The Books of Blood Part 3 (the 00s)

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.

Dread (2009)

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.

The End?

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.

For the rest of Tom's look into the Books of Blood: Part 1 and Part 2 are in our archives.

The Books of Blood part 2 (The 90s)

Because we love you, and love to torture our horror writer Tom O'Reily, we've had him follow up on his original foray into Clive Barker's Books of Blood to bring you The Books of Blood part 2: the 90s!

In terms of horror movies, the 90s had nothing on the 80s. Graphic, gruesome violence gave way to an over-reliance on computer generated special effects, and gritty slashers were swallowed up by moody overblown gothic art pieces that were more melodrama than scares. And that was before Wes Craven’s double-edged sword, Scream, determined the path for the second half of the decade. The Books of Blood were not immune to these trends. However their usage was kept to a minimum and overall, the 90s treated Barker's short stories much better than the lackluster offerings in the 80s.

Candyman (1992)

BoB Volume Five (In the Flesh for us Yanks) featured “The Forbidden,” a short story about a masters degree candidate named Helen that was researching graphitti in the poorer neighborhoods of London. As Helen gets drawn further and further into the lives and misery of the neighborhood, she comes face to face with their own local bogeyman: The Candyman. Things do not go well for her as she pays the price for gaining such forbidden knowledge.

Our stock and trade at the Cavalcade is bad movies and making fun of them as much as humanly possible. So, please understand that I do not say this lightly: Bernard Rose’s adaptation of the Barker short story is nothing short of brilliant. Rose managed to take the short story as starting point and circumvented the “Saturday Night Live” problem by adding the supernatural element. In the original story, the Candyman is completely human and creates his legend through killing children with tainted candy and the occasional brutal murder. The hook-handed fiend we’ve come to know and love is almost a total film creation. Rose wisely incorporated Barker’s dialogue for the Candyman character which helped elevate this film in terms of adaptations. Candyman is the first film outside of Hellraiser that captures the evocative language that is one of Barker’s trademarks.

It also doesn't hurt to have Tony Todd’s voice delivering those lines, with Virginia Madsen leading the rest of the cast in trying to survive the supernatural forces that impinge upon what their idea of reality. These are two crucial elements in Barker’s work. His stories are almost always set in a rock-solid reality. It’s just that the characters (and readers) were not aware that reality is much deeper than the surface they see.Also, his stories are about adults. It’s refreshing to watch horror films that are not about teenagers that can barely survive high school, let alone a psycho killer. Add to these elements an iconic film score by Phillip Glass, the appropriate levels of gory violence, and it's no surprise that Candyman still unnerves eighteen years later.

Lord of Illusions (1995)

BoB Vol. 6 (Cabal) featured “The Last Illusion” which introduced readers to supernatural detective Harry D’Amour. Harry is hired by the widow of the world famous illusionist Phillip Swann to watch over his body before it can be cremated the next morning. It is not so easy a job as the demons that Swann dealt with to gain his remarkable skills have come to collect their due.

Six years after Nightbreed, Barker convinced Hollywood producers to give him another stab at adapting his own work. Lord of Illusions is a fascinating horror film for a number of reasons. First, Barker tossed out almost everything from his own short story. Harry is still our main character and a detective but the plot and interactions with the other characters are completely changed as is the villain, Nix was an entirely new character made for the film. The film uses many of the themes from the story such as the difference between illusions and actual magic but everything else is a new story. The level of awareness it takes for an artist to be willing to throw everything out to create a story that is better suited to a different medium is impressive.

Second, Barker attempted to make a hybrid cross between a horror film and film noir and even though the film was not a success, the formula was. The plotline of the film follows standard film noir tropes: beautiful dame with secrets hires gumshoe, gumshoe investigates what she tells him but soon uncovers real truth behind the mystery, gumshoe deals with cops, and gumshoe solves whole mystery and/or ends up with girl. All of these conventions are present in Lord of Illusions; however, instead of fighting over “the stuff dreams are made of,” everyone’s trying to avoid the devil (or at least the nearest approximation) ending the world. Barker’s combination of the genre’s is impressive and worthy of close study. I especially enjoyed the noir look in the graveyard meeting with Scott Bakula and pre-X-Men Famke Janssen.

