Fantasia 09 Review: Clive Barker’s ‘Book’ is a Yawn of the Dead

14 Jul

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 Clive Barker’s Book of Blood (R) 108 min. Directed by:  John Harrison Written by: John Harrison, adapted from the Clive Barker stories Book of Blood and On Jerusalem Street. Starring: Jonas Armstrong, Sophie Ward, Doug Bradley, Simon Bamford, Paul Blair. Cinematography:Philip Robertson   Original music by: Guy Farley.

 

The dead have highways…running through the wasteland behind our lives, bearing an endless traffic of departed souls. They can be heard in the broken places of our world, through cracks made by acts of cruelty, violence and depravity. They have signposts, these highways–and crossroads and intersections. And it is at these intersections that the dead mingle and spill over into our world…The dead have highways….only the living are lost…

cinemagrade c-The above is the entire thematic gist of Book of Blood, the newest film adaptation of the work of horror maestro Clive Barker. In fact, that little bit of exposition is repeated no less than five seperate times in Book of Blood, as if the filmmakers want to constantly remind the audience that their film is about the nature of storytelling and mortality. After the third time, I wanted to shout at the screen “stop telling us and show us already”. This was to no avail. Dabbling in the darker corners of dark fantasy(and this is far more a resident of that genre than straight horror), television director John Harrison brings the framing stories of Barker’s Books of Blood anthology faithfully to the screen but he doesn’t seem to understand that all he brought along was the binding. The pages here are empty. What he fills them with ends up amounting to one of the most notoriously boring thrillers in recent memory.  

I am not exactly the world’s biggest Clive Barker fan, at least as far as his films are concerned. Directing half of them himself, and entrusting most of the rest to technicians and directors with only television background, Barker hasn’t afforded his projects the best chance of success. His written work stands apart from most modern horror in that it very rarely feels like horror; instead bearing a stronger resemblance to the worlds of high fantasy, or psychological mystery with stopovers in the land of spiritual conflict. He draws new lines through the contemporary fascination with death and body altercation and he goes further back as well, evoking the battle between flesh and the soul in ways so harrowing and tumultuous that none have seen their like since the brimstone energy of early Protestant sermons.

blood_bookYet for all of that, sometimes he gets lost in the labyrinthine and transgressive worlds he creates. People fault King, but even at his most loquacious, Stephen still stays tethered to Earth while Barker goes parasailing in the blood-clotted seas of his own imagination.  On film, very few know what to do with him. His short stories, often functioning as glimpses into the arcane terror of the world beyond human knowledge, are his best work. Bernard Rose handed in the best Barker film with Candyman in 1992, creating a world of urban fairy stories and long repressed social violence that didn’t feel like a goopy soundstage but a real, probable place. Riyu Kitamura brought his hyperactive visual style and penchant for caricaturizing extreme violence to Midnight Meat Train and redirected the energies of Barker’s short story into something that actually felt like dread. Unfortunately, the new film has no distinct style, voice or compelling narrative to which it can cling. This is strictly for Barker nuts, and even then I hope they aren’t tired when they sit down for it.

 

Jonas Armstrong leads a British cast who acquit themselves admirably in trying to draw a reality from the short stories’ slight length. He plays Simon McNeal, a man who enters the film with his body a living tapestry of scrawled words and phrases; a literal ‘book of blood.’ When the nefarious Wyburd finds Simon, doing so on the request of a ‘collector’, he sees that someone/something is still writing on him. Simon pleads with the man to let him go. He is obviously in great pain and is trying to escape this fate. Wyburd, sanctioned with skinning Simon and ‘keeping it all in one piece’ is not moved in the least, and forces the tortured man to tell him his tale in trade for a quick death.

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The tale he tells is far too simple in construction and far to long in execution; it involves Simon, as a college student, meeting the acquaintance of paranormal investigator Mary Florescu. Simon convinces her that he has amazing parasychic abilities including the habit of listening to the dead. He demonstrates his knowledge by saving Mary’s life through an enigmatic warning,  and when she brings him along to a particularly dark and spooky old house, Simon is attacked–the words and thoughts of the dead tattooed in scars on his body and burned into the very walls.

