Author: Anthony DiBlasi
Writer’s Potential: 5
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STEPHEN GRACE, 22, sleeps on the bench of a train platform. A wristwatch alarm wakes him, and after a moment the train arrives. Stephen arrives at his job, at a college campus bookstore. He feeds a caged, wounded crow called Poe and greets co-worker ABBY, 22, who has a large “port-wine birthmark” on her face, neck, and most likely a portion of her body covered by clothing. CHERYL FROMM, 22, arrives at the register with a book. Like Stephen, she’s a film student. She’s also interested in Poe. That night, Stephen and Abby lock up the store. Stephen has a night class to get to, an ethics class he finds dull — except for one pretty girl. During a break, Stephen smokes a cigarette in an alley. QUAID, somewhat older, smokes a joint in the alley. He strikes up a conversation about philosophy with Stephen, then it moves on to film, then the relation between the two topics. Quaid encourages him to ask out the girl. After class, Stephen approaches, but he chickens out. Quaid chastises him but suggests they have a beer. Stephen doesn’t want to, but Quaid convinces him.
At the pub, they continue their cinema/philosophy discussion, but Quaid notices Stephen isn’t enthusiastic about drinking his beer. He tries to figure out the reason, and Stephen finally admits it’s because his brother was killed in a drunk-driving incident. Stephen’s watch alarm goes off “for the tenth time tonight,” and Quaid accuses Stephen of being afraid to live. Stephen tries to change the subject to Quaid, who makes a bland sex joke instead of opening up. Quaid takes Stephen to his house, a nice place in the suburbs. He finds the key under the mat and lets them in. While he fixes himself a drink, Quaid tells Stephen to go upstairs and grab a DVD from his room. Stephen goes upstairs, opens the bedroom door — and finds a married couple, sound asleep. Downstairs, the front door slams, waking the WIFE. She sees Stephen and screams, waking up her HUSBAND. Stephen, in silent terror, runs away.
Stephen chases Quaid down the street. When he catches up, Quaid tells him it was both a joke and a psychological experiment — creating long-term fear in both Stephen and the Husband and Wife, who will no longer sleep soundly. Stephen’s horrified. The next day, at the bookstore, Quaid shows up pretending to be a cop. Stephen isn’t amused. Quaid loans him some DVDs and tells him to come by his real place that night. He compliments Abby on her birthmark, which unsettles her. That night, Stephen shows up at Quaid’s, a dilapidated tenement in a bad neighborhood. Quaid’s painting a nude model, SHAUNA, and Stephen’s impressed by the artwork. Quaid claims it’s just a hobby, and he destroys them all after finishing. Quaid dismisses Shauna, then mentions an idea for Stephen’s thesis film. He wants to do a study of fear, a la Kinsey’s study of sex. Stephen can take advantage of Quaid’s obsession by filming it. Stephen isn’t sure, but Quaid convinces him. They celebrate the decision by going to a rock club, where Quaid picks up two girls — SAMANTHA and the girl from their ethics class, ZOOEY.
They all get drunk and go back to Quaid’s place. Stephen awakens from a passed-out state to find Quaid going down on Zooey. He’s jealous, but Samantha starts pawing Stephen, so he gets over it. The next day, Stephen visits Cheryl, who is editing a film. He invites her to join the dread project because she was struggling with a thesis topic. She agrees. Meanwhile, Quaid sets out rows of prescription pills, swallows each one. Stephen posts ads and flyers for the fear study. Cheryl prints up dorky t-shirts. They set up an editing bay in Quaid’s basement. Then they begin interviewing people — everyone describes fairly generic fears. Stephen’s watch alarm breaks it up, and he and Cheryl go out to dinner. They flirt playfully, with Cheryl insulting her choice of salad while Cheryl mocks his sloppy burger and says she hates meat.
When they get back to Quaid’s, he complains that the interview subjects aren’t good enough. Their fears are too dull. When Stephen and Cheryl disagree, Quaid gets angry and smashes Stephen’s ever-chirping watch. To defuse the situation, Cheryl sits down in the interview chair to express her biggest fear. She’s horrified, disgusted — and, yes, afraid of all meat products because her father used to work at a meat-packing plant, and he sexually abused her, so the stench of the meat now fills her with fear. Stephen and Quaid are both shocked and impressed by her confession. Cheryl tries to get Quaid to talk about his fears, but he freezes up. Stephen starts joking around to lighten the mood. Quaid decides that all their interviews need to be like Cheryl — they need to post better ads and lose the t-shirts. Stephen agrees. Later that night, Quaid opens his medicine cabinet and begins dumping his pills down the drain. Stephen stays the night, and he asks about Quaid’s parents. He said they died when he was very young, and now he lives off the insurance money. He won’t say anymore.
