Books of Blood (2020)

OCTOBER 6, 2020


In 2009, there was a Book of Blood movie that inexplicably used Clive Barker's same-named story as the film's entire narrative, instead of using it as the framing device for an anthology as the books did. It was also pretty lame, and I wasn't surprised when this new version, titled Books of Blood, was announced that almost no one I spoke to remembered it. Luckily, this one gets things right, so if you say "I saw the Book(s) of Blood movie" to someone you hopefully won't even have to clarify which one you mean, and if so, it's easy enough to remember which one's which despite the confusing title stuff: this one's good.

And if you've read all the stories, you only get half of a head start on its narrative, because writer/director Brannon Braga cooked up some new tales (working with Barker and co-writer Adam Simon) that weaves Barker's "The Book of Blood" story (from the first of his six volumes of the Books of Blood series - confused enough yet?) together with two others, and it's not a straight adaptation of the story either. In Barker's story, Mary was a widow who had roped in the phony psychic Simon to contact the dead in a most unusual way; in the movie, Mary (played by Anna Friel) works to debunk so-called psychics, and she was a divorced woman whose son died of leukemia, and Simon found her because he thought he could help her contact her son. Simon's fate is the same, but the circumstances are very different, making it feel like a new story itself.

It's also the second main story, and the third to be introduced, as the film opens with a quick scene where a legbreaker of some sort (played by the always awesome Yul Vazquez) is trying to collect a debt when his mark tells him about, you guessed it, a "Book of Blood" and that it would be worth more than the money he was owed. As Vazquez and his partner go off to find the book, we are introduced to Jenna (Britt Robertson) for our first meaty story/second overall. Jenna is a college-aged girl who is living with her insufferable rich parents and suffering from extreme misphonia, an affliction which causes certain sounds to cause you severe distress. Instant sympathy for me, as I have a mild version of it; I absolutely cannot stand any kind of rattling/ticking noise, which has resulted in several sudden stops on the side of the road to locate one in my car because I can't concentrate on the road until it stops (it's usually like, a water bottle tapping against whatever seat it's under). Hers is mostly people chewing/swallowing, which understandably makes her hate being around people.

So she runs away, intending to go to Los Angeles but gets off her bus early when she thinks she's being followed by someone, perhaps related to an unexplained incident in her recent past. She ends up at a B'nB run by two people who are far too kind and folksy to trust; even if this was a comedy/drama film I'd suspect they were murderers. The exact nature of their crimes isn't something I'll spoil here, but I will say it's more Tales from the Crypt/Stephen King type macabre than I am accostumed to from Barker, with no supernatural elements whatsoever. Not that that's a bad thing, but if someone is all huffy because the stories aren't all taken directly from Barker, this shift probably won't help win them over.

The next one is the one that's more or less based on "The Book of Blood", and - somewhat risky for an anthology - is presented in flashbacks, as Mary and Simon tell the story of how they met (and fell in love!) to a group of investors. It's the best of the three stories (after this one it returns to the world of Vazquez' violent book-seeker), unsurprisingly, but I can't help but think the film as a whole might have improved if it came first, though I need to spoil the reason why in the next paragraph, so skip that one if you want to go in blind.

Still here? OK, so while I overall really liked the movie, I was taken out of it for a while at the "conclusion" of Jenna's story, because it ended on an almost literal cliffhanger, with a car containing a protagonist going over a cliff and smashing into the rocks below, seemingly letting the villains get away with it. Then Mary/Simon's story is self contained before going back to Vazquez, whom we now can probably guess is actually seeking Simon, who (as in the story) has become a sort of living book, with the dead writing their stories on his skin. This segment is somewhat inspired by "On Jerusalem Street" (the closing story from the final installment of the Books of Blood series), but in early on there's a scene where Vazquez' partner nearly runs someone over as they drive toward the location of the book - and that person is Jenna. It's here, over an hour into the movie, that Jenna's story is clearly connected to the others, which is a fun surprise, but it comes at the expense of leaving the audience cold when her story "ends" without any indication they would be going back to her. Had Mary and Simon's segment come first, and then Jenna's, it would only be a few minutes until we were informed that the stories were going to intersect, and in turn only another ten minutes after that before we get the rest of that tale.

Otherwise, I think it works really well. Jenna and Mary both prove to be easily likable protagonists, and despite the "TV movie" status (it premieres on Hulu today) there is some admirably gnarly violence, particularly the "Book of Blood" effect and a fairly disturbing fate for one of its characters. The success rate for the odd joke here and there is pretty high (a coffee shop scene is particularly great), and while it may not have Barker's specific words flowing through every line, the general vibe is right at home with his work (at least, from what I've read - which is I think three of the novels and a selection of the short stories). Perhaps I was more taken with it than the average viewer because I remember how bad the other adaptation was, and they likely won't have that low bar to compare it to, but I think folks will enjoy it even going in with a complete blank slate. It beats rewatching Modern Family with your Hulu subscription, anyway.

What say you?

P.S. I was amused to see that this makeshift "drive-in", with an inflatable screen and parking attendants who hadn't the slightest clue how cars should be arranged for watching a movie, looked better than the films at the actual drive-ins I've been settling for all summer/fall. When Jenna gets a text message - I could read it! When a character is running around in the dark - I could see what was happening! I was quite tickled by that, as I was fully expecting to have to rewatch the film on Hulu today to pick up on everything I missed. Headlights were kept to a minimum too, for what it's worth.


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