MPAA Rating: NR/ Genre: Anthology Horror/ Stars: Britt Robertson, Freda Foh Shen, Nicholas Campbell, Anna Friel, Rafi Gavron, Yul Vazquez, Andy McQueen, Kenji Fitzgerald, Paige Turco, Saad Siddiqui, Glenn Lefchak, Brett Rickaby/ Runtime: 107 minutes
When one thinks of the name Clive Barker, one immediately sets their sights on such ingredients as an eerie sexual undertone, entire bathtubs filled to the brim with blood and gore, and actually riveting and quite nightmarish in many respects imagery. I mean this is the guy who gave us Midnight Meat Train, Lord of Illusions, Hellraiser, and of course Candyman all of which entertaining as all get out (and incidentally all part of my yearly Halloween late-night movie lineup every year). However those were all done during a time in which Hollywood wasn’t afraid to go balls to the wall nuts with what it put on screen in front of us. This is 2020, and just like seemingly everything else in this Jumanjiesque year, things have gone topsy-turvy to the point that now even an adaptation of Clive Barker is actually tame. Yes as much as it may shock even I to tell you this, Hulu’s new take on Clive Barker’s Books of Blood (which incidentally saw a prior adaptation back in 2009) is one which seems more in synch with what we as audiences saw with Creepshow back in ’82 or Tales from the Darkside: The Movie back in ’90 due to an attempt to make this into an anthology-type film. Yet this is one adaptation which, despite flashes of delightfully gruesome and macabre imagery and some decent work from a decent cast, lacks both the dark humor-style fun of the latter 2 films and most certainly is nowhere even close to being on the level of what people have come to expect from the controversial in some circles, but revered in others Clive Barker. Thus what we are left with is a corpse of a film that, despite needing to be ice cold in order to elicit the proper scares, is one that is an unfortunate room temperature at best.
The plot is as follows: Our madcap “nightmare” begins as we enter the library seen in the first Ghostbusters film and quickly witness as a timid yet decent librarian is quickly accosted and then dispatched with by a hitman (and not because he owes a huge amount of late fees and just doesn’t want to pay them). Rather we quickly learn that our grumpy and stoic assassin, along with his partner, are on the hunt for a valuable book known as (get this) the Book of Blood, a book so valuable that they’ll be able to sell it and “get out of the life for good”. Having learned where this mythical tome is located, the duo speed off in one’s Green Hornet-looking Mustang and we soon head to our next story which sees a young woman by the name of Jenna who is still in the vivid aftermath of a situation gone horribly awry (the specifications of which I shan’t spoil here) and who, as a side effect, finds herself suffering from a horrible condition known as misophonia which literally takes noise, but in particular the noises we as people make while eating and drinking and makes them an absolute ordeal to deal with thus requiring her to utilize the aid of noise-canceling headphones. Yet as much as she tries, her family has finally reached their wit’s end with her and decides to send her back to “the Farm” (psychiatric ward though believe me if it was revealed that she was really an animal that actually might’ve been entertaining and unexpected). Deciding she doesn’t want to go back there, we see our intrepid young heroine run away and wind up in a small town where she finds herself at a low-key bed and breakfast run by a decent and kind older couple who it isn’t long before we see that they may or may not have a secret or 2 of their own which result in Jenna finding herself in a battle for survival. From there we go to our next story where we witness a noted skeptic in paranormal phenomenon becoming involved, in more ways than one, with an infamous medium in the aftermath of the tragic loss of her young son to cancer only to learn that all might not be as it seems and sometimes to give the dead a voice means they will want something in return. Thus will all 3 of these stories tie together somehow? Mum is the word and the word is golden therefore I guess you will have to watch for yourself and find out…..
Now I applaud this movie for what it is trying so desperately to accomplish don’t get me wrong. I mean the idea of giving audiences not one, but several distinct yet highly creepy and ghoulishly entertaining stories is one that filmmakers have done quite successfully before. Yet here is where the first main problem with this film lies because the 3 stories really aren’t given an equal amount of time to be as effective as they could be. I mean for all the flaws that people have found with the first Creepshow film, one thing that was never disputed is that each story wasn’t given a fair shake of the stick. Rather they all were given the appropriate amount of time necessary to give us as complete of a story as possible thus making each one feel as complete as possible. In addition we also were given surprisingly decent work in making all of the characters in those films be as three-dimensional as possible. Yes a lot of that also can be attributed to the actors themselves, but the fact still remains that each character felt like a fully rendered human being. I say this because there is a terrible problem in this film with these areas. Indeed not only do the majority of characters, save perhaps the character of Jenna, feel severely underserved in terms of characterization thus not really giving us the ability to really relate to them, but the stories, save for again Jenna’s, themselves feel severely malnourished. I understand that initially Hulu wanted to do this as a series rather than as a feature-length film and I feel compelled to tell you that honestly was what they should have stuck with. Indeed this is because, as the recent Creepshow series on Shudder has shown, if you give each story the appropriate amount of time across the board to be its own thing then each story can be as effective as possible thus entertaining audiences and making it more likely that others will tune in. Instead Hulu chose to rush this out as a severely disjointed film and believe me boy does it show.
