Here's the third and final part of the Tom’s tour through Clive Barker’s Books of Blood : The 2000s!
The new millennium has seen an almost renaissance of splatter-punk and overall exciting horror films. Lower production costs and, more importantly, cheaper distribution methods have given way to a resurgence of gore-film marketability. While some may view this situation as an over-saturated market, it does allow for more higher quality horror films to sneak through the tidal wave of direct-to-video trash. Such are the three Barker films adapted in this first decade. Though all three were intended to have (and to a tiny degree had) theatrical releases, most audiences have seen them on the small screen.
The Midnight Meat Train (2008)
The first “real” story of The Books of Blood (as explained below) is the magnificently titled “The Midnight Meat Train.” Let’s take a moment to reflect on how incredible this title is.
Okay, moving on.
Leon Kaufman falls asleep one night on a New York subway only to be awakened by a man who has killed, butchered, and hung several of Kaufman’s fellow New Yorkers on meat hooks! I know the New York transit system is dangerous but this is beyond Bernie Goetz’s worst nightmare. The butcher, Mahogany, (again with the incredible names) discovers Kaufman’s presence and a life and death struggle ensues with more at stake than is immediately apparent.
To tell you anymore would be to spoil one of the better endings and twists a short horror story can take. And to be honest, at this point in this series of articles, you guys should have gone out and bought and/or borrowed a copy of these books already. If you haven’t yet, go forth and procure a copy and join the rest of us for the discussion of the film.
In 2008, Ryuhei Kitamura (of Godzilla: Final Wars fame) brought the story to film with exceptional results. Bradley Cooper and Vinnie Jones star as our hero and villain. With this particular adaptation, Kitamura had a story problem even worse than stretching the length of the film to a feature running time: why would Kaufman keep going back into the subway every night when he knows Mahogany is waiting to kill him and everyone else. You remember Schlock Horror Movie Rule #3, right? Here, Kaufman is now a photographer on the verge of breaking into the big time if he can just get that one great shot. Foolishly, he thinks he’s found his ticket when he finds Mahogany.
Worthy of special note is Vinnie Jones as Mahogany. Jones has impressed us before with his performances in Snatch and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but here, with hardly any dialog, he creates a malevolent force. With body language reminiscent of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, Jones adds a reserved quality to Mahogany, inkeeping with the short story and unnerving on the screen.
Kitamura brings a solid visual look to the film with his inventive camera movements, color palette, and astounding amount of gore. There is a surprising body count for a Barker film, with death scenes that are almost too painful to watch. Combine this with great performances and a solid story, I will put it out there that The Midnight Meat Train is the best Clive Barker-based film since Candyman.
Book of Blood (2009)
As referenced above, “The Midnight Meat Train” is the first real story in the BoB series. However, “The Book of Blood” serves as a short framing device for the entire series. It is also the shortest story.
A paranormal researcher named Mary Florescu has hired a psychic medium to help unravel the secrets of a haunted house. Unfortunately for Florescu, her medium, Simon McNeal, is actually a con man. Unfortunately for McNeal, the house really is haunted, and the dead are more than a little frustrated with McNeal’s shenanigans. The disembodied spirits take their revenge by inscribing their tales of woe directly onto McNeal’s flesh, thus creating the series of stories in the Books of Blood.
John Harrison combined this with the final story coda “On Jerusalem Street” to create 2009’s Book of Blood. The film follows both stories fairly closely. Adding back story when necessary to flesh out the film to feature length. Unfortunately, it’s just not that exciting.
Nor should it be. The short story upon which it is based isn’t really meant to exist on its own. It’s there to set all of the other stories in motion, and since this film exists alone, it doesn’t even set up the other movies.
That said, the high points of the story are captured perfectly. It’s just that there are only about three of them. The most prominent being when the dead exert their will upon the haunted house, unzip reality, and horrifically mutilate our fake psychic. This scarification leads to a truly fascinating visual gimmick: McNeal’s scarred skin is constantly being rewritten. New texts are perpetually carving themselves onto this poor bastard with no end in sight. It’s disturbing.
Unfortunately, these moments and visuals are few and far between. The bulk of the film plays like an episode of Ghost Hunters with a few character moments and sex scenes almost thrown-in after the fact.
BoB Vol. 2 features a story about that one guy you hang out with who, on the third or fourth round of drinks, takes whatever philosophical debate you’ve been having just a little too far. Thinking of that friend now? Good, now imagine if he/she were bat-shit crazy. “Dread” is the story of how Stephen Grace met Quaid, and how Quaid drove everyone he knew insane. Literally. Quaid wants to get to the heart of-you guessed it-dread. Why we feel it and, more importantly, how we can overcome it. Not relying on his usual graphic visuals, Barker builds suspense by revealing, little by little, the lengths to which Quaid will go to get the answers he so desperately needs. This includes trapping people in rooms filled with their worst fears, watching to see if they overcome them, or succumb with disastrous results.
(Aside: Interestingly, while watching this film, one realizes that, in a way, Barker presupposed the “torture porn” genre of horror, i.e. films like Saw, Hostel, Captivity, etc. In most horror films, the goal of the “killer” is simply to kill; they’ve gotten more creative as audiences have gotten more jaded. Whereas, with torture porn, the goal is to watch the victims suffer for ninety minutes and then die, if they’re lucky.)
The film follows much of the same plot, but with addition of a film project to justify their experiments instead of Quaid simply having odd extracurricular activities. This aspect helped fix the “SNL Problem,” by adding filler interviews with prospective dread sufferers. However, I think this may have hurt the film overall as there is now a sizable chunk of “not a lot happening” between the beginning and the end of the film. On the bright side, the characters are fleshed out better than most horror films, though some are developed in a similar fashion to the later Nightmare on Elm Street films: one prominent characteristic which is used against them with horrific results.
My only real complaint comes from a original story-versus-film perspective. In the book, the portrayal of Quaid was a slow revealing of the depths of his insanity. The film goes the opposite route by letting the audience in on how crazy Quaid is from the start. As a result, not only is the mystery and suspense undercut, as the audience knows it’s only a matter of time before he flips out and hurts people. As such, I became a little impatient waiting for the inevitable bloodbath to begin. Not helping matters is Shaun Evans portrayal of Quaid as something of a whiny twerp. (I know he’s English but couldn’t someone have told him how to hold a baseball bat like an American?) However, these complaints are minor.
Out of the 30 stories in the Books of Blood, only 9 have been adapted for the screen. Currently, only one more is in some form of development: “Pig Blood Blues,” the story of overly violent prep school hijinks. There’s more than enough material to make at least 9 more films or better yet, a cable horror anthology. If anything happens, rest assured, we’ll be here to tell you all about it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the Cavalcade’s look at the films of one of the more prominent horror voices of our generation. For those of you more familiar with the BoB series, which stories do you think would make a good feature? Let us know in the comments section and keep the discussion going.