Third, the villains are wonderful. Barry Del Sherman as the androgynous Butterfield! The man creeps his way through the film with a set of tools that would put Dr. Beverly Mantle (Dead Ringers) to shame. His raizon d’etre is to resurrect his mentor and main threat of the film, Nix. Daniel Von Bargen plays the half-Charles Manson/half-Saruman, all-apocalypse-inducing bad guy with a world-weariness that makes him another in a long line of multi-faceted Barker monsters.

Despite its strengths, there is no denying that the film is a mutt-genre wise. This, and what Barker describes as watered-down theatrical release, made for a poor showing at the box office. Luckily, the DVD release features Barker’s director’s cut which has never disappointed this reviewer. To date, this is the third and final film Barker personally adapted.

“The Body Politic” (Quicksilver Highway) (1997)

Muscle memory allows one to do repetitive activities without thinking. It makes one wonder if knowledge lies in one’s brain or in the body. Barker answers this question directly in BoB Vol. 4 (The Inhuman Condition) in “The Body Politic.” As it turns out, every part of the body has its own consciousness, including one’s hands. And if you think they’re content to do every little thing you need, you are in for a shock. Well, a relatively minor shock in comparison to when the hands start lopping each other off at the wrist and scuttling away to freedom away from their “tyrannical” bodies! Think Evil Dead 2 mixed with the Bolshevik Revolution. Once again, Barker’s gallows humor presents itself in a fun little story.

Quicksilver Highway was yet another attempt to recreate the magic of Tales from the Crypt's short horror fiction, celebrity guests, and an amusing host. Alas, not even Christopher Lloyd in a wig worse than Doc Brown’s could get this show on its feet. But we did get one telemovie/pilot which featured one story by Stephen King ("Chattery Teeth") and Barker’s “The Body Politic.” The adaptation starred Matt Frewer with his rebellious appendages and was fairly straight-forward. Aside from some hilarious images of what look like an army of Thing Addams' taking over the world in cheesy, cheap 90s CGI, it’s fairly forgettable. But if you’re a completest, there are copies available on Amazon (linked to the right).

And with that half-hour episode, Barker fans would have to wait twelve years for the next Book of Blood story to reach the movie or video screen. Hopefully, the next and final installment of this series will not take that long. Join the Cavalcade next time for The Books of Blood part 3: Adventures in Direct-to-DVD Land!

The Books of Blood part 1 (The 80s)

Even if you don’t recognize Clive Barker by name, all we need do is mention Hellraiser and you instantly know the nature of the man’s work.  Before he turned the world of horror movies on its ear with the aforementioned tale of leather-clad S & M zombies from beyond the grave, Barker did the same with horror fiction.

In 1984, Barker hit the ground running with the first of a six volume anthology of short horror fiction entitled The Books of Blood.  The title comes from a bad joke in the titular short story: “We’re all books of blood, when we’re open, we’re red.”  This quote is indicative of Barker’s combination of black humor and grotesque imagery.  Over the years, several stories from the BoB have been adapted into films and television shows with varying degrees of success.  With the latest adaptation, Dread , premiering at the end of this week, we’ve strapped down staff-writer Tom O'Reilly, and had him endure a marathon of perversion and graphic violence to see how good, or bad-these video nasties were!

Rawhead Rex (1986)

The first time Barker was adapted into film, and he disowned it-so you know you’re in for a good time.  Rawhead Rex is the story of an ancient 9-foot-tall monster that is freed from thousands of years’ imprisonment in a small town outside of Kent.  Once free, Rawhead goes on a rampage, killing just about every single thing he sees except menstruating women (not kidding) until the townspeople manage to get their act together and gang up on the poor, misunderstood engine of destruction.  The film adaptation is essentially the same thing. Rawhead runs around killing everything except women.  So what is Clive’s problem?

Well, for starters, Rawhead looks like a taller version of the lead troll from the seminal work: Ernest Scared Stupid.  Even for the 80s, this is a pretty sad excuse for an animatronic monster face.  The mouth almost works, the eyes intermittently glow red, and it’s just plain silly looking.  Also not helping matters is that the short story is primarily told from Rawhead’s point of view, and the film plays out like a bad slasher film focusing on characters introduced two whole minutes before they’re summarily butchered.  Rawhead is supposed to be the main character, and what the audience gets is David Duke’s (not the one you’re thinking of) Howard Hallenbeck trying the solve the mystery of-and exacting Rotoscopic revenge on-Rawhead (Hint: there is no mystery).

