Books of Blood Review: An Unsettling, Unremarkable Bag of Tricks

Horror fiction wouldn't be what it is today without Clive Barker, with the unconventional and genre-defying author terrifying audiences for decades. Barker's work has already been adapted into film several times over, with the Hellraiser and Candyman franchises becoming particularly iconic. Still, there's a lot of Barker's bibliography that has yet to be explored in a movie, much of which comes from his Books of Blood anthology series. Enter Hulu's upcoming Books of Blood film, which sets out to bring the unnerving, chaotic energy of his books into the modern era. Books of Blood definitely doesn't reinvent the wheel in terms of horror movies -- the construction of its anthology storytelling isn't as tightly-wound as it would like to be, and a good chunk of its ensemble come across as half-baked. But there are just enough moments where the film is effectively chilling to stop it from being a total wash.

Books of Blood follows three disparate horror stories, with grow more overlapped and interwoven as the film stretches on. First is Jenna (Britt Robertson), a young woman with misophonia and a troubled past who flees her home in search of a new beginning. Meanwhile, there's the saga of Mary (Anna Friel), a skeptic psychologist who, while mourning the loss of her young son, develops a bond with a charismatic young medium named Simon (Rafi Gavron). And rounding out the film is Bennett (Yul Vasquez), a hitman who thinks he will be able to retire once he tracks down a rare book.

With thirty existing stories under the Books of Blood mantle, there's a wealth of storytelling that could be explored in a modern-day context. That makes the path of the film, which is both a mixture of existing Books of Blood canon and new supplemental content, both admirable and frustrating. The film can't seem to decide whether it wants to forge a new canon or pay tribute to the source material, and that indecisiveness sacrifices a bit of the energy of Barker's books along the way. There are moments that will provoke the unease and dread that Barker's horror work is known for - especially once the film's impressive visual effects get the spotlight - and there are a handful of sequences where the film's characters are given a bit more dimension, but those fleeting moments are sandwiched in between scenes that are either too flat or too melodramatic. There could easily be a way to subvert or recontextualize Barker's stories into a new era if the film wasn't trapped into feeling like a collection of deleted scenes from a 2000s TV drama.

Then there's the matter of the plot structure itself, which tries to spin its proverbial yarn into a twist-filled, "it's all connected" saga. But in actuality, the unconventional structure of Books of Blood might set it back, as each story and reveal arguably cheapens whatever came before it. One character's third-act fate is unceremoniously spoiled in the first act, and an inexplicable, unsettling final reveal surrounding Robertson's Jenna ruins everything that audiences were meant to believe about her. At times, it almost feels like the film could have worked better as an anthology TV series (which the project was reportedly initially developed as), with each character's tale being given a proper amount of time to unfold, so that the eventual crossovers and "gotcha" moments have a bit more bite.

The cast of Books of Blood does make the journey of the film somewhat worth taking, even as the destination isn't afraid to essentially slap audiences in the face. Robertson carries a significant portion of the film admirably, and it's incredibly easy to empathize with her character at moments, but this certainly isn't a career-defining performance for her. Friel is another standout of the film, and her dynamic with Gavron serves as a messy but magnetic anchor for the events that unfold around them. It's also worth praising Freda Foh Shen and Nicholas Campbell, who prove to be largely-effective villains in the scenes they appear in.

Horror has grown to be a profound and pivotal mirror of the trials and tribulations of our culture, whether with modern film classics like Get Out and Us, or expansive televised storytelling like Lovecraft Country, Black Mirror, and Castle Rock. Hulu's Books of Blood could have easily joined those ranks, but it ultimately self-sabotages in the process, creating an aggressively-okay adaptation that barely scratches the surface of Clive Barker's weirdness, and doesn't say nearly as much as it could about the intersection between horror, trauma, and apathy. The chilling special effects and some of the film's performances make Books of Blood a decent casual watch for this Halloween season, but it absolutely is far from revolutionary.

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Rating: 2 out of 5

Books of Blood will debut on Hulu on October 7th.