Adaptations of Clive Barker's stories for the screen are not too common, and sometimes not entirely successful. Which is sort of strange when you consider that seemingly everything Stephen King writes get filmed (to mostly bad results), and consider the franchised success of adaptations “Hellraiser” and “Candyman”. Thankfully, he has recently managed to get a series of films going, with himself acting as producer to maintain quality control. We've already had Ryuhei Kitamura's kinetic take on “The Midnight Meat Train”, and announced are versions of “The Thief of Always” and “Tortured Souls: Animae Damnatae”. But just completed in the middle is an adaptation of the short story “Dread” from 'Books of Blood Volume 2', one of the rare Barker tales to not feature monsters or the supernatural, but which instead revolves around a more psychological take on horror.
Stephen (Jackson Rathbone) is a film student who is having difficulty deciding what to do for his thesis project. He is minoring in Psychology, so when one of his fellow psych students Quaid (Shaun Evans) suggests that they make a documentary study of the nature of fear, Stephen agrees and ropes in Cheryl (Hanne Steen) as editor. Together they advertise for participants in their study to be interviewed on camera about their darkest fears, and inevitably the three film-makers finally take their turns in front of the camera too. But someone has ideas for taking the project to the next level, to force the participants to confront their fears by taking them to the very limits of their terror.
Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: “Dread” is not a happy film. This is a dark, moody and intense piece of work which is frequently bleak and nihilistic. It's also not a particularly easy film to actually like, although there is plenty here to admire. This is a proper, grown-up adult horror film which is more concerned with creeping brooding atmosphere than it is with it is with quick flash cuts and sudden noises. Although it ultimately winds up in a protracted sequence of torture, with its considered psychological approach to truly earn its scares, this is almost the anti-“Saw”. And that is a huge reason to recommend it right there.
That brooding atmosphere is wonderfully realised by first-time director Anthony DiBlasi, and this is a hugely promising debut from him. He's aided considerably by the terrific work of cinematographer Sam McCurdy, matching his drop-dead beautiful work on the likes of the two “Descent” films and “Doomsday”. The film is thick and heavy with foreboding atmospherics, meaning that when it does delve into more visceral terrors (such as an axe-wielding flashback complete with groovy axe-cam shot), it's all that much more effective. However, this does lead onto one of the weaknesses of the film. Being based on a short story, there is a bit of padding out going on to stretch it to full feature length, and the first two-thirds of the film do tend to rather drag at times. This is a very wordy film, and I couldn't help but wish that instead of just having people sitting around talking about their fears, the film would hurry up and actually do something. When it finally does in the third act, that's when the film really starts to get interesting and highly discomforting.
The film is generally well-played by its young cast, with Rathbone a likeable Everyman protagonist and Steen particularly effective in the final act. The performances when characters are being interviewed in the film-in-a-film are always strongly compelling. A particular mention must go to Laura Donnelly as Abby, Stephen's co-worker who has a huge birthmark all down the right-hand side of her body. It's a tricky role which could easily have fallen in simple bathos, but Donnelly makes her vulnerable, sympathetic and entirely believable. Interestingly, her character is a new addition from the original story (so I'm told, I'm afraid I've not read it), and yet her character is the most believable and empathetic one here, and she gets the strongest emotional response in the film with a shattering third-act sequence. The other characters by comparison all seemed rather artificial, over-determined constructs who are all built around key childhood traumas, and no matter how good a job the actors do, I found it very difficult to relate to them as actual human beings. It seems like a slightly churlish complaint given how thin so many horror film characters are, but here the characters actually feel a little over-written, slightly over-intellectualised, and could have benefited from being allowed a little looser breathing room.
So it's a flawed film then, but nonetheless a deeply interesting one which is bold, serious-minded and literate. That's sadly an all-too rare set of attributes, and whilst it could have perhaps done with a little of Kitamura's zip, this is still a solid middle-tier Barker film, and a promising debut for DiBlasi, who is already working on directing another Barker adaptation. That really should be one to keep an eye out for.