That night, he has a wild dream. It takes place in his current house, but his parents are there, and so is the Axe-Man. Quaid runs into Stephen’s room and begins screaming — then he wakes up, safe in his own bedroom. Stephen heard Quaid screaming in his sleep, comes to investigate. Quaid admits that his parents were killed right in front of him when he was six-years-old. He makes Stephen promise not to tell anyone.
At work, Stephen’s acting weird. He confesses to Abby that he’s weirded out by Quaid, and he mentions the incident scaring the Husband and Wife. Abby mentions her house had a break-in once — nobody was hurt, but her mother never slept well afterward. Guilty, Stephen writes an anonymous note to apologize and explain the prank. When he arrives at the suburban home, he finds it empty, with a “For Sale” sign on the front lawn. He goes to Quaid’s house and finds he’s bought an exact replica of the Mustang Stephen’s brother died in. He’s also found a good interview subject — JOSHUA SHAW, a student who got hit by a car and was temporarily deafened for three years. He lives in constant terror that the deafness may come back.
Quaid, Stephen, and Cheryl celebrate their first legitimate, high-quality subject. Quaid gives each of them keys to his house. Quaid goes to a strip club to ask Shauna to model for him again. She says she’s busy and suggest VALERIE; Quaid’s unimpressed. Walking out, Quaid hallucinates that he sees the Axe-Man, watches him kill Valerie and rip out her breast implants. Disturbed, he shakes off the hallucination. At the bookstore, Abby volunteers to take part in the fear study. After class, Cheryl gives Stephen a new watch — indestructible and with a less irritating alarm. Later, Stephen goes to Abby’s dorm room, to interview her alone. She confesses her embarrassment about the birthmark and the fear that she’ll continue to be exposed for her imperfections. She strips down to show Stephen how much of her body is occupied by this birthmark, then makes sexual advances. Stephen rebuffs her, and Abby makes him leave.
Stephen convinces Quaid to go to Abby’s room and get the equipment he left behind. Quaid doesn’t understand why Stephen didn’t sleep with her; he doesn’t like Stephen’s interest in Cheryl, and they get into an argument about whether or not this fear study is more than just a school project. Quaid’s a little hurt that Stephen doesn’t think more of it, but he agrees to get everything from Abby and destroy the tape of her interview. Stephen says he’s taking the Mustang, which surprises Quaid.
Stephen gets Poe from the bookstore, then picks up Cheryl. Quaid picks up the equipment and flirts with Abby. Quaid having raucous sex with Abby is intercut with Stephen and Cheryl freeing the recuperated Poe in the woods. Quaid has a nightmare that the Axe-Man kills Abby at the height of their passion. This makes Quaid decide to become an interview subject for Stephen and Cheryl. He doesn’t say anything revealing — just a lot of strange, disturbing patter. The group waits for the final interview subject, TABITHA, who wears a leather choker and tells the story of being diagnosed with agoraphobia, then facing the death of her mother, not doing a thing about it for three weeks because she couldn’t leave the house, then trying to commit suicide by slitting her own throat. Quaid accuses her of lying and gets violent, knocking her to the ground, ripping off her choker, and yanking off her latex scar. Tabitha’s humiliated, but Stephen and Cheryl are angered. In retaliation, Quaid destroys the camera, and the editing computer with all the footage.
Angry, Cheryl storms out. She finds a DVD Quaid slipped into her backpack — it’s an endless loop of Abby stripping and kissing Stephen, without the part where he turns her down. Some time later, Stephen finds Cheryl, who has cut off all communication. He thinks she’s mad at him about what Quaid did, but she mentions the Abby footage. Stephen denies anything happened, but Cheryl’s livid. Stephen talks to his professor, wanting to get some kind of extension, but to his surprise, a completed thesis film was turned in. Quaid pulls up in the Mustang as Stephen walks home, wanting to apologize. Reluctantly, Stephen gets in the car — and Quaid blasts off, drinking whiskey and speeding, terrifying Stephen. He slams on the brakes just short of a brick wall, and Stephen gets out, shouting obscenities, leaving a drunk Quaid to drive himself home. Meanwhile, Cheryl goes to Quaid’s basement to pick up the wreckage of the computer. His tarped paintings catch her attention, and she uncovers them — finds every single one a painting of a beautiful woman brutally murdered. Quaid appears behind her, wants to know what she’s doing. He tells her she can help him take their project to the next level.
