Fantasia 2019: ‘Dreadout’ Squanders Early Tension in a Flash
Despite a nicely mysterious opening, Dreadout winds up as another in a long line of unsuccessful attempts to translate unintelligible video game horror plots to the big screen. Though at times the sincere effort is admirable and the results goofily entertaining, the whole production ultimately comes across as half-baked and lacking in creative spark. Unsure of what it wants to do or where it wants to go, the script often just shuffles back and forth between sparse scenarios (much like its characters do), repeating dialogue and recycling ideas. In a genre where not continuously moving usually results in grisly death, this stagnation saps any tension out of the proceedings, leaving the film to stand on a convoluted premise and uninspired execution that can’t sustain it.
Loosely based on the video game of the same name, Dreadout follows a group of wannabe live streamers in Indonesia as they attempt to document a night in a notoriously haunted apartment complex in order to gain social media followers. When they accidentally pull an Evil Dead by reading the glowing orange text from some ancient manuscripts, a watery portal to some kind of demon jungle world is opened. Once inside, the friends are besieged by raggedy zombies rising from the grave, and stalked by a mysterious Woman in Red who delights in possession and opening her mouth really wide. For some reason she seems to be hunting for an ancient, ritualistic knife, and for some reason, the kids have it. Along the way there are hints about an opaque cult, an unexplained kidnapping, and vague special powers — but those looking for answers will likely be disappointed.
For as convoluted and deep as the lore its based on probably is, Dreadout actually explains very little of what is going on, instead preferring to focus on manufacturing repetitive scenes of terror involving screaming teenagers and a heroically charged cell phone flash. Is there some myth behind the Woman in Red? Why does that serpentine knife glow? How do phone cameras see things that eyes can’t? Is anyone after anything for any specific reason? It feels like even the filmmakers don’t know the answers, and so choose to ignore plot points altogether. Meanwhile, what few conclusions are reached happen without any process (if they happen at all), depriving audiences of their own understanding. Maybe these people have more experience with whirlpool portals to another dimension than they’re letting on, but if so, it would be nice if they shared. Anyway, when the context for all this running around and screaming starts to get murky, the action becomes meaningless, resulting in the predictably narrow escapes losing their potency.
And so Dreadout is forced to hang its hat purely on filmmaking. Unfortunately, that the script falls into rhythmic routine doesn’t help. Go through the portal, lose friends, call for friends, get attacked by demon lady, suddenly remember that phone camera flash hurts monsters, find friend, go back through portal, repeat process back in our world, then do the whole thing again. There are times when the situation feels like an otherworldly Groundhog Day, though instead of reliving time these characters are simply (and stupidly) repeating tactics. It’s understandable that the filmmakers didn’t want to get bogged down in lengthy exposition, but it also feels like they didn’t get much inspiration from the source material; outside a couple of nifty setpieces (one in a foggy graveyard and another at a spooky temple), much of the action feels like rote padding.
A lot of the fault in this comes down to a reference to the video game’s flashbulb mechanic. For some reason the demons are badly hurt by this particular bright light, and it is used multiple times as a deus ex machina to get characters out of trouble. The big question this brings up, however, is why they aren’t using it all the time instead of only reserving it for last-minute escapes. Instead of playing with the idea — such as referencing a draining battery or using refraction — the flashbulb trick is simply used again and again as a contrived get-out-of-jail card. Creative getaways are part of the fun of horror movies, showcasing the cleverness of the protagonists, and so this recycling often feels lazy.
That’s not to say that Dreadout is entirely soulless, however. Everyone seems to be trying their best, from the occasional experimentation with camera angles (even if doesn’t always work) to some overly enthusiastic performances (even if they’re cardboard characters), and interesting settings hold the potential for creeps (even if they don’t usually take advantage). The sheer passion on display (even if it’s not backed by creativity) can at times certainly elicit a smile, especially during effects shots that offer glimpses of how bonkers this really could have been with a different script. All in all there is a real sense of effort in trying to make this stuff exciting, and if one can ignore some of the more bland elements, that energy alone might be infectious enough to hold the attention of some genre lovers. The rest should look elsewhere for their fun frights.
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.