"There is no delight the equal of dread."
So begins "Dread," the sole story in Clive Barker's Books of Blood that doesn't rely on some kind of visionary supernatural element. It's a story that turns the screws, no doubt, as most of Barker's initial rush of stories do. Barker has been slowly but surely mining The Books of Blood for film in recent years. He's acted as producer for The Midnight Meat Train, Book of Blood, and the subject of today's exploration, Dread (2009, directed by Anthony DiBlasi), which has been released as part of the mostly inconsistent After Dark Horror series.
The story here involves Stephen (Jackson Rathbone), a college film student, and his partner, Cheryl (Hanne Steen), who are enlisted to document a study in human fear. The ringleader of the project, Quaid (Shaun Evans), has a secret agenda that finds the study, and his own psychological stability, becoming more and more unhinged. Eventually, Quaid takes things too far and Stephen wants out. Unfortunately, Quaid has other ideas. Quaid uses the information he gathers both as a weapon and as a way to exorcise his own demons; he ends up tormenting his subjects with their worst fears.
On the face of it, Dread isn't a lot different from, say, the Saw movies. It has some of the same "no exit" aesthetic. Once things get grim in this movie, they don't relent. It pursues its imp of the perverse to the bitter end. The final scene is as downbeat and horrifying as they come. For the most part, the horror here is earned, except for one or two niggling little details. The most prominent of these little details is the notion that either Stephen or Cheryl would ever go near Quaid once his twitchy side emerged, which is fairly early in the film. Hitchcock once noted that unless a psychopathic killer looks "normal," he'll never get close enough to kill anyone. This film doesn't follow that logic. There's a scene, early, where Quaid freaks out and smashes Stephen's watch. Were Stephen any normal person, that would pretty much be all she wrote, the end. Unfortunately, a number of the actions taken by the characters here are required by the plot, and damn the believability. This is an awkwardness of the idiom.
That said, there are a couple of elements of this film that set it dramatically apart from others of its ilk. There's a scene in this film in which Stephen's friend, Abby (Laura Donnelly), a woman covered with a horrifying birthmark, tells him about her fears. She has a crush on Stephen, and at the end of the interview she disrobes to show her the extent of the birthmark and as a way of offering herself to him. By this time, Stephen is already falling for Cheryl, and the way he rebuffs Abby is heartbreaking. Frankly, this is a moment in search of a different kind of film, but in THIS film, the scene turns what might be a run of the mill victim into someone for whom the audience feels a TON of empathy. When her fears are turned on her later in the movie, it's particularly cruel. It turns the screws tighter than they might go had she been, instead, the kind of snotty bourgeoisie tool horror movies normally feed to the meat grinder. I found myself liking Stephen and Cheryl more than I expected, too. All of this is not to be discounted. Certainly, it amplifies the horror of the film's punch line.
This is all filmed with grave seriousness by director Anthony DiBlasi, who douses every shot with some kind of unpleasant high contrast color correction. The look of the film is particularly grotty, in a high gloss sort of way. I sometimes think that David Fincher, who pioneered this look, has a lot to answer for. Be that as it may, the film's set-pieces are well mounted, particularly Quaid's flashback to his parents' murder, and a bravura scene in which he hallucinates that the stripper he's watching at a show bar is being cut up before his very eyes. Cheryl's fear is meat, which reminds her of her father who molested her after coming home night after night from a slaughterhouse. The movie obliges her with a scene with a rotting steak so revolting that it's bound to turn some viewers into vegans. Anthony DiBlasi may have a questionable eye for color, but he certainly knows how to film scenes of horror so that they'll do the most damage. He also paces it right (Quaid's freakouts not withstanding). There's a small taste of horror in the beginning, enough to prime the pump, and then the movie carefully ratchets up the dread. Appropriate, I think, given the source.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 12
First Time Viewings: 12