For their last day at work, Stephen and Abby get drunk. She confesses sleeping with Quaid, then afterward, they discover footage of Abby disrobing for Quaid is being played on every single television on campus. She’s mortified, so she gets hammered and then tries to scrub off her birthmark with steel wool. Meanwhile, Quaid invites Joshua Shaw back — then beats him down, ties him up, and tries to simulate Josh’s feared deafness. He decides simply muffling his hearing won’t work, so he pulls off the soundproofing material, holds a gun next to his ears, and fires.
Stephen manages to find the bloodied Abby and calls an ambulance. At the hospital, crazed and deaf Joshua sees Stephen pass his room. He follows Stephen. Stephen notices a fire axe on the wall, pulls it out of its glass case. Joshua follows Stephen back to Quaid’s. Stephen tries to inflict terror on Quaid with the axe — he’s in a murderous rage, but at some point, he realizes what he’s doing and sets the axe down. Quaid holds his gun on him, then knocks Stephen out with it. Stephen wakes up tied to a chair in an upstairs bedroom, and Quaid plays footage of his torturing Cheryl for nearly a week, keeping her trapped in the basement with nothing to eat but a big chunk of meat. She gets crazier and crazier, and the meat gets more and more rotten, but finally she relents and eats the disgusting, maggoty, rotten meat.
Quaid hears a crash downstairs. He thinks Stephen’s brought someone with, so he goes up to investigate. Stephen struggles until he gets to Quaid’s palette knife and cuts himself free. With the knife, he goes upstairs to track down Quaid, while Quaid searches for the mystery visitor. Stephen finds Quaid, but in the darkness Quaid can’t see him. Suddenly, there’s a screech of audio as the projector returns to life. Quaid sees the Axe-Man leap out of a door and jam the axe into Stephen. In reality, it’s Joshua with the axe. Quaid starts shooting at his hallucinated Axe-Man, killing Joshua. In voiceover, Quaid explains that he was able to face his biggest fears in this way. Quaid pulls the body of Stephen down into the basement, where Cheryl is still trapped. He leaves her with the body and the pocket-knife and speculates on how long it’ll take her to get hungry enough to eat the mangled corpse. Cheryl screams, and Quaid slams the door.
Whatever nice things the writer does with the characters, Quaid is fairly bland as the demented villain. It’s obvious he’s the boy from the first scene, it’s obvious his obsession with fear stems from this trauma, and it’s obvious that he’ll take everything too far. The story goes wild in the third act, but most of the first and second acts feel like little more than prolonging the inevitable. Endless, pretentious pontifications on philosophy and fear pad out most scenes. It doesn’t create suspense, since audiences know exactly what’s going to happen; it will mostly make them want to check their watches, and the constant references to Stephen’s watch don’t exactly help that. With Quaid acting as a mystery man who isn’t a mystery, his descent into madness and mayhem should start much earlier.
Despite the unsubtle trajectory of Quaid’s “arc,” the story does have some moments of unpredictability, especially the ending, but overall it’s a disappointment. Nothing happens that hasn’t been seen before, and the writer doesn’t put any unique or interesting spins on these old favorites. Even the ending, while shocking, pulls its punches: the red-herring of tortured Joshua turning into the axe-wielding maniac keeps both Stephen and Quaid from seeming like outright murderers. In the case of Quaid, why does it matter? Even if it was Stephen with the axe instead of Joshua, it would be an act of self-defense, but besides that, he’s the villain. Turning him into a more cold-blooded murderer wouldn’t ruin audiences’ good times. Stephen’s already come after him with an axe once, but he managed to control his anger. Why wouldn’t seeing Cheryl get tortured make him fly off the handle? Wouldn’t Quaid’s treatment of her qualify as justifiable homicide? The irony of Quaid having to face his deepest fear as a direct result of his fear-torturing is diminished by the fact that it’s Joshua, not Stephen, who administers Quaid’s torture. The ending would be made doubly ironic by the recurring theme that Stephen is too afraid to really go after what he wants, especially when it comes to women. Now, he’s finally putting fear aside, and Quaid kills him for his trouble. Joshua doesn’t add anything to this struggle; in fact, he takes away from it.
Dread is a decent, if predictable, horror story that could be great with a few tweaks like this.
I don’t know if horror fans still line up to see anything with the “Clive Barker” name on it, but the upcoming Hellraiser remake might renew interest in his brand of horror; if successful, it would increase the potential audience for Dread exponentially. Even if it isn’t, horror fans may find this alluring because of its surface similarities to Hostel- and Saw-esque “torture porn” movies.
Posted by D. B. Bates on October 4, 2008 1:29 PM