Sunday, October 12, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #12: DREAD (2009)

The Story: A pair of college students--one introverted and innocent, the other flamboyant and sadistic--undertake a "fear study" in which they record their peers talking about the worst experiences of their lives.  One of the two guys (you can probably guess which one) takes the study too far, forcing the subjects to endure their worst fears.

Expectations: I remember in the late-90s thinking it was nearly impossible to make a genuinely scary movie... one that would truly terrify audiences.  In that post-SCREAM era, most popular (American) horror movies were so tongue-in-cheek self-conscious that you could watch them all with a feeling of ironic detachment and safety.  I was in college at the time, and I didn't want to feel safe while watching horror movies.  I wanted a more aggressive breed of horror film, so I dreamed up an experiment.  It would involve a test screening of a secret horror movie... a movie specifically tailored to the fears of a pre-selected audience.  Perhaps the movie would even feature footage of the audience members, although they would not know in advance that they had been filmed.  In the third act, the horrors would literally come off the screen into the theater.  That was, I thought at the time, the only way to convince contemporary horror audiences that it's NOT "just a movie."  It was an artless and utterly impractical solution to an old problem... but maybe not such a bad idea for a horror story.

Of course, Clive Barker had already beaten me to the punch in the mid-80s with his short story "Dread."  As a horror fan, you have to love Barker because he is ruthlessly determined to get under people's skin.  He doesn't just want to tell you a creepy bedtime story.  He wants to fuck you up... and he succeeds in very smart ways.  The man is a true artist and a bit of a genius, which means that his brand of horror frequently goes beyond our intellectual assumptions and our imagination.  His best stories are cerebral and visceral, erudite and primitive.  Of course, it's hard to translate that delicate balance to film without seeming pretentious and/or gross.

Reaction: DREAD doesn't achieve a perfect balance.  Sometimes it's too talky.  Sometimes it leans too heavily on the gross-out.  Sometimes the storytelling comes across as too smug.  But it is consistently interesting and increasingly provocative.  What lies behind the story, and what motivates each significant character, is a desire to escape the debilitating effects of fear and emerge into a life that is more vital as a result.  For horror fans, who are drawn to the genre for the same reason, that's a worthwhile pursuit. 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: Vegetarians will have a very hard time with this one.  You've been warned.

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