Book of Blood

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/12/09 11:22:46

"Clive Barker creepiness amid an ordinary ghost story."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I am not a particular fan of the horror genre. I don't disdain it or dismiss it; I think it gets a bad reputation at times. But I am by no means an enthusiast. Last year, "The Midnight Meat Train" excited me for being Ryuhei Kitamura's English-language debut rather than being the adaptation of a beloved Clive Barker story. I only had the vaguest sort of idea what Barker meant as a brand name, quite frankly. After watching another adaptation of a story from Barker's "Books of Blood" series a year later, I'm starting to understand and appreciate it a bit - although this film's director, John Harrison, is no Ryuhei Kitamura, resulting in a much weaker film.

Book of Blood adapts and combines two of these stories, "The Book of Blood" and "On Jerusalem Street", with one serving as a framing sequence for the other. In the framing sequence, a bounty hunter/assassin by the name of Wyburd (Clive Russell) tracks down a horrifically scarred man, who tells us the story of how he came to be hunted. It involves a pair of paranormal investigators - university lecturer and best-selling author Mary Florescu (Sophie Ward) and technician Reg Fuller (Paul Blair) - who discover a haunted house in downtown Edinburgh and set out to investigate, recruiting one of Mary's students, Simon McNeal (Jonas Armstrong), whose family tragedy apparently makes him sensitive to the occult. As they spend their nights in the old, evil house, certain things naturally start to happen - colleagues become attracted, hints of fraud appear, as do incredibly power manifestations.

A lot of that is fairly standard-issue haunted house stuff, and for a great deal of the time, there isn't much more than the gruesomeness of the events to distinguish Book of Blood from something as thoroughly underwhelming as, say, White Noise. You've got the same cobbled-together equipment which is placed just outside of where it can do any good, obvious arguments and jealousies, and a photographic trick (in this case, a sickly green tint to the picture) meant to cause unease. It's executed in a relatively able manner, but seems awfully familiar.

The difference, of course, comes in the ending. Barker has grand and horrible nightmares; where other writers would see a haunting as an isolated incident, Barker sees an entire hidden world. When Harrison and company start to pull back the curtain which separates this world from our own, it goes a long way toward making up for how relatively unimpressive the more conventional ghost story had been. There's a fairly long passage, likely lifted directly from Barker's story (and repeated one or two times more than necessary), about the dead having highways, and there's a tense of awe to be had when the filmmakers finally visualize it.

It's a grand concept and image that almost makes up for how relatively charmless the characters we follow to reach that point are. Wyburd is a cruel psychopath who knows he's a cruel psychopath, and while Clive Russell does give him the sort of charisma that a character like that can have in small doses, he only stands out because everyone else is really terribly dull. Sophie Ward, for instance, plays the believer of the group, but she never seems terribly passionate about it, even with a haunting backstory. Blair's Reg is, sometimes; at other times he's the sensible one, depending what the plot needs at the moment. Jonas Armstrong never seems to know what to do with Simon - should he play up the scuzziness, the tragedy, or the youthful naivete? It winds up averaging out to "somewhat unpleasant".

The script - which Harrison co-wrote with Darin Silverman - doesn't help that much. Once you get beyond the horror at the center of the story, the characters are just means of getting there. I would be interested to hear what fans of the original works think of the adaptation; I'm given to understand that the two stories were only connected by being part of the same collection. The writers do a fine job of tying them together, plot-wise, but I'm not sure that the characters cross over quite so well. It's a bit of a leap for one part's morally gray character to become monstrous in the other.

"Book of Blood" does feature some genuinely unnerving moments, and can certainly be recommended to fans of pure horror (and Barker's particular flavor of it) based upon them. Less ardent fans like myself will perhaps find it more of a mixed bag, although certainly a memorable one.

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