I Shouldn’t Like You, But I Do: Why Dread Works
Have you seen Anthony DiBlasi’s 2009 film Dread? Part of After Dark’s 8 Films to Die For, it stars Jackson Rathbone (Evil Harpo to you Riff Trax fans), Shaun Evans (Endeavour) and Laura Donnelly (Outlander). If you haven’t, you need to boogie on over to Amazon and rent it for $3.99. Seriously, I’ll wait. We need to talk about this one.
|This is much better than you’d think.|
Back? Good. If you didn’t make the jump, then please be prepared for spoilers. (I know, I know, this is an analysis blog and spoilers are par for the course with me, but this one is special. I respect it enough to warn you. That doesn’t always happen.)
Let me preface this by saying that Clive Barker is sacred to me. I cut my teeth on The Thief of Always and then moved on to The Books of Blood right around the time I hit 13. I prefer his works to those of Stephen King – Barker has always managed to up the scary and imaginative ante for me, and he explores far darker recesses of the human psyche, most often touching on the association between pleasure and pain. So when one of his books or short stories is made into a film, I often pray that it’s not going to get fucked up. There are some stinkers out there. And I am the first to admit that I was concerned this would be one of them.
Initially, the film sounds pretty solid: Stephen (Rathbone) and Quaid (Evans) team up to document the nature of fear by interviewing subjects, though Quaid has darker motives. In the short story, Quaid forces an unnamed vegetarian woman to eat spoiled meat, then turns his methods on Stephen. Stephen suffered from a bought of childhood deafness, and dreaded the thought of returning to a state that left him feeling isolated and robbed of his senses; once Quaid induces this state via sensory deprivation, he causes a complete psychological break that turns Stephen into an unhinged, child-like being. The kicker: after making Stephen relive his fear, Quaid’s own worst fear of being attacked by a murderous clown (based off of an actual event wherein a man dressed as a clown killed his parents in childhood) is realized when Stephen – dressed in oversized clothes and sporting an unnatural, unwavering smile – shows up and butchers him with an axe. More than enough material there for a movie, and no reason why it shouldn’t have been able to adapted. At no point in that description does anything unfilmable show up. This isn’t V.A.L.I.S., people.
So when I watched it, I could feel my teeth gritting. DiBlasi (who wrote it as well) added a backstory for Stephen that included a fear of driving due to a brother that died in a D.U.I. wreck. He named Barker’s previously-unnamed vegetarian woman Cheryl (Hanne Steen) and made her into a love interest for Stephen. He also added a fellow student named Abby (Donnelly), an outcast with port wine birthmarks all over her body. To top it off, he gave the deafness storyline to a brand-new character named Joshua (Jonathan Readwin) – at first, I was more than a smidgen annoyed by this, as there was no reason why Stephen’s storyline needed to be reworked. I was confused and angry, because nothing in the story needed to be redone. It was fine the way it was. By the time we got to Joshua killing Stephen and the reveal that Quaid had plans for Cheryl to cannibalize Stephen’s corpse for survival, I was pissed. I wanted to hate it, and for two weeks, I was pissed on principle. However, two weeks went by, and I could still hear Evans saying, “Let’s see how hungry you have to be to get through that.” Something about that line stuck with me. It was under my skin. And that’s when I realized that if I was still thinking about it after two weeks, maybe DiBlasi was onto something. Instead of trying to hate it, I decided that I needed to figure out why I didn’t.
|Oh, so under my skin…|
The answer stems from the piece’s moving parts. DiBlasi’s plot deviations were devout to fleshing out the backstory so that we saw people, not just characters. He may have deviated, but you can tell that he put some thought into making a fluid story; thus, the changes to the plot weren’t some half-assed attempt to make it more marketable, but actually a bit more terrifying than its written counterpart. This would have been for nought with a poor group of actors, but they all brought it. Rathbone is fun for me to watch – he’s an effective crier when he’s given material that has depth (unrelated sidenote: why is he not doing more comedy? Dude is fucking funny.). His casting as Stephen was perfect because he brought a wide-eyed need to explore and help where he could. I think it worked well with this character. While I’m being honest, I was also hoping when I first saw it that he was going to get the chance to go completely bug fuck and kill Quaid – he’s got the perfect teeth for the job. Crazy teeth are an artform, and few and far between. Despite the deviation from the source material plot-wise, he was a great Stephen because he came off as wounded yet wanting to do something that mattered, and that’s a place that many of us hit in our own lives. We also got a depth with Cheryl that we didn’t get in the short story, from the romantic interest to the backstory. If you’ve watched Steen’s semi-detached performance of a woman recalling her molestation and complete revulsion at its association with meat, you’ll know that it’s effective. It’s also worth noting that we didn’t get any hot sex scenes with Cheryl and Stephen – just a chance to watch two people start dating, which I have to applaud because, so often in mainstream horror, the emphasis is on the boobs and the blood. It made the story that much more real in how it allowed its leads to progress without fully sealing the deal; sometimes, you get to date someone you really like, and sex doesn’t come immediately. That made them more real for me, so that the other parts could be more effective. Also effective was Readwin’s Joshua screaming for his mother when the gun was fired by his ear – that is fucking uncomfortable to watch. When you see a young man screaming for his mother like that, and the camera refuses to look away, it’s intense. There’s getting grossed out, and then there’s shifting in your seat because you don’t want to think about what it would take to get you to that point; DiBlasi managed to make me afraid because I felt like I was watching someone at his breaking point, which is both ugly and terrifying to watch if you’ve ever witnessed someone having a complete breakdown. And then we have Donnelly’s Abby, whose arc and performance broke my heart. Her shyness and rejection were palpable, then factoring in her achingly cruel public humiliation and self-mutilation… yeah, I could see where it was going, but I still watched because I wanted better for her, even if it was just someone taking revenge in her name. I cared about her, and that’s equal parts DiBlasi and Donnelly. Those two brought about an uncomfortable truth to explore in the horror genre: sometimes, terrible things happen to good people, whether it’s a birthmark that renders them invisible/undatable to others or a physical/psychological trauma, and there is no vengeance, nor karma – there is only further pain and injury to that person. We don’t like it, but it’s a fact of life; the world is an unkind place that needs a lot of fixing, and that’s a cold truth that drives many to either try to help or shut their eyes in denial. That we got so attached to and then let down on multiple levels for these characters – Abby in particular – speaks to a story that cared enough about an imaginary person to make us angry. That it got that reaction from me speaks to artistry.
|God I want to cry for this character.|
Therein laid the rub for me: in the end, this film didn’t give us a catharsis. We saw an asshole get away with it, and continue to torment someone without learning a damn thing. Whereas the short story gave us a sense of irony and closure, DiBlasi and his cast gave us a dark, overcast tale (and kudos to the lighting department for that) in which no one really learned anything. Stephen and Joshua died; Abby was left to recover in a hospital with further physical ailment than she had before; Cheryl was reduced to a starving prisoner with a corpse as a potential meal; Quaid was still searching for the nature of fear, seemingly untouchable. Barker’s short gave us closure; DiBlasi gave us human pain and suffering. I think DiBlasi nailed it in this respect: in chasing the nature of fear, there are no winners, only varying degrees of suffering – a point that Barker makes clear in his works. This film for me therefore represents the right way to adapt something: make it your own, but enough of a think piece to connect it to the source material. And for that, I’m going to slow clap from the cheap seats.