Review by Paul McMahon- The Distracted Critic
“There is no delight the equal of dread. As long as it’s someone else’s.” –Clive Barker, from his novella DREAD
DREAD was one of the films in the 2010 After Dark Horror Fest. Since I found no entries for an ADHF 5, I imagine this outlet for independent horror has washed up. It’s a shame. In their four festivals, they did promote a fair amount of crap, but their selections were peppered with filmmakers trying new things and attempting to be different. Since this isn’t a review of After Dark‘s successes and failures, let’s get right to the movie in question.
DREAD opens on a tall, ivy-league college building. A professor’s monotone is dubbed over, droning about philosophy. Inside the classroom, we focus on Stephen, who’s obviously not into this lecture at all. The next frame, Stephen is outside the building, smoking hard. A shadowy figure a few feet away bums a cigarette and asks him what he’s doing in the class. Stephen grins and says it fulfills requirements for his film major. The stranger’s name is Quaid, and he insists that philosophy is crap unless you flirt with the only worthwhile subject—the things we fear.
“I lead a pretty dull life,” Stephen says. “Fear doesn’t cross my path very often.”
They go for drinks and Quaid proposes a thesis interviewing students about their fears, the things they dread. Before long, Stephen is telling Quaid about losing his brother in a drunk driving accident—an accident Stephen very easily could’ve been in the car for. We don’t know why, but we feel uncomfortable with Quaid having this information.
Next, we see Quaid alone in a big empty house. He opens a medicine cabinet full of prescription bottles and slips into a flashback. A young Quaid is at home with his parents late at night. A stranger appears on the steps and kills Quaid’s father with an axe. As the child watches, his mother is murdered as well. The killer starts up the stairs, clumping the head of the axe against each stair riser as he ascends. The man holds the bloody blade in front of young Quaid and tells him: “This is your mother… your father….” before the axe swings.
Stephen invites a classmate, his would-be girlfriend Cheryl, to participate in the study, and at first it seems they’re getting good stuff. People are forthcoming about why they fear the things they do. Some of them even describe childhood traumas and how those events formed fears they suffered from for the rest of their lives. Quaid, however, is not at all happy with the material they’re getting. One night after a particularly long session, we see him slip into his bathroom and methodically pour his meds down the sink.
Soon after, Quaid attacks a woman they’re interviewing, accusing her of making her stories up. She confesses and says she thought appearing in their thesis tape would look good in her portfolio. When things finally settle down, Quaid tells Stephen and Cheryl: “I want us to take our study to the next level.”
When Stephen insists they’re done and they have only to edit the film, Quaid reacts badly. It’s obvious that Quaid is going to go ahead with whatever experiment he’s been planning, with or without their help.
A short time later, Cheryl disappears….
Using a title like DREAD makes a very bold promise to the viewer. It says: “Before this movie is over, you will feel your nerves frost over, you will draw breath as if a python is squeezing your chest, you will feel the whisper of death brush the hairs along the rim of your ear.” The title gives you permission to ignore the film if the cold grip of fear is not your thing. Indeed, many of those who seek out horror films will have a moment’s hesitation before selecting this movie. Such is the power of the concept of dread.
The movie is based on a novella of the same name written by Clive Barker, easily one of the best horror writers out there. It’s an exceptional work of terror that makes good on the promise of that simple five-word title. Frankly, I was surprised that Clive Barker’s name wasn’t featured more prominently on the advertising, but so it goes.
Writer/ director Anthony DeBlasi (CASSADAGA, 2011) does not take the title’s promise lightly. It’s a tricky thing to translate the written word to the screen, even more tricky if the source material is literary and philosophical in nature, which Barker’s most assuredly is. DeBlasi makes a lot of right decisions here. He manages to keep some of the literary feel of the story. Maybe a little too much, as the stakes in the first hour of the film don’t amount to all that much and therefore aren’t as compelling as they could be. Still, he gets more right than he gets wrong.
Jackson Rathbone (who played Jasper Hale in the TWILIGHT series from 2008-2012) plays Stephen Grace. He seems a little out of his depth, but mostly hits his stride emotionally with a very challenging role. The rest of the cast is far more recognizable to British audiences. Shaun Evans (CASHBACK, 2006 and WRECKERS, 2011) plays Quaid with an intensity that is apparent even when he has no lines. Hanne Steen (IDEAL, TV series, 2011) plays Cheryl and does a fair job keeping balance between Stephen and Quaid, keeping her own secrets from both of them.
The clear standout in this film is Laura Donnelly (MISSING, TV series, 2012, and THE FALL, TV series, 2012). She plays Abby, a close friend and co-worker of Stephen’s who has a very intense crush on him. Revealing this is a huge risk for her character, since a Port-Wine Birthmark shadows half of her face and stretches all the way along her body to her right ankle. Laura makes it impossible for us not to feel for Abby as the movie progresses.
The end result is an unusual horror movie that looks different than much of the work out there today. Though it starts out slowly, the intensity picks up as we roll along. It may not be a perfect film, but it’s definitely one you won’t regret—or soon forget.
I give DREAD two and a half stars, with two timeouts.
© Copyright 2012 by Paul McMahon