There was such potential in Clive Barker's attempts to have his short story collection Books of Blood adapted to film every year. His production company, Midnight Picture Show, had plans to adapt two stories every year to film. Dread is the third and last Books of Blood story adapted to date. It is inspired by one of Barker's most disturbing tales and does not fail to deliver the scares onscreen.
Stephen is a film student stuck on an idea for his thesis. His new friend, Quaid, suggests a study into people's greatest fears. Stephen recruits Cheryl to edit the documentary and the trio begin interviewing people about fear. Quaid isn't satisfied with the direction of the project and puts Stephen and Cheryl on camera to discuss their childhood trauma and resulting phobias. Then the interview subjects begin to disappear and Quaid's behavior really becomes threatening.
The crux of Dread is Quaid's obsession with conquering fear. When confessions aren't enough, Quaid starts to push Stephen to confront his fear of death caused by the car crash that kills his brother; this fails, too, and things get dangerous. Quaid is nowhere near stable and begins forcing the documentary subjects to confront their worst fears after kidnapping them.
Writer/director Anthony DiBlasi turns a very graphic story into a satisfying piece of slow burn horror. The experiments take a long time to get started, allowing the horror to hinge on Quaid's shifting behavior and the power struggle over the direction of the project.
It has the unintended side effect of making the more extreme experiments seem vindictive. Quaid is not a caring enough character to do anything out of spite. The alterations to the source story are necessary to play on film, but they turn some harrowing moments from the story into tawdry exploitation. Shocks are turned into cruel jokes and they never quite settle into a cohesive world of terror.
Still, this adaptation of Dread is quite clever. The first act is layered with beautiful production design that hints at some of the unsettling content to come. Fans of Amanda Palmer and The Dresden Dolls, for example, will pick up on some subtle foreshadowing about Stephen's fate based on the constant presence of key albums and promotional art framing his face.
Nicole Balzarini's paintings have to be singled out for praise. Part of Quaid's therapy for himself is painting nude portraits of women he hires to join him for a sitting. Balzarini's style is just off-enough to suggest Quaid's rapid descent in the latter half of the film. The twist with the paintings in the final act is all the more disturbing for the high quality brushwork and color sense from the artist.
Dread is an interesting little experiment in horror. It's a meta-text on fear that takes a literal story about phobias and focuses on the horror of the creation of fear on literal and psychological levels. The experiments can never be as scary as the concepts at play in the film.
Dread is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.