With a body of work that is explicit, disturbing, and sexually charged, Clive Barker is among the more transgressive horror authors to breach the mainstream in the past 30 years. So how did Hulu manage to turn a seminal Barker volume into a milquetoast adaptation that resembles an old-fashioned made-for-TV-movie in all the worst ways? Unintentionally, one imagines, because you don’t option Barker’s six-volume short-story collection Books Of Blood—a cornerstone of the cheekily named “splatterpunk” movement—unless you’re looking to push some boundaries. And Hulu’s version of Books Of Blood is a case study in how the streaming revolution has changed the rules of what can and cannot be shown on “TV.” But beyond fleeting moments of graphic violence and nudity, the knife’s edge here is actually quite dull.
Director and co-writer Brannon Braga is a science-fiction specialist whose work on Cosmos and The Orville presumably led to Seth MacFarlane’s name appearing in the credits of Books Of Blood as an executive producer. A longtime writer for the Star Trek franchise, Braga’s first foray into directing was on a Marilyn Manson short in 2014. That stadium-goth sensibility bleeds through into Books Of Blood, which begins with a glitchy title card declaring in bold gothic font that the film “dares to open the pages” of the eponymous book and ends with tempera-paint blood flowing to the tune of Manson’s “Deep Six.” Everything does come back around again eventually, and the Queen Of The Damned and Mother Of Tears era of horror appears to be on the rebound.
Books Of Blood was originally announced as an anthology series before being condensed into a feature film, which may account for its attempt to tie its storylines together into a Castle Rock-style shared universe. Many of the stories in Barker’s collection have already been adapted into films: “The Forbidden” into Candyman, “The Last Illusion” into Lord Of Illusions, Rawhead Rex, The Midnight Meat Train. (There’s even already been a film called Book Of Blood, released back in 2009.) Here, Barker’s framing story “The Book Of Blood” is both bookend and centerpiece, telling the gruesome tale of a skeptical university professor (Anna Friel) who falls in love with a psychic (Rafi Gavron) who claims to be in touch with her dead son.
Onto this Braga grafts another framing device, following a crook named Bennett (Yul Vazquez, a quintessential “that guy”) who’s out to collect the apparently quite valuable Book as a “one last job” type of thing. And then you’ve got Jenna (Britt Robertson), a mentally ill college student whose life has become a terrifying onslaught of troubling hallucinations since she went off her meds. Or has it? If each of these storylines had been given a full hour, it may have been rewarding to see their characters popping up in new contexts further down the road, as in Hulu’s better-developed horror anthology series Monsterland. But condensed into an hour and 47 minutes, it’s pre-emptive, and frankly rather presumptuous.
The performances and lensing are both what one might call broadcast quality, professional but not especially memorable or evocative. Where Books Of Blood begins to show stirrings of excitement is when the stories take a turn for the macabre, cutting in CGI phantoms and extreme gore whose shocks are enhanced by the banality of the storytelling surrounding them. There are also faint whiffs of kinky sexuality in scenes like the one where Friel inspects a nude Gavron like a horse at market, but those can be attributed to the source material, not the adaptation. In fact, the idea that you have to work to locate the delicious perversity in a Clive Barker adaptation is a condemnation in itself.