"Dread" is part of the '8 Films to Die For'/'Horror After Dark' festival that Lionsgate has been doing for four years in a row now, where the studio picks up a series of low-budget horror movies and give them brief theatrical distribution around Halloween time.
From my experience, most of these films are rather awful and are designed to ride whatever trend is going on in the horror scene that year. The trailers for the 'Horror After Dark' movies annoyingly load at the start of every '8 Films' DVD and do their damnedest to make each film look indistinguishable from one another and resemble the latest "Saw" or "Hostel."
But I wanted to give "Dread" a chance since it's based on a short story by Clive Barker that I've always enjoyed. In my more impressionable years, I went through a phase where I read almost nothing but horror literature: mostly Stephen King, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Poppy Z. Brite, and Thomas Ligotti. There's something about the horror genre that seems particularly suited to short fiction, so Barker was always one of my favorites for his "Books of Blood" collection of short stories as well as the novella "The Hellbound Heart," which served as the basis for "Hellraiser."
When translated to the screen, Barker has been pretty hit or mess; while I love "Hellraiser" and "Lord of Illusions," and have a soft spot for "Nightbreed" (which could have been great if it wasn't butchered by the studio), most of the other attempts at translating his work to the big screen have been a failure. If the filmmakers don't understand Barker's work or bother to maintain its integrity, you usually end up with a unruly mishmash of magic, excessive gore, and S&M puked up on screen.
"Hey guys, is this the audition room for 'Twilight'?
Oh God, wait, I'm in a Clive Barker movie?!"
We've seen it happen most recently with "Midnight Meat Train," which had the misfortune of being the first English-language film from Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura ("Versus," "Godzilla: Final War") - a director who is incredibly stylish, yet would not be my first choice at all to tell the story of what happens under the bowels of New York City at night. That movie's ridiculous climatic scene reduced itself to a schizophrenically-edited brawl between two super-powered aliens, seemingly because that was the only thing Kitamura knew to do.
Thankfully, "Dread" fares much better. It sticks fairly close to its source material, while at the same time taking some liberties to expand it to a 90 minute running time. What's nice is that, while it sometimes does trade in the imagery that is associated with "torture porn," for the most part "Dread" steers clear of horror movie cliche.
The plot is refreshingly unique for the genre, telling the story of two college students. Jackson Rathbone plays Stephen, the intelligent and sensitive Film major (so sue me if I felt like I could relate to the character), who winds up crossing paths with another student named Quaid in a philosophy class. Qauid is, well, psychotic, basically: manipulative, controlling, violent, and obsessed with the concept of fear.
"I want to scare you...to death."
Not unlike the character of Jonathan Crane AKA the Scarecrow from the Batman comic books, Quaid wants to know what happens to the human mind when it's pushed beyond the boundaries of fear…when you come face to face with the thing that terrifies you the most, that chills you to the very core of your being and that you spend most of your waking hours trying not to think about - do you snap? Or do you become stronger, something more than you were before?
Stephen follows Quaid down this slippery slope, incorporating their study and fascination with fear into a multimedia project to serve as Stephen's Film studies thesis. Since this is a horror movie, I'm sure you can imagine that what can go wrong does go wrong and not everybody makes it out of this little exercise in terror alive. For the most part, it's compelling stuff.
It's not hard to look brooding with lighting like this
Jackson Rathbone is great. I'm sure it'll be a long time before he's taken seriously as an actor, if he ever is, simply because he's got a small role in the "Twilight" series. But I thought he was perfectly suited to this role. He plays Stephen as a good friend and a nice guy, and he has really amazing, gravity-defying hair that I'm jealous of.
Sure, Jackson might falter as an actor when he's called to bring on the heavy stuff - like a scene where he's strapped to a chair and supposed to be summoning the considerable anger his character has built up over the course of the film. But he's in almost every scene of the movie and carries it with aplomb, which is no small feat.
That hair! How does he get such wonderful hair?
Shaun Evans as Quaid, I feel, was miscast. Evans is a good actor and he's got the "psychotic" part of Quaid down, but he forgot the "charismatic" part. Realistically, nobody would keep this guy as a friend. There's nothing likable about the guy other than the fact that he's really, REALLY intense and even then that's not something most folks would put up with for a long time.
There's a scene where Quaid completely destroys all of Jackson's filmmaking equipment, then shows up later to apologize while driving the very same model car that Jackson's brother died in - which he had bought earlier in the film to get Jackson to "test the limits of his fear." At that point, I doubt anyone would stick around to live in Quaid's demented world but since we still have 40 minutes of the movie to go, that's exactly what happens. I also feel that with a more appropriate actor, the homoerotic tension between Stephen and Quaid could have been explored a bit further.
There's a scene earlier on where Quaid visits a strip club. I can't tell if this sequence is entirely gratuitous or actually inventive, but Quaid ends up hallucinating while watching some dancers. I think this part is only included to incorporate your usual Clive Barker "flesh mutilation" moment, as Quaid envisions a dancer's body being inflicted by axe wounds right before his eyes.
Unfortunately, Shaun Evans' facial expressions are so exaggerated and ridiculous - not to mention the poofy pompadour that he inexplicably has only for this scene - that the whole proceeding becomes laughable.
"Oh my God, my parents would kill me if they knew I was at a strip club!"
See, kids? Too much tanning is bad for your skin
Actress Laura Donnelly, who has mostly worked in British television up to this point, turns in a remarkably well-rounded performance as a college girl with a rather noticeable birthmark, something her character has struggled with all her life.
Donnelly really imbues her role with a lot more heart and reality than one would typically expect in a horror movie, let alone one distributed by Lionsgate. She makes the most of her limited screentime and I get the feeling most viewers will find her character to be one of the more memorable parts of the movie. This is definitely an actress to watch.
Laura Donnelly: the horror genre could use more actresses as talented as her
The soundtrack is worth mentioning as well. Whoever chose the song selection for "Dread" definitely has their finger on the pulse of contemporary alternative music. It was a refreshing change of pace to hear bands like M83, Silversun Pickups, and especially The Veils on a movie soundtrack. These are talented, genuinely "alternative" artists and, even better, their songs are used appropriately and memorably throughout the film.
Jackson Rathbone grows reflective while listening to the intense sounds
of M83 and The Veils
With "Dread," we have a well-acted and contempently filmed horror movie, albeit with a few missteps along the way, that does an adequate job of bringing Clive Barker's work to life. That might sound like faint praise but considering how beleaguered with bad "Saw" and Eli Roth imitators we horror fans are these days, I'm more than happy with a horror movie that revolves around dorm rooms and college campuses rather than Eastern European torture chambers.
Jackson Rathbone handily steps out of the looming shadow of "Twilight" and proves that he's able to carry a film on his own terms and Clive Barker doesn't have to live with the baggage of another "Midnight Meat Train"-style catastrophe. The ending of "Dread" might not be that satisfactory for many viewers (the Netflix reviews attest to that), but it ends exactly the way a short horror story would. And since when the credits rolled I felt exactly as though I'd just watched a short story translated to film, "Dread" is earning 3 stars from me.