Based on two of his short stories, Book of Blood brings us Clive Barker’s take on the well-worn haunted-house genre. While the film offers plenty of moodiness and a healthy dose of eroticism, it doesn’t bring much new to the table and ultimately overstays its welcome.
Book of Blood opens with a simple but ominous scene of a horribly scarred young man struggling to down some breakfast and coffee in a quiet English diner. His ragged, lacerated skin testifies to some deeper story, as does the mysterious phone message of the man who is obviously spying on him: “I’ve found him.” A few minutes later and the scarred man is strapped to a table in an abandoned cabin, about to be flayed alive. As his captor strips off his shirt, the full extent of his deformity is revealed: his entire skin is carved with strange letters and sigils – a literal “book of blood.” His captor offers him a choice: he can die slow and painful, or he can tell the story of his skin and die quick. And so the scarred man begins: “The dead have highways…”
Flashing back from this frame story, Book of Blood introduces us to a younger, considerably healthier version of the narrator, Simon McNeal (Jonas Armstrong). A student, he crosses paths with a teacher and paranormal investigator named Mary Florescu (Sophie Ward). After his warning to her to “drive carefully” is followed almost immediately by a freak automotive accident, she begins to suspect there may be more to the lad than there seems. Simon eventually confesses to having a certain “sensitivity” for the paranormal, and Mary convinces him to join her in investigating a local haunted house. Aside from the usual reports of strange sights and sounds, this house has the somewhat more convincing evidence of a young woman who used to live there having had her faced ripped off by an unseen force. As Mary and Simon investigate the supernatural goings-on, Mary begins to wonder whether Simon is being entirely honest with her, or whether she might be the victim of an all-too-natural con.
Based on two short stories from horror author Clive Barker’s collections of the same name, Book of Blood is a moody, darkly erotic tale that is at times very effective but falls prey to uneven pacing and a certain level of predictability. While arguably a more mature story than much of Barker’s output that has made it to the big screen – your Hellraisers and your Candymen, to say nothing of your Midnight Meat Trains – Book of Blood nevertheless has the feel of a tale that would have worked better as an installment in an hour-long anthology series like Masters of Horror than it does as a full-length feature.
Performances by the two leads are strong if not overly memorable, effectively conveying the mixture of confusion, terror, and arousal as Simon and Mary fall under each other’s charms even as the spirits of the house manipulate and toy with them. As we discover later in the film, both characters are haunted by particularly bleak episodes in their past, and Armstrong and Ward do a good job at letting these secrets play beneath the surface until they’re finally revealed. Ward is also faced with the complex task of hinting at the darker elements of her personality that set up the film’s conclusion. While the actress does the best she can with this material, the transition between who she is for most of the movie and who she is in the final few scenes feels a bit jarring an unearned, but this is more the fault of the script than of her performance. Veteran English actor Clive Russell also deserves a mention for his brief screentime as the sociopathic hired killer tasked with separating young MacNeal from his hide. He imbues the role with a pitch-dark sense of humor that unfortunately is missing from the rest of the dour proceedings.
The script by Darin Silverman and director John Harrison is a predictable but moody affair, focusing on crafting a steady sense of unease rather than relying on jump scares or excessive gore. The pacing, however, is tedious at times, and the story’s eventual resolution feels a bit arbitrary and not entirely consistent with the characters’ previously established personalities. The ending is one of the few elements of the script that surprises, but surprise poorly supported by the earlier foundations of the story isn’t necessarily a good thing. It has its moments and is worth a rental if you’re a particular fan of Barker or the genre, but sadly, for a story so focused on storytelling, it’s not a story many will remember long beyond the viewing.
The lone special feature (outside of trailers, which don’t really count) is a featurette about the making of the film. It’s your standard-issue mix of interviews, production anecdotes, and behind-the-scenes footage. Like the film itself, it does the job just fine, but doesn’t offer anything new or revolutionary. If you’re dying to know more about Book of Blood, it’s worth a watch, and it’s certainly more entertaining than the trailers.