Get out the pitchforks and prepare the lynch mob - this critic has never liked Clive Barker's writing. Introduced to this beloved scribe around the time Stephen King put his name on the macabre map, his opulently leaden prose and undeniably baroque approach to terror has just never been my cup of Earl Grey. Certainly there are a few exceptions to said pronouncement - Cabal was a great little novella, far better than the film (Nightbreed) made from it. In addition, "The Hellbound Heart", "How Spoilers Bleed", and "Midnight Meat Train" were terrific little tales. But overall, Barker is the kind of acquired taste that, from a very personal perspective, I have yet to thoroughly enjoy. It's too bad then that the new DVD title Book of Blood is so lifeless. It has some decent talent behind it (co-writer/director John Harrison worked closely with George Romero on Tales from the Darkside and was responsible for the 2000 miniseries version of Dune) and features an interesting cast including the BBC's latest incarnation of Robin Hood (Jonas Armstrong). But for some reason, this slow, shallow haunted house tale never delivers the kind of dread we expect from the material, or the man who crafted it in the first place.
A hired killer captures a young man wandering the streets. In a secluded shack, he sets him up for a rather unusual death - his client has asked to have the skin flayed from the boy's body. Looking at it, the assassin asks what's so special about the abundance of bloody markings. "It's a book of blood", the victim states, proceeding to tell a story about the death of a teenage girl, a family frightened out of their house, and Mary Florescu, a renowned paranormal researcher who wants to investigate the claims of a horrific haunting. Meeting the young man - named Simon McNeal - in one of her classes, she convinces him to join the pending study. He claims to be psychic. She has hidden clairvoyant talents she hasn't used in years. Once they take up residence in the home, along with tech head Reg, they begin to experience unusual phenomenon. Sure enough, Simon senses an evil presence. But Mary isn't so sure. She's been fooled before, and her newfound medium might not be all he claims.
As this movie reminds us ad infinitum, the dead have highways that they travel, roads along the fringes that provide the living with stories of planes beyond the realm of reality. By the fifth time this meaningless mantra is repeated, we start wondering why Book of Blood couldn't focus on one of those other oft-mentioned tales. More like the pilot for another horror anthology series than a wholly successful film, this creaky creepshow tries to substitute atmosphere and ambience for actual scares. What we get instead are lots of scenes of Jonas Armstrong in the nude, an ensemble of suggestive glances from co-star Sophie Ward, and...not much else. The macabre mystery definitely takes a back seat to Harrison's desire to work out all the erotic steam from the set-up. Instead of focusing on what's bedeviling the quasi-Gothic mansion, we are treated to multiple shots of Ms. Ward's naked chest. So unless you're interested in seeing the gal who was once Young Sherlock Holmes' virginal gal pal in the buff, there's not much to recommend this otherwise middling movie.
Part of the problem here is Barker's original material. It's a better read than a visualization. Bringing such obtuse ideas to life - the human skin as a source of ghost stories, a house where unseen spirits vandalize the walls...and bodies within - is almost impossible. Look at the obvious inspiration for this approach: Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man. While the movie version gave it a damn good try, it seemed scattered and purposefully obtuse. The same thing happens here. We keep waiting and waiting for the denouement, to see if Simon is really a con artist of if something more sinister is going on. Of course, the movie has shown its hand by focusing on the close-up face skinning of a young girl, so we know things are amiss. But Book of Blood thinks we're gullible, stupid, or in possession of a very short attention span. As Mary and Simon make cows eyes at each other, we get inference after inference that this could all be the byproduct of a hunky huckster - or even worse, a figment of our heroine's haunted imagination.
Of course, the end tries to salvage everything, an unusual visual representation of Barker's rather allegorical ideas taking center stage. The "dead highway" material is well executed, the F/X doing a great job of presenting the concept with clarity and imagination. Even better, Harrison understands what he has here and keeps it onscreen for longer than many might like. While it can resemble a rejected portion of Disney's Haunted Mansion, there are other times when it comes across as eerie and very, very evocative. But it's not enough to salvage the situation at hand. It's hard to say if Book of Blood could be better - the individuals both behind and in front of the lens do their best with what they're give. It's just that Clive Barker is rather hit or miss when it comes to cinematic adaptations. When he's good - Hellraiser, Midnight Meat Train - he's brilliant. Otherwise, he's a celebrated scribe who has seen more than one less than spectacular movie made out of his work. While that's par for the course when it comes to most literary talents, Barker's problem is not one of execution. Sometimes, certain ideas just don't translate. Book of Blood is clearly one.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean, crisp, and loaded with color. Especially toward the end, when the supernatural scenes take over, the movie looks great. There is some grain in the outdoor sequences, and the overall production palette tends toward muted, earthy hues. Still, for such a seemingly low budget effort, this transfer is top notch.
The sound situation here offers up a chance to compare the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix with the more standard 2.0 Stereo track. The speakers do get somewhat of a workout, especially when the ghosts go crazy during the house siege sequences. But for the most part, both options are polished and professional, dialogue easily discernible and musical score present to add the necessary fear factors.
The only added content here is an EPK-like Behind the Scenes featurette that sees most of the cast and crew on hand to chat up the title. Their insights on style and storytelling are interesting, if no necessarily visible as part of the film itself.
Don't let the opening caveat about Clive Barker fool you: this review is not based on a preconceived bias or forgone conclusion about the man's work. Instead, as with most lovers of horror, this critic hoped that Book of Blood would be one of the exceptions, not the rule. There were times when the movie sort of succeeded, bringing a real sense of dread and unease to the screen. There were other times when no amount of Red Bull could increase the energy level - both in the viewer and the production itself. Still, some will cotton to its combination of tone and terror, and so a rating of Rent It will be awarded. This will allows those who enjoy Barker's oeuvre, as well as those curious about his creations, to experience things in as cost-effective a manner as possible. Don't be misled by the negative comments here - Book of Blood is not a bad movie, just a wholly ineffectual one. For some, the same could be said of the man behind this macabre.
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