A young student, Steve, becomes acquainted with an older student named
Quaid, a sociopath who is obsessed with fear. Quaid performs experiments on
people to see the results of forcing them to face their deepest fears. Steve
gets involved ever deeper.
Dread is based on a short story by Clive Barker, but it's an odd adaptation.
For about the first third of the film it is almost completely faithful to the
tone and content of its source. It establishes the same central premise
described above, and uses the same two central characters, while elaborating
on the original only to the extent necessary to create a feature-length film
from a sketchy little story. Then, somewhere toward the middle of the film,
the screenwriters decided that Barker didn't make the optimal use of his
characters and his basic idea, so it spins the story off in a radically
different, but equally horrifying direction.
There's a problem with that. Oh, the new concept is creepy enough, and there's no problem with changing the source.
After all, Poe's and Lovecraft's stories have formed the bases for plenty of movies which
are only tangentially related to the original material, so there's no reason
to expect different treatment for Barker, who is the Poe or Lovecraft of his
own time. The problem resulted because the people making the changes failed to
take into account that there's more to a good horror story than just the
horrifying events. There can be, for example, a sense that the end of the
story is somehow appropriate to the beginning. Barker had thought that though
quite well. Quaid experiments on Steven, which drives Steven insane. Steven's
ultimately and ironically forces Quaid to come face to face with his own
fears, with extremely unpleasant consequences. Or is that what he had really
wanted all along, at least on a subconscious level?
The movie goes in a completely different direction. Quaid remains in complete
control throughout, and continues to torture people with their own fears until
the bitter end, with the levels of depravity in his experiments continuing to
escalate. In fact, the film ends with Quaid having been established as a
potential horror icon, suitable for sequels and action figures. In other
words, the film takes a thoughtful horror tale, kind of a Rod Serling story
updated for this era which has apotheosized sadism and torture, and turns
it into a completely run-of-the-mill and trendy horror film which could be a
Saw sequel with only some minor adaptations.
That's problem one. Problem two is that the film telegraphs its resolution to
the audience in an extremely obvious manner, but doesn't allow its characters
to see what is so patently clear to us. It should be completely obvious to the
other characters in the film that Quaid is deeply disturbed and dangerous, yet
they continue to associate with him and forgive him, as if his major displays
of psychopathic behavior had been merely harmless examples of social faux pas,
or perhaps manifestations of the marvelous diversity of the human race wherein
friends forgive one another's petty eccentricities. If you or I had seen the
extreme behavior that
they saw, we would have ended the friendship or any other contact with Quaid.
We might even have sought a restraining order if he continued to attempt to
contact us. The other characters in the story just seem to chalk Quaid's bursts of malevolence
up to typical student hijinks, although perhaps a bit darker than the usual
adolescent outbursts because of Quaid's troubled childhood. That isn't
believable in context, and is just sloppy screenwriting.
And I guess you could say that it was also arrogant screenwriting, since the
filmmakers had already decided to change what Barker had created, although the way Barker
wrote it was perfectly fine to begin with! Oddly enough, the same thing
happened with the first Candyman film, which was also based on a Barker story.
While that earlier film had many positives, it also had gaping plot holes
which were not present in Barker's original story, but were created because the
screenwriters tinkered with some details of the story without taking into
account how their alterations would affect all the other details.
Although the Dread film does not succeed in terms of gripping storytelling or
credible characterization, it does have some positives: grotesquely
imaginative set pieces, a consistently ominous tone, and a few sequences with
some genuine dramatic tension. Director Anthony DiBlasi did a significantly
better job than screenwriter Anthony DiBlasi, so much so that I found myself
impressed with the atmosphere created by the film, although I never really
liked it or got into it. If your tastes are darker than mine, you may well
find it worth a watch.