Yet the problems with this series don’t just stop with the stories not being given equal time. You see dear reader, I kind of have an issue with a couple of other areas of note starting with the fact that, despite purportedly being “based on the stories of Clive Barker” only has one story that is actually adapted from Clive Barker with the other 2 being written by the film’s creative team though I suppose Barker helping to write them was decent of them. I mean I’m sorry, but anyone who’s actually read the Books of Blood would know that there is some truly incredible work in there that, despite several having been done already in Hollywood, would actually make for some truly horrifying work if adapted with the right amount of respect and care for the author and his one-of-a-kind vision. As it is however, it’s almost like Hulu decided to just take the bare minimum possible from Clive and use the title, his name, and at least one threadbare adaptation of his work to try and sucker people in to give this film a try. The other problem I have is with calling this an “anthology horror film”. I say this because you see dear reader typically in a horror anthology there is a framework narrative which occurs at the beginning and end and the rest of the stories are all tied into that framework in some way. For Creepshow in 82 it was the fact that the stories are all in a comic book that was thrown in the trash by a bullheaded dad who by film’s end got his comeuppance and in the 1990 adaptation of Tales from the Darkside they were stories told by a little boy to keep a witch from cooking him for dinner. In this film however, not only is the framework narrative limp at best and nonexistent at worst, it is soon revealed that this film is more like a shared universe in the vein of a show like Castle Rock. Again though, like I said earlier in this review, the show Castle Rock actually takes the time to develop its plot and let its characters grow and as a result is quite riveting entertainment, but just as importantly, the connective threads that tie the characters together feel organic and not forced in any way. This movie on the other forces its characters together in ways that feel absurd at best and ludicrous at worst thus making me say again what I have said before: THIS. SHOULD. HAVE. BEEN. A. SHOW. *sigh. Finally I guess I should point out that this show should’ve been a lot gorier and scarier than it turns out to be. I mean I say this because yes in the past I have stated to people that this movie or that movie didn’t need to be nowhere near as gory to be effective. However those films weren’t “supposedly” based on the works of a writer who is quite effective at making the buckets of gore and macabre imagery he gleefully throws in to his work synch up with the rest of the story. This one was and, as such, I feel it must be said that while there are brief flashes where it looks like we are going to get exactly what we want to see whenever we see a movie “inspired by the works of Clive Barker” it ultimately stops just short thus making this film feel quite a bit like Cujo if he was neutered due to Stephen King letting him be adopted by Bob Barker thus making for a viewing experience where by the time it is done you will want to put in your copy of Hellraiser or Candyman just to recall when Hollywood actually let distinct visions run wild.
Indeed, if there is really anything that is decent and worthy of praise to be found here it’s that the cast all do decent work with the material that they have been given. Yet out of them the best performance undoubtedly in my mind would have to go to Britt Robertson from 2015’s Tomorrowland in the role of Jenna. Indeed whereas everyone else either seems to be stumbling around in the dark or just sleepwalking through this material with an air of skill, Robertson at least tries to make the material work as best as she can. Yes she may not have always chosen the best movies in the world to work on, but at least Robertson is willing to act and create a character that had she been given a whole hour to work with could have been truly riveting, but here she will unfortunately have to settle for being simply the best part of a movie that in nearly every other way is a tragic misfire.
All in all 2020 strikes again. Indeed in a year that has played like the worst ingredients of Jumanji, Labyrinth, and Wonderland all rolled into one, we are now seeing this year rear its ugly head once again and go after someone whose work be it on the printed page or the silver screen has always been some of the finest in gonzo and balls to the wall extreme horror possible. Yet in the hands of 2020, even Clive Barker has now been watered down. Indeed Books of Blood could have, and still could in the right hands, been something truly special for the adult horror fan. As it stands right now though, this is one book which is going to have to gather a bit more dust unfortunately before someone finds a way to bring it to life in a way that is both respectful of the material yet terrifying enough to engage those who remember what Clive Barker can do and those who wish to be introduced to a horror legend who truly is unlike any other in equal volume…On a scale of 1-5 I give Books of Blood a solid 2.5 out of 5