Clive Barker's novels may be hit or miss but his short stories, particularly those published in the 1980s in The Books Of Blood, have always been consistently good. His knack for incredibly imaginative and macabre set pieces, however, doesn't always translate so well to the big screen - the recent debacle that was The Midnight Meat Train is a perfect example. The short story was great. It was tense, imaginative, exciting and something different. And so were the bookending parts of The Books Of Blood, now a feature length movie from director John Harrison.
When the film begins, a burly Scottish mercenary type abducts a grubby looking guy from a pub. It turns out his skin has writing all over it and there's a collector type paying him good money to retrieve it. Before he skins the poor guy, however, he asks him to tell him how he got this way. In exchange for a quick death, the man agrees.
Cut to a university where a foxy professor named Mary Florescu (Sophie Ward) is teaching her class on the paranormal only to be interrupted by her newest student, hunky young Simon McNeal (Jonas Armstrong). One thing leads to another and the pair soon find they have a bit in common in that they're both firm believers in the spirit world. Mary, desperate to prove this to improve her book sales, hears tell of a house with a past wherein spirits will manifest and so she takes her newest favorite student as well as a tech guy named Reg (Paul Blair) into said house with all manner of recording gear to prove that spirits can and do communicate with the living.
Things start off a bit slow but before you know it strange and cryptic writing is appearing burned into the walls of the room where Simon is staying. He appears to be the conduit for the spirits Mary is so keen on getting to know. Having a newfound respect for Simon, she starts to lust after him and despite Reg's misgivings, the feeling is mutual. As Simon and Mary begin a bizarre sexual relationship, Reg starts to suspect that Simon might be a fake. Mary's not so sure, however, especially when the writing that was appearing on the walls starts to appear etched into Simon's own flesh...
Book Of Blood has a really solid premise at its core but the first hour or so plays out like a mediocre episode of Ghost Hunters. Harrison tries to build atmosphere by showing us some spooky manifestations of spirits in various forms and styles and it works to an extent but there really isn't all that much tension here. Mary, while well played by the milf-tastic Sophie Ward, isn't give much of a background for us to take interest in her outside of her attractive appearance while Simon is on similar ground. Had the characters been given more of a motive and less of a superficial existence than maybe Harrison's efforts wouldn't have been so vein but sadly that doesn't happen and what we're left with is a solid hour of predictable haunted house style high jinks. The last half hour of the film does go a certain way towards redeeming things as we're treated to some interesting 'Barker-esque' imagery and ideas and as such the picture is worth a look, but even then it never quite manages to fire on all cylinders.
Had the pacing been improved or the running time cut down we could have had a contender here, but instead we're left with a movie that should have been much better than it turned out to be. Book Of Blood isn't a complete disaster and Barker's fan base will find some value here but probably not as much as they'd have hoped for. The film feels padded, overlong, and while it'll entertain you enough that you can look past it's many and obvious shortcomings, once it's over, you'll probably forget it.
Book Of Blood arrives on Blu-ray in a 1080p VC-1 encoded 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that isn't really all that impressive. There are shots that definitely remind you that you're watching an HD transfer but for the most part this doesn't look much different than a nice standard definition effort. Detail isn't all that hot and the film's grim color scheme makes it hard for anything to really pop here the way that you might want it to. Skin tones look fine and black levels are alright but shadow detail isn't all that impressive and much of the film looks soft. Much of the problem stems from the fact that this is just a really dark, grey looking film, there isn't much more to it than that, but this does come at the cost of fine detail. There aren't any compression artifacts to complain about though some jittering and line shimmering pops up here and there. The overall effect is that the picture is certainly watchable, and not even close to terrible, but neither is it all that impressive. Like the movie itself, it's just rather unmemorable.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 track is nothing to write home about either. There are spots where you'll notice that the directional effects are poorly placed and there are a few times where the levels are a bit nutty (this could have been done on purpose in order to get a good jump scare out of the viewers but it's annoying). For the most part, dialogue is fine and easy enough to understand but there's not much in the way of bass rumble here, and as far as dynamics and ambience go, nothing really stands out and impresses. As it is with the transfer, it's all inoffensive and it gets the job done but there definitely could have been a fair bit more TLC put into this aspect of the production, as a better, more involving sound mix could have helped parts of the film considerably.
The only extra of any note is the Book Of Blood: Behind The Scenes documentary, supplied here in standard definition 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen. Featuring interviews with the cast and crew as well as director John Harrison and Clive Barker himself, this fairly interesting bit discusses how and why the short story was adapted to feature length, why it was shot in Scotland, and what kind of pre-production work was involved in bringing the dead to life. Barker fans will enjoy seeing him pop up here surrounded by his paintings and offering up his thoughts on the film.
Aside from that, we get trailers for a few other Lionsgate Blu-ray releases before the main menu screen loads, and we get chapter selection.
As is often the case with horror books adapted for the big screen, Book Of Blood is a better printed story than it is a visual one. So much of the imagined atmosphere and ambience that makes the short work so well is left open to interpretation and depending on how closely your interpretation matches what's on the screen, the film can be disappointing. On top of that, there are some pacing problems and a reliance on jump scares. That said, as disposable entertainment, the movie is okay - not great, just okay, a completely mediocre experience. Lionsgate's Blu-ray doesn't look or sound all that good and it's light on extras to boot, making this pretty tough to recommend but as a rental for a rainy weekend time killer, you could do worse. Just keep your expectations in check...
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.