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Fantastic Fest Review: Clive Barker’s Dread

By  · Published on September 30th, 2009

Anthony DiBlasi’s Clive Barker’s Dread has a fascinating premise: it centers on a group of college students who engage in a project on fear, interviewing subjects who delve into their very worst fears in great detail and with transparent emotional vulnerability. The film, however, spends very little time on its central premise, focusing more on the changing relationships between the characters as the story progresses. This would be fine, however, if Dread contained a full cast of compelling characters. Unfortunately, the film tries to sustain itself on the weight of its weakest aspect.

Based on one of Barker’s short stories, “Dread” (which has gone by either the single-name title or as titled with Barker’s ownership) concerns loner film student Stephen Grace (Jackson Rathbone) convinced by eccentric philosophy student Quaid (Shaun Evans), who is obsessed with the topic of fear and its causes, to engage in the previously mentioned project with Stephen’s collaborator Cheryl (Hanne Steen). Besides a few select interviews, the particulars of this project are primarily relegated to montages of excerpted interviews, showing what seems like a lack of confidence in the movie’s central concept. Dread contains a great concept, and I wish they could have used it to its full potential. I would have loved to see some sex, lies, and videotape-style inquiry into the depths of human fears as captured uncut on cheap DV.

That is not to say there aren’t some compelling documents of fear in their project. When they turn the project inward and the filmmakers begin turning the camera on each other and those close to them, these characters reveal some interesting and unexpected dialogues on fear. Perhaps the most captivating character of this film is Abby (Laura Donnelly), Stephen’s coworker who was born with a birthmark covering half her body. Her description of devastating alienation as a result of her appearance, and the damaging lifelong insecurity is caused, makes her the most layered and compelling character of the film.

The film primarily focuses on Stephen’s relationship with Quaid, who is an eccentric, demanding personality whose outspoken (but never well-articulated) personal philosophy overtly motivates his everyday (inter)actions. Quaid seems to fancy himself as a college-kid variation on Tyler Durden, a character whose radical perspective on life compels him to share, embody, and propagate these views to all who surround him, and successfully so through a sheer force of charisma. At least, that’s what Quaid thinks he is. Instead, he comes across as codependent and needy, a toxic friend that latches onto you and continues pushing you, testing to see if you will abandon him and only then apologizing and asking for you to come back. Quaid is clearly portrayed in the movie as delusional, as he is illustrated to have a few interesting demons in his past resulting in years of medication and (probably) therapy, so there’s nothing wrong with this characterization in general, but he simply isn’t compelling enough to convincingly attract the attention and trust of loner Stephen, who is painted as having a noble empathy and being a wise judge of character. A consistent Stephen would have turned his back on Quaid at the first sign of craziness or overt manipulation for his own selfish needs. For a character like Quaid to work as a friend that becomes the movie’s central villain, we need to see the charisma that compels Stephen to want to work with him. Dread simply did not provide a desperate need within Stephen that necessitated a friend like Quaid in his life beyond his simple loner status or need for a thesis topic. Furthermore, the problem of Quaid’s poor characterization is extrapolated by Evans’ performance, which runs on fumes, never being believable or charismatic in his characterization or convicted in his character’s decisions (also, his attempt at an American accent distractingly fails).

This problem is quite unfortunate, as Quaid is positioned as the film’s backbone, and furthermore because he is surrounded by (comparatively) far more interesting and well-developed characters, especially Abby. This is a Clive Barker adaptation, so one should expect an atypical villain, but Quaid is simply too weak, and his personality and motives stretched too thin, to sustain the film.

DiBlasi has a cinematic eye worth taking note of. His visuals are sleek, compelling, and effective, making this literary adaptation truly cinematic. I have no doubt he’ll have higher profile projects in his near future. However, this stylish approach in this case does a disservice to the film’s subject matter, turning what should be a movie about disturbing confessionals captured on gritty, cheap DV tape into something inappropriately resembling a David Fincher music video. This feels like a great opportunity that deserved to be dealt with far more carefully.

On the Upside: Lush visuals, compelling concept.

On the Downside: Weak portrayal of a central character and a distrust of the film’s own subject matter.

On the Side: Many, many of Clive Barker’s other stories are being slated for feature-length adaptations. The scripts have already been written.