After years of residing strictly within the pages of Clive Barker's novels and short stories, some of the modern master's finest horror tales are slithering their way to the big screen. Last year we got the surprisingly effective adaptation of The Midnight Meat Train, and the current festival circuit offers another pair of Barker tales: John Harrison's Book of Blood is due for release later this year, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Video, whereas Anthony DiBlasi's Dread is still courting distributors. Based on the enthusiastic Fantasia Fest screening I experienced last night, the home video horror fans will also have a good time with DiBlasi's adaptation.
Refreshing in that it's a horror film about young people that's NOT also facile, flat, and shallow, Dread is about three college students who kick-start a research project about ... fear. What scares us, how we deal with it, how we overcome those primal fears, and all that jittery jazz. At first the project seems both fascinating and fairly productive, but (of course) things start to get a bit dangerous once the interviewers become obsessed with their own closeted skeletons. But here's where a cynical horror fan would expect the tale to become a bunch of he said/she said who's-betraying-who sort of body count flick. Fortunately that is not the case, as Dread takes its time in setting up its premise, and then seems to have a darn good time doling out the jolts and the creepier concepts at a very effective clip.
A strong cast helps a lot, and that's certainly the case here. Twilight star Jackson Rathbone makes for a surprisingly empathetic lead character, as his Stephen Grace is both smart and sensitive, but also lonely and alienated. Newcomer Hanne Steen offers some spark and personality to a character who could easily come off as generically "sweet," and young British character actor Shaun Evans presents a magnetic antagonist, a charming guy who clearly has a few loose screws ... but is no less charismatic for it. The central trio is really quite excellent, particularly when all three are onscreen together, but the thief who runs away with most of the film is Irish newcomer Laura Donnelly, who plays a sweet girl with a gigantic birthmark down the right side of her body. This is a dicey role, since it's probably pretty easy to make a "smeared" woman come off as shamelessly pathetic, but the actress (and DiBlasi's screenplay) approach the character with both confidence and heartbreaking vulnerability.
Best of all (and here's where I repeat myself), Dread is a horror flick with some interesting ideas about horror, and (better yet!) it's a horror film about college students who actually look and act like college students! Smart and multi-dimensional young adults who, sure, make some pretty stupid mistakes, but at least they're not thinly-drawn catalog models whining about that creepy stalker who keeps sending us threatening text messages! (Ohh, scary!) Ardent fans of the source material will most likely take exception with the numerous diversions from Clive Barker's source material, but I for one enjoyed the new directions. Plus, it's a fairly linear short story, so DiBlasi earns points for coming up with "new stuff" that complements Barker's tale while also fleshing the story out for the feature film treatment.
Backed by an effective score, a deliberate pace that's never boring, four strong performances, and a handful of well-crafted shocks, Dread is a clever balancing act between basic scares, a creepy concept, and something a little more (dare I say) cerebral. Recent word indicates that DiBlasi is about to get started on a film version of Clive Barker's novel The Great and Secret Show, and Dread makes me think the guy can pull it off.