In the house there is just Simon, Mary and the videographer, Reg. Simon insists they are not alone, Mary believes they are not, and Reg has never seen anything to make him think there could be ghosts in this house or any other. Of course, that is all destined to change. And yet, it takes forever to get to that point. The story is quite tedious, taking its time in setting up the primary conflict which occurs between Reg and Mary, both arguing whether or not Simon is the real deal. The narrative plays with the idea that it all might be a hoax, Simon crazy and Mary even crazier yet, with Reg facing the greatest danger as the cynic. But then, the film has already showed us Simon’s supernaturally scarred body and his eventual fate and there is no tension. The opening monologue about the highways of the dead has also already summed up what we should know about the house and it’s potential for phenomena. Everything else comes down to the execution, which is tepid at best.

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There are no actual scares in the film. Sometimes this is simply because there isnt anything remotely terrifying going on, and other times its because the entire thing is so pedestrian that fear is the farthest thing from our mind. In point of fact, it was my watch-hand I was observing most closely by Book of Blood’s long-winded second half. The acting is decent, but it doesn’t amount to much because the writing turns stale quickly. We never get to know any of these people well, and their drastic turns of character literally make no plausible sense. Its hard to get invested with what turn out to be narrative puppets. Sophie Ward, who was three times as creepy when she played Queen Mombi in Return to Oz, tries to generate an otherworldly obsession with the dead but can’t quite manage much more than a lavish roll of the eyes or a stone-faced stare. Everything here turns cold quickly, and then we are left mourning the film’s potential while it keeps slogging on, unaware that its lifeforce has long since ebbed.

There is one strong element to Book of Blood and that is the late in the game visualization of the spirit world. The film’s visual pallette for most of the going is murky, bleak and non-descript. It looks like any number of tv movies. However, in an attempt to cultivate Barker’s metaphor for the way in which art and words can imprint themselves on the artist and human pain can be manifest and exorcized through its release and expression, Harrison draws on the world of classical art to embody the much ballyhooed highway of the dead. Interestingly, it’s this briefly glimpsed phantasmagoric landscape that makes the most of the written imagery.

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Simon’s word covered body and its use as a framing device was not a new conceit when Barker originally devised it; it was essentially just an homage and re-tinkering of Ray Bradbury’s own Illustrated Man who had tatooed the stories in the collection onto his very body. As a result, there isn’t much of interest or provocation in that image or idea. However, the endless, wandering strings of diverse and varied people, climbing over rolling hills under the darkened skies of a dim and mysterious valley is a powerful illustration. The way the film chooses to frame and juxtapose the ghost world is reminiscent of two very different classical artists who, in their own ways, were equally interested in the same morbid fancies as Barker; I speak of Heironymous Bosch and Carravagio. The latter created mesmerizing portraits and tryptichs, often of the Crucifixtion of Christ(the parallel is here in Simon’s body broken for the eternal rest of wandering souls) and the former imagined some of the most bewildering and complex visions of Hell ever put to canvas. Book of Blood draws directly, in at least two instances, from the artist’s works and the result is our imagination is temporarily sparked. Sadly, this doesn’t last long, and these additions, while carefully laid out beforehand, amount to throwaway bits in relation to the bigger picture.

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Finally, the movie just isn’t entertaining. It trots out blood, gore and misery but it does not touch upon anything we would relate to human experience(other than the art pieces I mentioned) and we are forced to sit there watching events of no consequence happen to people we have no reason to care for in a story that feels like it was written, not in blood on trembling flesh, but on the inside of a toilet paper roll during a particularly long, introspective bathroom visit.

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One Response to “Fantasia 09 Review: Clive Barker’s ‘Book’ is a Yawn of the Dead”

  1. Ula July 15, 2009 at 7:58 am #

    Not being a horror movie fan, I actually appreciated the fact that it wasn’t too scary. Suffice it to say that Jonas Armstrong’s fans, like myself, enjoyed this movie immensely. If nothing else, it’s pure eye candy for us adoring fans. He did acquit himself admirably, as you say, esp. since this is his first film.

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