A beastly unsettling adaptation of a Clive Barker short story by writer/director Anthony DiBlasi, Dread doesn’t require supernatural elements—other than bad dreams—to really make us squirm in our seats. Sure, Barker’s psycho-sexual hot potatoes (blood, sex, domination, and cruelly testing one’s limits) are in play, but it’s a character-driven nightmare first and foremost, as a student film about mapping out the territory of fear runs amok and lives are annihilated in the process.

Film student and Johnny Deppleganger Stephen Grace (Jackson Rathbone) meets Quaid (Shaun Evans), a charismatic loner, who wastes no time in reeling his new pal into exploring the roots and boundaries of real fear, and soon a student film project is born. With the help of Cheryl (Hanne Steen), a fellow film studies major, the young auteurs interview a range of students about their earliest and most profound memories of fear. Quaid, who seems to be majoring in villainy with a minor in degradation, believes their project lacks juice, so he takes it upon himself to “take things to the next level.” By the way, never trust anyone who uses this expression.

Dread succeeds on the strength of its well-drawn characters, particularly in the homo-erotic jousting between the curious, but virtuous, Stephen, and the increasingly deranged and manipulative Quaid, a fellow who was obviously, in the words of the most articulate sociopath in the world, Dexter Morgan, “born of blood.” DiBlasi takes his time, slow-cooking the horror till it’s falling off the bone. And in Quaid we have a charming sadist with his own terrifying baggage, who actually believes he’s helping people “confront the beast” by tormenting them with the things they fear the most, in the hope that they be destroyed and born anew, as fearless warriors. Needless to say, his victims don’t appreciate the effort. There’s gratitude for you.

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