Brannon Braga taps into Clive Barker’s horror anthology, but the end result fails to live up to its reputation.
Clive Barker burst onto the horror scene with a splash of gore in the mid-1980s when he published anthology series Books of Blood. Unabashedly queer, Barker combined horror and fantasy, violence and sex, and scares and laughs all with reckless abandon, much to the delight of horror fans worldwide. Not only did he write books and stories; he also helped produce, direct, and write the film adaptations to his work. His work spawned also two iconic horror franchises, Hellraiser and Candyman, the first movie of each is often regarded as classics of the genre.
However, it’s been over a decade since Barker’s hellish creations graced the screen. As the opening text lets us know, director Brannon Braga “dares to open those pages again,” with his new movie for Hulu, Books of Blood. Barker produced the film while Braga co-wrote it with Adam Simon, and it updates the stories of the ‘80s for a new millennium.
Books of Blood holds three interconnected spooky tales bookended by a framing device of two men looking for the eponymous Book of Blood to score some quick cash. The first story, “Jenna,” features college dropout Jenna (Britt Robertson) running away from her problems at home. She finds herself at a B&B run by Sam (Nicholas Campbell) and Ellie (Freda Foh Shen), a retired couple who seem eager to give the support Jenna doesn’t feel from her own parents. But after she decides to settle in for a longer stay, Jenna suspects there may be something sinister beneath the couple’s rosy exterior.
The middle episode, “Miles,” focuses on Mary (Anna Friel), a professor who exposes fraud psychics, and her relationship with Simon (Rafi Gavron), a medium who communes with the dead. Simon approaches Mary and tells her he wants to help her connect with her young son who died from leukemia. After meeting and working with Simon, the two begin both a romantic and professional relationship in spite of Simon’s ulterior motives.
The final story, “Bennett,” closes out the framing narrative of Bennett (Yul Vazquez), and his search for the Book of Blood. When Bennett and his partner, Steve (Andy McQueen), go to an abandoned neighborhood to nab the legendary tome, they realize it may not be as simple a task as they thought.
Books of Blood feels more than anything like a made-for-TV movie, or the type of low budget horror movie I used to peruse as a kid at the local video store. The effects, while not awful or laughable, are underwhelming. On the other hand, the opening scene sets up Bennett’s story shadow and camera work following him in a basement library to creepy effect. However, that doesn’t continue through the rest of the movie. The music, however, is generally creepy throughout, and it helps build the atmosphere and tension. Joel Richard and Tyler Bate’s score hinges on eerie electronic music, and while it doesn’t rise to the level of Christopher Young’s Hellraiser work or Philip Glass’ Candyman compositions, Books of Blood sets an appropriately spooky mood.
The primary issue with it, though, is its anthology format. While this is a tried and (sometimes) true trope of the horror genre, the stories feel too disparate. Jenna’s tale takes up the bulk of the movie, Miles’ the majority of the remainder. This gives Bennett’s barely any time, and it feels tacked-on as opposed to a fully formed narrative. Since the stories are connected, it would have made more sense to make it one cohesive plot. While linking the stories into one plot may not have been in line with the source material, it likely would have worked better than the anthology approach.
This may be a decent fix for those itching for some new Barker, but it’s probably better to just revisit one of his classics.
Instead, the stories work on isolated bases rather than together. “Jenna” has some great suspense, and Campbell and Foh Shen give the best performances in the film. The latter’s skin-deep warmth and maternal aura are able to telegraph her intentions to the audience without making Jenna look like an idiot for not seeing the danger. But even with the acting, the story as a whole is too poorly paced to maintain the chills. A great deal of attention is paid to details that lead to nothing, especially Jenna’s misophonia. While the beginning is slow, the climax is a tense game of cat and mouse, the horror coming here ranking among the movie’s finest.
But the best story of the three is the middle chapter, “Miles,” which is also the closest to a Book of Blood story—the title story, in fact. Not only is the story the best at being self-contained and internally consistent, but it also has the most inspired visuals with its lighting and use of color. The thrills are stronger as well, calling back to the body horror of Hellraiser. Unlike the characters in “Jenna” and “Bennett,” we understand the motivations of the characters of the story: Mary wants to connect with her dead son, but Simon has other plans. This understanding makes the conclusion far more satisfying and the motivations less mystifying.
However, the final story, “Bennett”, just feels like a rushed mess. It’s ridiculously short with no clear motivations or backstory of either Bennett or his partner, Steve. As they enter a deserted neighborhood to search for the book their car breaks down, and Steve runs off chasing an apparition he thinks is his mother. This could be creepy if we knew anything about Steve’s maternal relationship or what catastrophe befell the area. The vignette’s end is satisfying and a little humorous, but with such little time spent with the character, it’s hard to really care.
There are some genuine scares in Books of Blood, but it ultimately falls victim to its shortcomings in structure and plot both as a whole and in its individual stories. Its moments imply a better movie, which is all the more frustrating. This may be a decent fix for those itching for some new Barker, but it’s probably better to just revisit one of his classics.
Books of Blood is now spooking up Hulu.