While the nature of God, and the possibility of eternal life go undiscussed, we happily chew over the minutiae of misery.
– An excerpt from “Dread,” a short story by Clive Barker
I think I know what Barker was onto here: We’re surrounded and even entertained by the suffering of others, and as such, we use it as a way to understand our own fears. It’s not a very pleasant point, but at the very least, a point is being made. I suspect the film adaptation will be regarded in much the same way, hailed as a horror movie that, under the guise of violence and gore, aims to send a socially relevant message. You’ll forgive me if I don’t see it the same way you do. Has anyone ever stopped to consider the idea that some horror movies aren’t a commentary on anything? And that those pretending to be are genuinely awful? Because writer/director Anthony DiBlasi has deluded himself into believing he was actually making a point, Dread is not merely bad, it’s deplorable.
The story centers on a mysterious college student known only as Quaid (Shaun Evans), who, because of a trauma he experienced as a six-year-old, has an unhealthy fixation on what people dread. He crosses paths with film major Stephan Grace (Jackson Rathbone), and the two join forces for a student project documenting people and what it is they fear most. For Quaid, interviews in front of a camera aren’t enough; he wants to expose the fear itself, to force people into compromising and even dangerous situations and study the results. Maybe “study” is the wrong word – for him, fear is not an indulgence so much as an addiction, like heroin. By the end of the film, he has grown so dependent on it that his actions become downright sadistic.
Not that he had all that far to go. From the moment he’s introduced, it’s obvious that he’s stark raving mad. What I don’t understand is why Stephan didn’t catch onto this much sooner. Wouldn’t you be worried if the line, “If you don’t go out and find the beast, sooner or later the beast will come and find you,” came up in your very first conversation? No? Then how about, “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” You’d think the appropriate response would be, “I don’t know you,” but then again, horror movies operate under a very different set of rules. Stephan, to be sure, is able to answer Quaid’s question. So is Stephan’s classmate, Cheryl Fromm (Hanne Steen), who also finds herself in the film project. Let’s just say that, before long, she’s forced to face her fears, and believe me, it isn’t pretty.
One of the oddest subplots involves Stephan’s friend, Abby (Laura Donnelly), who has a birthmark covering the entire right side of her body. She volunteers to be interviewed for the film, apparently unmindful of the fact that, when your appearance is involved, it’s not a matter of dread but of self esteem. So what possible interest would Quaid have in her? Given his painful past, given the painful pasts of Stephan and Cheryl, given what Quaid hopes to do by exposing that pain, I fail to see how he can make a connection to self conscious behavior.
Inevitable comparisons will be made between Dread and the Saw films, since both are about madmen placing their victims in terrible situations. I’m no fan of Saw or its sequels, but at least I can watch them and understand what motivates John Kramer/Jigsaw. I can’t say the same thing about Quaid – I have no idea why he does what he does. With no rational driving force, with no clear sense of purpose, he comes off as nothing more than a deranged lunatic who seems to enjoy ranting philosophic psychobabble. His actions can’t be justified. His methods can’t be condoned. There’s nothing about this character that can be explained logically. The fact that he’s portrayed as being somehow insightful boggles the mind.
I suspect my animosity will not be shared by others. Many will think Dread is an intelligent, realistic thriller that skillfully examines society’s obsession with fear and suffering. Maybe so, if we’re talking about the original Clive Barker story, which is itself problematic. But there’s no reasonable way to defend the movie. It’s cruel and pretentious, made to seem like it’s saying something when in fact it’s saying nothing at all. There’s no better proof of this than the film’s final scene, intended as a display of Quaid’s madness but delivering as a cheap horror movie gimmick. Nothing had been building to this moment. It doesn’t reveal anything about fear or human nature. When an ending is allowed to go in a direction completely different from the beginning and middle, you don’t have a movie so much as an exercise in pointlessness.