‘I want your soul to open up for me, spread-eagled like a split beaver so I can gaze into its secrets …’
In Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, ‘Dread’ is the odd one out – a non-supernatural suspense story with a philosophical bent; all these years on, it seems like a seed moment for the torture porn genre and so it’s apt that Anthony DiBlasi’s film version fits perfectly into the zeitgeist of the grungier, meaner side of contemporary horror.
Lank-haired film student Stephen Grace (Jackson Rathbone) falls in with confident, obviously psycho loiterer Quaid (Shaun Evans) and they embark on a documentary project which involves interviewing folks about their greatest fears. Stephen has a hangup about an older brother who died in a drunk driving crash, but Quaid trumps this with flashbacks to his own childhood trauma as an axe-wielding madman killed his parents in front of him. Also around are Cheryl (Hanne Steen), an editor who was abused by her butcher father and has become a strict vegetarian, and Abby (Laura Donnelly), a bright girl with a crush on Stephen who has a disfiguring black birthmark on her face (and, as it turns out, a third of her body) and feels she’ll never be accepted. A problem with the story is that Quaid is so plainly bad news it’s hard to see why anyone would trust him enough to open up, and Evans plays him as more annoying than charismatic – it’s no surprise when he takes to tormenting the subjects, purportedly for their own good (‘face the beast’) but actually out of pure sadism.
The torments aren’t as clever as the Saw traps, but they are memorably cruel – editing a tape of Abby failing to seduce Stephen into mocking footage of a portrait being defaced and broadcasting it to ‘every television on campus’, whereupon she gets in a bath with wire wool and bleach and tries to scrub away her marks; shooting the ears off Joshua (Jonathan Readwin) who fears a recurrence of the deafness that plagued him as a child; locking up Cheryl with only a large steak to eat, filming her over many days until she is driven to eat the maggoty meat; and confronting Stephen with all he has done in the aid of their class project. It closes with a creeparound in Quaid’s dark house, with the vengeance-seeking Joshua accidentally killing Stephen, who has shown up with an axe to pay Quaid back with his own worst nightmare, and Quaid dumping the corpse in Abby’s cell with ‘wonder how hungry you’ll have to be to get through all that meat’.
It’s perhaps beside the point to say that Quaid’s philosophy is hypocritical and nonsensical, since he’s the villain of the movie – but Barker would have made him more than just a detestable monster who gives fundamentally nice folks an unjustfiable hard time. It has a grungy, grimy look which is effectively queasy. When it gets horrid, it is upsetting – as if that were much of an achievement these days.