The original short story is hardly Shakespeare, and Barker wrote the screenplay-so it’s a little difficult to understand why he’d hate it so vehemently.  I mean, they even managed to retain the cinema-defining moment of an English vicar ecstatically receiving a golden shower from Rawhead.

Yeah.

Mercifully, this video has been out of print for years.  Of course, I own it....What? It was only five dollars!

The Yattering and Jack (1987)

Probably the closest thing to a straight comedy that Barker has written so far, the story tells of Jack, a gherkin importer whose mother was a witch that reneged on a deal which granted her great power.  Naturally, he’s been cursed by the cheated Lord of the Flies to be haunted by a squat little demon known as “The Yattering.”  Charged with driving Jack insane, the reader follows The Yattering’s inept attempts and Jack nonchalantly brushing them off as tricks of the light or “the house settling” to great comedic effect.  Think The Screwtape Letters but the demon is an idiot and the Patient wins!

TYAJ was adapted as an episode of the horror anthology tv show, “Tales from the Darkside.”  Since it was only a 30-minute episode, this is one of the few adaptations that didn’t have to deal with the “Saturday Night Live” conundrum: how to stretch a barely amusing idea into a feature-length film?  Aside from toning down the more graphic moments (cat mutilation, demon masturbation, etc.), the adaptation is spot on.  I was impressed with the consistency of Jack’s character in television even though the actor was obviously bored with the part.  The special effects are as good as you’d think for a late-80s genre television show: lots of props tied to fishing line and being hurled across the room.  Which does have it’s own sort of charm.  However, when reading the story, I don't think anyone imagined The Yattering as Danny Woodburn half-naked and painted red *shudder*.  But, you don’t have to take my word for it as the episode is available to enjoy on MySpace video.

Nightbreed (1990)

Now technically, Cabal-the story that became Nightbreed-is not in The Books of Blood.  However, the stories from the sixth volume of BoB was published in America with Cabal, so we're squeezing it in.  Cabal is the story of Aaron Boone, a Canadian with non-descript mental problems, that imagines that he belongs in a mythical town full of monsters.  Unlike the unfortunate plight of many schizophrenics, Boone’s fantasy world is actually real!  Midian is populated by assorted freaks and monsters that want nothing more than to be left alone.  Well, to be left alone and eat the occasional hapless passerby.  You know how it is.  This sort of behavior pits Midian and Boone against the local Sheriff and all sorts of allegorical violence and mayhem erupts.

Having learned his lesson with Rawhead Rex, Barker has made a more concerted effort to adapt his own material for film.  After the success success of Hellraiser, Barker was poised to make what he envisioned as the “Star Wars of monster movies.”  It’s sadly ironic that Nightbreed is the film that most nails the trouble with Barker’s incredible imagination, and the ability of film to capture it.  Nightbreed starts out strong, but it's clear halfway through the film that the studio got antsy and had Barker truncate the second half to such an extent that it's impossible to make heads or tails of what’s going on.  And I’ve read the book!

The make-up effects are strong, as is Danny Elfman’s score, but it’s nearly impossible to become invested in the characters or story as both fly by without any real explanation.  With the exception of a rare on-screen performance as the villain by director David Cronenberg, the acting is bland. Which is ironic as lead actor, Craig Sheffer, would go on to give a fantastic performance in Hellraiser V: Inferno .

As movie reviewer Jay Scott said, …it's bad, but it's not memorably bad.”  (Scott, Jay (February 20, 1990). "Beasties that stink up the night Nightbreed". Globe and Mail) I would give this critique one caveat: apparently, there is over an hour’s worth of footage that was cut that still exists.  Perhaps it could make this a more enjoyable film.  If anyone else is as interested as me in what this could look like, please go here to sign the petition for the longer cut of Nightbreed.

This concludes our look at The Books of Blood in the 80s.  Stay tuned for part two, which covers that halcyon age: The 90s!

Part 2 and Part 3 have been posted!-The Management