Tim Pratt
SF and Fantasy Writer

WhiskeyHorror: Dread

A somewhat belated WhiskeyHorror report, as I was too busy to write about it: last week we drank sazeracs, and watched Dread, the 2009 adaptation of one of Clive Barker’s more memorable stories from The Books of Blood.

The film has something of a slow start, and is almost mumblecore as it begins, with its pretty-people-in-messy-clothes staring at distant objects and muttering at each other about philosophy and fear and “the beast.” (Which is not a literal beast, but, uh, something to do with fear.) About five minutes in I said, “So, we’ll give it ten more minutes and see if it gets good?”

And it got… better, at least!

The film keeps the story’s basic premise: college student Quaid is obsessed with fear, co-opts a weaker-willed student named Stephen into helping him study fear, and then goes way over the line, confronting people with their extreme fears in life-destroying and traumatic ways.

The bits with young Quaid being menaced by an axe-wielding lunatic genuinely troubled me (again, I have the “parent of a first-grader” weakness when it comes to horror movies), and there were several actually-horrific moments. (As opposed to many horror movies, which are atmospheric, or startling, but not actually horrifying — there was a lot of horror here.) I was afraid it would go into Saw territory, with increasingly elaborate and improbable “fear traps,” but it stayed quite plausible, limited to the kind of stuff a charismatic weirdo like Quaid could actually organize in his own house.

The film was mostly best when it followed the contours of the original story: the strict vegetarian locked in a room for days with nothing to eat but a raw steak, until she’s entirely broken psychologically and calmly devours the rotten thing, remains the most striking image from the story and the film both. (The deadpan line about letting her out afterward and cooking her some potatoes, lifted direct from the story, was good too.)

In contrast to the usual tendency of films to combine characters from prose fiction, this one splits up some characters, weirdly stealing the climactic moment away from the accomplice-turned-enemy Stephen and giving it to an exceedingly minor character instead — and it’s not like they gave Stephen anything better to do, so it was a weird choice.

The ending diverges wildly from the story, and while I kind of liked the final moment (which was super gross entirely by implication, with no onscreen gross-out required) even if it was logistically a bit flawed, it’s more disturbing to me because the ending of the film seems to validate Quaid’s insane theories about dealing with fear. Which is also pretty horrific, now that I think about it, so. True horror movie!

It’s always fun to see actors from big movies appear in tiny horror movies, and Katrina recognized Stephen from his role as a vampire in one of the Twilight movies (where he presumably had much cleaner hair).

If you had to pick between the story and the movie, I’d say, read the story, but fortunately life is seldom so viciously binary: if you like genuinely tense and disturbing moments and evil bromance amid gross stuff, it’s worth a look. Among the second-tier Clive Barker-inspired movies I’d place it below Midnight Meat Train but above Rawhead Rex. (The first tier, of course, includes the first Hellraiser movie and Candyman, with Lord of Illusions somewhere down at the bottom of the tier, while the king of the second tier is Nightbreed. This is known.)

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