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.
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.
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!