Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ex Libris

"Everyone is a Book of Blood;
Wherever we're opened, we're red."
--Clive Barker

What a strange movie Book of Blood (2009, directed by John Harrison) is. It begins with Simon McNeal (Jonas Armstrong), a man covered with strange scars and cuts who is abducted by a sociopath. The sociopath has been hired by a mysterious employer to deliver the man's skin. He's a collectible, it seems. The sociopath tells McNeal "You're a book of blood!" and encourages him to tell him his story. What we have in this set-up is a particularly creative framing story for an anthology film. This shouldn't be surprising, given that the stories this is based on, "The Book of Blood" and "On Jerusalem Street" are the framing story for Clive Barker's notorious Books of Blood short story collections. Given that Barker and Lionsgate are slowly mining those collections for movies, one can easily see this movie as the keystone in some DVD box set of the future. The first two stories in the series have already been filmed, as well as a scattering of others from later volumes. As a stand-alone movie, though, this creates an awkward situation: It's a framing device that doesn't frame anything.

The bulk of the story here is another one of those haunted house stories where paranormal investigators bring a bunch of equipment and an unstable psychic into a reputedly haunted house and see what happens. This stuff has become kind of a cliche these days, what with all the ghost and haunting shows on cable, but this film knows the rules, and soon pitches everyone into the deep end. The conceit of this is that the unstable clairvoyant is a bit of a fraud, so when all hell inevitably breaks loose, he's the boy who cried wolf. The two main characters in this are Dr. Mary Florescu, an investigator with a history of clairvoyance herself, and the aforementioned Simon McNeal, who is the our callow grad student fraud. Given that the movie begins showing him in an awful state, the audience is fairly credulous about his role in the film even if Mary herself, and her partner, Reg, are not. It's a deft piece of plotting, actually. It provides just enough misdirection for the story to spring its surprises. At the end, this veers sharply away from the standard haunted house investigation story into the territory of Barker's more visionary stories. The dead have highways, the film tells us; then it plops us down at a crossroads.

My immediate impression of the movie is two-fold: first, it's an extremely faithful adaptation. Second: a lot of what Barker puts on the page in his stories begins to strain the suspension of disbelief when put up on the screen. The end of this movie teeters on the verge of the ridiculous, though it never quite falls over the edge the way that, say, Hellraiser or Rawhead Rex do. This film shows one of Barker's characteristic elements to advantage: his obsession with the flaying of skin gets a particularly revolting shot near the beginning of the film, while the fear of this hangs over the entire enterprise. The film was directed by John Harrison, a George Romero protégé, and he gives the film a gloomy, modernist look that's very much of a piece with the other two films in this quasi series (Dread and The Midnight Meat Train), while he pays loving attention to his special effects gags. He's left his actors to their own devices, for the most part, and gets away with it by virtue of strong casting. Both Sophie Ward as Mary and Jonas Armstrong as Simon are far better actors than this film might have had if it had been made in 1985 or so. There's a level of commitment in the performances that sells the movie.

If the film has a flaw as a horror movie, it comes from the visionary elements. While these elements are all well and good for a dark fantasy--and who's to say that "dark fantasy" isn't the intent of the movie--they don't really cater to fears that people actually have. Oh, they may make the skin crawl (natch) by virtue of their inventive nastiness, but they're very specific to the private universe of the movie. They have no force of horror in the real world (however you may perceive the supernatural in the "real" world).

In sum, this is an honorable adaptation that's hamstrung a bit by the structural intent of the original material. As I say, I'll be happy to see a complete set of movies based on The Books of Blood sitting on my DVD shelf at some point in the future. For now, this works well enough.


Will Errickson said...

Haven't seen this yet, or Dread even. Midnight Meat Train had its moments. Overall though, I feel Barker is best experienced through his novels and short stories; nothing can compare to his eloquent, elegant, evocative prose.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Will. I agree. I can't even imagine a film version of something like "In the Hills, The Cities" or Weaveworld. I see that "Pig Blood Blues" is up next. We shall see.

Thanks for stopping by.