Cliver Barker's Book of Blood
(2008/9 Horror Movie) - Directed by John Harrison, Written (short story) by Clive Barker, Starring Jonas Armstrong and Sophie Ward
I bought Book of Blood outright, on "director's cut" DVD, the day of release, with nothing like a pre-order or first-day sale. This is a rare event for me, since horror movies have taught me one (1!) golden rule: always be sure. Every since the first bat-creature from mars was touted as "more horrible than eyes can stand to witness" and turned out to be a shoddy cardboard cutout that, in fact, you didn't really want to see1, the horror and SF genres have been plagued with pseudo-trailers, undeserved accolations about their effectiveness, and what amounts to outright trickery to get us in the seats with money spent. It's a daring practice to keep up, now that we can just bittorrent files or rent them for $1 at a local Redbox or just read fan reaction on a dozen websites, but it is kept up. Now that the direct-to-DVD market doesn't have to worry about movie posters, the DVD boxes themselves make the claim. You'll pick up a movie that quotes some horror website about being the "Most chilling movie of the year!" and it talks up a good story about terrifying climaxes and the body fluids running free (most horror movies have a tendency to describe gore in quasi-sexual terms) and promises you that you will be struck with insomnia, presumably with frustration at dropping two to three hours worth of wages on a DVD/Blu-Ray you now want to burn. I've learned, you see, always be sure when it comes to genre flicks.
What does Book of Blood say about it? Mostly that it's gruesome and bloody. No real accolades, no promises that I will lose sleep. It does promise an "astonishing climax", I guess, but that's practically an essay in minimalism for a horror movie2. Now that I think about it, outside of a FearNet campaign to promote it, and it showing up in cut form on SyFy (how I loathe that network name), I have seen nothing, really. I look at few different horror-fan sites and horror-writer blogs and such, and there was almost no interest in this film. That's kind of an aside, but I find that weird. The movie pretty much tries to sell itself on the Harrison-Barker (the former has a pedigree with horror films, though mostly genre-junkies would recognize it, and the latter is Clive Barker, so yeah) angle or maybe the Jonas Armstrong is naked, a lot, angle? He is, by the way, ladies. Naked. A lot. Cut up a fair amount of that. But still, woo...Robin Hood butt.
The movie (yeah, I'm getting to it) is about a man with cuts all over his skin. After we have it established that he is a "regular book of blood", and he tells us that there are intersections of the dead and we should listen (though only about eight minutes into the film, this is the second (2nd!) time we have heard this slowly delivered quote, and it want be the last), we cut back to the chronological beginning, and a gruesome face peeling scene that sets up an hour of slow paced faux drama, false-starts, falser-jumps (there are two or three scenes, at least, where you are jump-scared by what turns out to be something really banal, just loud), and dead ends. Then we get a somewhat intriguing ending, those of us still awake and having fun, with two things played out as results-may-vary plot-twists or at least plot-jolts, and some intriguing visuals (woo! cut up Robin Hood Jesus!)3.
There are some applaudable moments: ghost hand over mouth, girls playing in a fountain of blood, cuts ripping across skin, a few angles that really caught the fear. One great scene, until it is spoiled by two (2!) faux-scares, is the Camera/Sound Man following ghost sounds downstairs. We get ghost voices, claustrophobic angles, hints of things right around the corner, a terrifying solitude. Perfect. There are just a lot more moments where the acting changes from scene to scene (earnest with something to hide Jonas becomes emotionally stunted but kind of angry Jonas!) or when a camera angle lingers too long on a jutting, annoying shot. The cinematographer, Philip Robertson, does find some good shots it is just some of his best were edited too short and his worst were edited too long. Mix this in with jagged edits that linger on a scene here or flee a scene there, non-sequitors, and some heavy horror cliches that fail to elevate themselves: those at the helm of this film needed a tighter grip. The perhaps biggest morass occurs towards the two-thirds mark, when all the truths are getting exposed about the characters. Not only does the story stop and start around this point, but two of the characters pull a hefty emotional turn-around that leaves the audience kind of unsure if there ever was a motivation for anything. Handled earlier in the film, it might have worked just fine, but coming moments before the climax, we end up just going with the flow and our "Do We Care?" circuits flipped firmly to "Maybe".
And I know what you are asking, "Doug, aren't you the fellow that likes bad movies and worse horror?" I do. I really do. Except I like camp and a sense that the makers really enjoyed the movie they made, not overly polished ghosts running around in a film with jarring camera angles and cuts. I would have forgiven more had it put a little more oomph into the ending, so the climax felt more expressive (and so a few loosish ends could have been tied back together). This movie is simply too out of balance for the pay off.
My final verdict is a Meh. Some neat, "stick with you" horror moments steam-rolled flat by plenty of forgettable in-between. Had the direction, effects, or acting been more consistent, it could have saved it but with all three shifting from scene to scene, it doesn't pull up. As a low-budget movie, it kind of works, but it tries to over-polish itself and hide this fact in places (yes, in places; like many aspects of the film, it is not consistent from one scene to the next how low versus high budget it wants to look). If it just let its low budget hang out and went for gritty, that might have been the sauce it needed. Cliver Barker fans should probably watch, because there are certain Barkerisms that I enjoyed, and those into the violent ghost genre (think Thirteen Ghosts remake) might be interested in some things; but the rest of you could probably do fine without it.
One final note: the DVD is pretty featureless. A "making-of" and two trailers (red and green band). Subtitles in English and Spanish. That's it. Oh, and for some reason, much the DVD's menus are in some annoying font (supposed to mimic the writing on skin look, but looks like it belongs on a mid-90s webpage graphic) that makes it nigh impossible to read without a bigger TV. Just FYI.
Si Vales, Valeo