale dude with pins in his head or Vinnie Jones wrecking people with a hammer
Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Evans, Hanne Steen, Laura Donnelly. Written and Directed by Anthony DiBlasi
A strange yet charismatic philosophy student named Quaid convinces film students Stephen and Cheryl to help him create a documentary about fear. For Stephen and Cheryl it’s just an interesting topic for their final project, but for Quaid it’s much more personal – it stems from his obsession with the murder of his parents at the hands of an axe-wielding maniac, which he witnessed as a boy. Quaid seeks a deeper understanding of fear so that he can face it and find catharsis, and as his obsession spirals out of control his new colleagues are forced to face their own personal demons and eventually the dangers of Quaid’s madness.
My friend Mr. Plinkett wanted me to ask you, what’s wrong with your faaaaaaace?
What do you fear more than anything else in the world? That’s the basic, superficial starting point for Dread. The primal horror of being forced to face your deepest fears. There’s plenty of horror that deals with this topic, but luckily Barker and DeBasi are interested in digging a little deeper and exploring ideas like why we fear what we do, how those fears define us, and if/how/why we should face with them. It’s very much about the psychological and emotional scars people carry, and it mines that territory for horror that runs deeper than jump scares and “just for the sake of it” bloodshed (not that I’m against meaningless gore). The tone and themes are almost Cronenbergian, although the film is far less concerned with linking those ideas to the physical. That’s not to say Dread is as good as Cronenberg, but it aspirations are admirable.
Jackson Rathbone may be top billed, but Shaun Evans’ Quaid is the driving force of the film. He’s an interesting character but could easily have been one-dimensional and come off simply as a weird asshole in the first half and a psychopath in the second. The character certainly walks a fine line, but the script and performance generally keep things just on the nuanced and realistic side of it. He’s weird, but convincingly charismatic, so you can buy people being drawn to him, and he has a few key moments of down to earth humanity, so it’s conceivable that they’d actually like him too. The movie keeps you guessing when his behavior towards others is sincere and when it’s manipulation, but wisely never strays into silly Svengali/Rasputin territory. Quaid’s backstory, and some vulnerable moments that follow from it, further humanize him – they’re mostly private moments, not really affecting how other characters see him, but it’s important for the audience, especially as the film goes on and he descends into madness and takes the “fear study” to greater and greater extremes. He could easily have turned into a more cookie-cutter villain at that point, but instead it feels well earned and consistent. The film does a good job establishing him as a genuinely damaged person and on some level you can understand why he does what he does, even if his motivations are ultimately totally demented and selfish.
On the other hand, Quaid is occasionally saddled with dialogue that sounds like it must have come straight from Barker’s original text; it’s interesting and disturbing and probably worked well on the page but sounds unnatural coming out of a real person’s mouth, even a strange, damaged one like Quaid. Some of that is the script and some is the performance, which is mostly good but feels a little too mannered during the more out there moments. But again the film never completely loses balance, always keeping the borderline purple dialogue in check.
It’s remarkable how well the movie understands its audience
Quaid’s backstory and the deep psychological scars it has left on him are established in the first half of the film through a series of flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations. Not only do these scenes flesh out the character, they also provide the scares in the early running. One scene in which he experiences disturbing hallucinations at a strip club is particularly effective at creating an atmosphere of surreal dread. I wish there had been more scenes like this throughout the film – in the second half the horror is less stylized and comes mostly from the extremes to which these emotionally damaged characters are pushed, and while it’s leagues better than your average generic torture porn, the early dreams and hallucinations hinted at an approach rooted more in creating a nightmarish atmosphere, and the second half would have been even more effective if it had kept pushing in this direction as well the gritty torture angle.
The film is not quite as successful at giving protagonist Stephen depth. Like every character in the film he has a traumatic backstory, and he gets into a love triangle that generates some dramatic tension, but there isn’t the same sense of real inner workings you get from Quaid. Part of this is probably intentional, because he’s the audience identification character and therefore needs to be a bit of a blank slate, but he could stand to be a more engaging presence at least, which comes down to the merely adequate performance as much as or more than the script. One thing they get right about him though is that he has to seem like a somewhat malleable person, the type who you can believe would be taken in by Quaid’s odd charm, but not so much that he’s totally spineless or passive. Even with the aforementioned qualities it’s not unbelievable when he’s pushed far enough to take action.
Unfortunately the two main female characters are even more underdeveloped, almost entirely reduced to being defined by their traumatic backgrounds. In fact they both end up feeling more like plot devices than actual people, in both cases allowing the film to create disturbing set pieces and motivate Stephen and Quaid to act. Their stories are just emotionally engaging enough to make you feel sad and horrified by what happens to them but it would be considerably more so if they were more developed beyond those backstories.
“So then KStew looks at Robby and she’s all like…”
“I’m sorry, you’re going to have to repeat all that. I couldn’t hear you over the sound of you having hair like an asshole”
“WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOUR FACE?”
It may seem like I have a lot of complaints, but the movie works well for me overall, and it’s largely because of its restrained, subtle approach. Restrained and subtle are very relative terms when the movie in question contains brutal axe murders, disturbing hallucinations, and torture, but when you consider how easily the concept could have been turned into a bad gimmicky slasher flick or awful torture porn you realize how refreshing the end product is. I kept waiting for it to go off the rails into that more generic territory, but it escalates without sacrificing subtlety and consistency for cheap shocks. I suspect this is its literary origin showing through; I haven’t read the original story but the movie’s tone, feel, themes, etc. fit right in with the other Barker stuff I’ve read. I don’t know how much the movie is changed or watered down from the original story, but I’m willing to bet the former isn’t to the story’s detriment and the latter is very little. When you consider the general ratio of good to bad horror literature adaptations, that’s pretty good. This might not be one of the best Clive Barker adaptations, but it’s definitely one of the good ones.
Of course, that does make you wonder if my positive reaction is at least partially due to lowered expectations, and I can’t definitively confirm or deny that. Maybe the film wouldn’t hold up to repeat viewings. But does it need to? I’m sure of this much: Dread is good enough that I have no qualms recommending it to my fellow horror films.
There’s a boilerplate promotional style behind the scenes featurette that doesn’t really tell you anything interesting about the making of the film. Then there are three deleted scenes, which are mildly interesting subtractions but not earth-shattering. The highlight is unquestionably an interview with Clive Barker and Anthony DiBlasi. Their mutual like and respect is evident and the laid back conversation provides some cool analysis of the film and story and insight into how they personally connect with it. And I found it very interesting to hear about Barker’s inspirations for the original story. Not exactly a wealth of good features but at least one is a cut above the usual fare.