Fantasia 2009 – ‘Dread’
Directed by Anthony DiBlasi
Clive Barker has a less than sterling record when it comes to having compelling films made from his novels and short stories, and Anthony DiBlasi’s Dread, despite some appealing performances and at least one sequence of pin-drop anxiety, isn’t able to buck the trend. Ultimately, a series of questionable screenplay and directorial decisions sink both the film’s credibility and its possible effectiveness as a genuinely disturbing piece.
The film opens as film-school student Stephen (an appealing Jackson Rathbone) is approached by Quaid (Shaun Evans), a zealous colleague who wants to use Stephen’s need for a thesis project as the jump-off point for a filmic study of people’s innermost fears. Also floating around the periphery are Cheryl, Stephen’s squeeze and partner on the project, and Abby, Stephen’s amorous co-worker, who bears a striking and socially debilitating birthmark. As they interview more and more subjects, however, Stephen becomes privvy both to Quaid’s personal history with fear – his parents were gorily murdered in front of him by an axe-wielding thug when he was a small boy – and to his increasingly aggressive methodology.
For a film that spends a huge part of its running time dealing with the psychological rather than the physical, Dread has the unfortunate distinction of having the psychological depth of a bag of rocks. For much of that first segment, we are meant to derive sympathy from Quaid’s tormented flashbacks and stock signifiers of Deep Emotional Pain (listening to crappy alt-rock in the basement of his dingy house, painting chesty nudes as a “hobby,” being an insufferable dick), but DiBlasi’s screenplay makes obvious far too soon that Quaid is a deranged, dangerous sociopath, a realization that takes his protagonists far, far longer to reach than it should. It doesn’t help that we spend an inordinate amount of time with Quaid as he espouses his sub-Tyler Durden philosophies with all the conviction of a petulant kid. Flashbacks or no flashbacks, Quaid is a supremely annoying figure, rather than a scary one, and that’s a crucial miscalculation that cripples the film. It doesn’t help that we gravitate towards Rathbone’s Stephen, a good-natured character who may have been meant to be less interesting than presented, but is an audience’s natural focal point thanks to Rathbone’s inherent likability. (It also doesn’t help that Quaid’s project reminds this writer of the central thesis from William Shatner’s laughably awful Star Trek V.)
That’s all too bad, because when the climax finally hits (through a series of thoroughly preposterous coincidences), DiBlasi proves himself to be a fine director of horrific sequences; it’s an extended scene involving three armed figures traipsing about a dark house, with each of them only looking for one of the other two. It’s a tense, effective sequence that makes one yearn for Di Blasi to take on a more efficient screenplay. Unfortunately, the film eventually winds up in torture-porn hell, in a series of scenes most reminiscent of the abortive French flick Martyrs, rather than a balls-out manhunt, which would have played to the director’s strengths. Is it disturbing? Certainly, and for that I suppose DiBlasi (and by extension, Barker) have done their jobs, but it’s a cheap resolution to a story whose particulars never add up to anything compelling.