Clive Barker’s horror is immediately recognizable. One of the most influential Gothic voices of the 1980s and ‘90s, his stories on the page and screen mingle body horror with kinky fatalism: pleasure and pain sprinkled with an undercurrent of happy self-annihilation. He wrote and directed the exceptionally perverse Hellraiser, and with his literary Books of Blood collection of horror short stories, he penned the origins for future movie cult classics like Candyman—as well as the less glowing adaptations of The Midnight Meat Train and Rawhead Rex.
I’d like to say Brannon Braga’s Hulu adaptation of several of those Books of Blood tales lands closer to the hypnotic thrall of Hellraiser or Candyman, but this messy and ultimately garish film goes down like ‘80s junk of the Rawhead variety. With an obvious ear for Barker’s sweet romantic whispers about oblivion, Braga attempts to recreate a specific type of Gothic doom, but his version plays like a bad imitation, something you might find in a Tales from the Crypt episode.
The Hulu movie is primarily divided among three narratives that more or less seek to stand alone. Among them is the tale of Bennett (Yul Vazquez), a hitman convinced that finding the rare “Book of Blood” is his ticket out of the underworld, Jenna (Britt Robertson), a twentysomething who decides to finally leave home, and stop taking her meds, after experiencing a nondescript trauma, and Simon (Rafi Gavron), a self-proclaimed medium who seeks to convince (and seduce?) doubting Mary (Anna Friel). The latter is a woman who’s become a scientific celebrity for attempting to disprove there’s an afterlife following the death of her son.
Each of them has hopes and aspirations for a better life, but as the conceit of Books of Blood is that each has their name “written down” in an unseen book of oozing flesh—a text reserved for those who died in the most gruesome of unexpected manners—the chances of any having a happy ending seems remote. But hey, this is a collection of Barker tales, right?
That it is, but as adapted here, you wouldn’t really know it. With an overly flat visual style and a vision greatly hampered by the invisible specter of budget constraints, the movie is as banal-looking as any anthology horror series you might see on Shudder. Indeed, it is easy to figure out that these multiple stories were originally conceived as the pilot for a television series before being reconfigured as a potential movie franchise. If those intended follow-ups ever materialize, hopefully they’ll be better executed.
Because more than the washed out, high-key lighting or a lack of supernatural flourishes beyond one distracting digital trip to Simon’s vision of the afterlife, it is the tininess of the teleplay by Braga and Adam Simon, and how it’s performed that most undercut Books of Blood. Relying on cliché shots of Mary’s ghost child sleeping next to her and Simon’s Bed is disappointing; having Simon and Mary’s relationship play out with the heavy-handedness of a daytime soap’s conventions, complete with Gavron’s deadened delivery about love and changing the world together, is terminal. Also with the exception of Robertson as Jenna, none of the other performances are much more convincing.
It’s unfortunate how little works about Books of Blood when the narrative twists of at least two of the tales are pretty amusing in their final acts. Braga has done plenty of good genre work in the past, including on a multitude of Star Trek shows, and the screenplay for Star Trek: First Contact. Given the final movements of Jenna’s storyline in particular—a subplot that I understand was created whole cloth for the movie—as well as the execution of the last twist(s) to Simon’s more famous Barker yarn, Braga demonstrates an understanding of Barker’s macabre lust for existential punishment. And if these vignettes were reduced to 20-minute segments on, say, Creepshow, Books of Blood’s basic limitations could even become a virtue. But as a feature-length film, the end result is just punishing.
Books of Blood is now available on Hulu.