Friday, September 14, 2012

Dread (Film Review)

Obviously a film about happy
Dread is one of those films that haunts you after you finish watching. Based on the short story by Clive Barker, the film itself adds enough elements so that it is its own beast, while retaining much of the flavor and sadistic concepts that made the short story interesting.

The film opens with the antagonist, Quaid (played wonderfully by Shaun Evans ), staring into the camera, revealing his intentions. “I want your soul to open up for me,” he says, almost non-chalant. However, in his voice is the slight twist of someone who is sincere in his wish, and you get a sense that this character would indeed go out of his way to see even this abstract concept (seeing someone's 'soul') into fruition.

And come to fruition it does.

The film takes a group of students on a search for fear. The study itself is rather vague in its premise-- which is, simply, to record the fears and terrors and to... come to some conclusion about them. The second part is skirted, and there is some talk of it being a 'cure' or some form of therapy, but all this is coming from the antagonist, who, we quickly see painted in pretty vivid colours, is quite emotionally unstable.

What caught my eye about this film is how much it works not by spectacle-- don't let any reviews that talk about this as being a “gorey” movie fool you, there isn't a terrible lot of spectacle-- but by its story. The concepts it brings to the table are much more frightening than anything actually shown, because they make a twisted logical sense to them. This inherently limits the film's potential audience; one simply has to participate in the implications involved in order for the titular emotion to really press through the cracks.

But should one follow along, paying attention to where the film is going thematically as much as visually, it is an interesting ride.

I'm a huge fan of subtlety, and that is this film's greatest strength. There are moments that I thought worked perfectly because of small things, like a character's open-mouthed fear suddenly changing to firm resolve as he carefully closes his mouth. Or, in a more interesting moment, a character's pupil slowly changing, opening up as we watch, in fear and in understanding.

Although I mention that the movie is not a gore-fest, it does support some strong visuals. Where there is carnage, it is done well, realistically enough for what it portrays. Rarely over-the-top, except for in one scene, which, to be fair, is a dream-sequence.

When in doubt, axe it out.
The performances are all strong, but in a way that many people might not appreciate. The two main characters, Quaid and Stephen (the latter played by Jackson Rathbone ) both play students hungry for knowledge rather well. Stephen's character is the loner academic, seduced by Quaid's more chaotic chemistry. The film could be argued to be a love story between these two, although it never is explicit in this regard, but intellectually, it is very much the case that the two are drawn together. Stephen lives vicariously through Quaid, and thus a performance that many people see as “rigid” by Rathbone, I argue actually suits the character perfectly-- he isn't a dangerous or even social beast until he interacts with Quaid, whose non-chalant indifference to everything except the results of his study paint Quaid as a sort of mad scientist, although with a slow, meticulous gaze.

The only weak performance I felt was in the fraudulent participant of their study-- about halfway through the movie, Quaid and Stephen record a woman claiming to have suffered from severe agoraphobia, to the point where she relied completely on her mother for her care. Quaid is immediately disgusted by her, and though we don't immediately see why, he finally (and viciously) confronts her about the validity of her claims.

The lady who plays the agoraphobic suffered from “emotional means loud” syndrome that plagues a lot of amateur actors, and you'll know what I mean when you see her explosive response to Quaid's allegations. It was a quick moment-- she is only a very small role-- but threatened to shatter the suspension of disbelief.

I'd still do her...
However, the rest of the film acts so subtly that this small blemish can easily be overlooked. Speaking of blemishes, I should also mention one of my all-time favourite characters in a long time, the character of Abby, played rather well by Laura Donnelly . She plays a lady suffering from a birth-mark that covers almost literally half her body, including blackening half her face. Although the actress is, even through her makeup, more than a little good looking, she plays the self-conscious girl well, and it is hard not to feel sympathetic to her character. The only thing threatening belief is, as stated, the fact that even under the mounds of makeup it must have taken to paint her birth-mark, she is still very fetching, but again, the film's strengths are in its implications, and one can easily believe that even a beautiful girl would feel self-conscious with such a large birth-mark.

And, without spoiling too much, her reaction to Quaid's cruelty when it comes to this blemish honestly sent chills down my spine.

Again, the film is not perfect-- it does require the audience to actively participate in the concepts intellectually. For example, there is nothing frightening about a bottle of javex, but in the film, seeing it in the context it is put is more than a little disturbing.

For those unable to sympathize or even empathize with the characters, I must admit, the film would be utterly boring, as this is inherently necessary to experience what the story, and the filmmakers, want you to feel.

That being said, I actively participated in the 'study' being put to film; I actually find the concept of studying fear fascinating, and probably quite fruitful intellectually, so I probably enjoyed the characters more because of this. But with this connection, the film was very adept at being chilling.

It must be noted that there were a few changes made to the source material, most notably characters added. However, having read the story prior to watching the film, I can attest that any additions were carefully drawn out and not merely placed gratuitously (which is more than I can say about the nudity, which always suits the story but sometimes seems a little forced, but I digress). By the end, even those familiar with the story will feel that everything fits together and ties well-- not in the 'happy ending' sort of tie together, but in the way everything has its purpose, everything pushes forward to the end no matter how inconsequential it may seem at first.

I'd still do-- egahhh ok maybe not...
This is a highly intelligent film that plays with source material that is already filled with disturbing concepts, and these same concepts are brought out quite well. I also strongly enjoyed the film's sound-scape, which, again, was a subtle but intimidating set of drones and creaks.

Great cinematography, suitable acting-- with one minor exception-- chilling ideas, and bone-crushing sound-scape make for a 90%. I have to dock the film for being a very niched film-- not a lot of people will relate to the academia inherent in the film, and this would probably have turned me off if I wasn't such a nerd to begin with, but for those in its circle, it is a wonderfully chilling, nihilistic joy-ride.

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