Book of Blood
by Jason Coffman
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Clive Barker adaptations have, traditionally, had a history of inconsistency. For every great Barker film (Hellraiser), there’s one equally dire (Rawhead Rex). Fans were excited when news got around about the new “Films of Blood,” a series of adaptations based on Barker’s stories from his Books of Blood. This new series got off to a rough start with Ryuhei Kitamura’s pointlessly hyperactive adaptation of The Midnight Meat Train, after which it’s impossible to know what to expect.
And so it comes as a refreshing surprise that the next film, John Harrison’s Book of Blood, is a return to more elegant, restrained filmmaking. Kitamura’s key charm is that he’s not happy unless a camera is being flung somewhere ridiculous, bogging down The Midnight Meat Train with an air of stubborn excess. Book of Blood, in comparison, feels like a classical haunted house movie, and in some ways it is. Based on a story now over two decades old, some of the horrors Barker pioneered feel almost quaint.
An adaptation of the stories The Book of Blood and On Jerusalem Street, Book of Blood is similarly set up as a frame story for the other “Films of Blood.” Simon McNeal (Jonas Armstrong) is a student of psychic researcher Mary Florescu (Sophie Ward), who is investigating possible paranormal activity at an infamously haunted house. Allegedly horrible murders took place in the house years before, and the house has since become a magnet for paranormal junkies. Simon agrees to help Mary in her research and stays in the house’s attic room, and soon enough strange events begin to occur that defy rational explanation, while Simon and Mary’s relationship becomes something more than that of teacher and student.
Book of Blood is, for the most part, a slow-burning haunted house story. There’s a strong attraction between Simon and Mary, and their chemistry imbues the film with some of the trademark sensuality of Barker’s work. The solid performances and powerful atmosphere of supernatural unease make the film feel like something of a throwback, although not necessarily in a bad way. Barker’s work in general and the Books of Blood in particular have been so hugely successful and influential that revisiting the originals feels like returning to familiar territory. All this goodwill is almost enough to make you look past the weak special effects toward the film’s finale, which unfortunately mar what is otherwise a solid horror show.
Still, there’s more than enough good here to recommend Book of Blood to any horror fan, and despite the dodgy CGI the film earns a lot of goodwill through sheer class. Watching it is like slipping into a comfortable old sweater, or that first outfit you made out of human skin. Here’s hoping future Barker adaptations err more on the side of restraint and less on the side of pointless stylistic excess.
Lionsgate released Book of Blood on DVD and Blu-ray 22 September 2009. DVD features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and trailer gallery.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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