If you’re a fan of “The Yellow Wallpaper”—and by the light of All the Queens of Horror, there is no better time than right now to re/acquaint yourself with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 proto-feminist classic—you will find yourself positively geeking out with seasonally malevolent glee at the first act of Books of Blood. Perhaps it is coincidence, but director Brannon Braga’s choice in both bedroom décor color palette and mentally disturbed (according to other people) heroine is enough to send shivers of joy up the spines of English majors of a certain era.
It’s a disappointment that the film overall fails to live up to the literary rule-breaker it initially evokes with such magnificent creepiness. (To be fair, that’s an extremely high bar.) Inspired by horrormeister Clive Barker’s 1984-1985 sextet of the same name, (Barker is credited as a cowriter on the screenplay), Books of Blood has several respectable plot twists but just as many groan-worthy (and not in a good way) cliches. Director Brannon Braga also indulges in a lazy reliance on atmospherics. Books of Blood looks scary. All around it’s a solid A for Braga’s eerie opulence: disembodied shadows (OR ARE THEY?) flitting through endless halls, inmates lining the sickly-green hallways of asylums, menacing cars driven by phantoms, armies of vermin, and the blood, oh my sweet Beelzebub on a biscuit, the blood. If you aren’t menstruating at the start of Books of Blood, you might be by the end.
But looking scary and feeling scary are not the same, and on the whole, Book of Blood fails in the litmus test that horror must pass if it’s at all effective.
The three-part plot peaks in the first third, which follows Jenna (Britt Robertson), a troubled college student who has left school because, as we’re grimly informed, something bad happened with a boy. Amplifying her heartbreak is the fact that Jenna suffers from a hearing disorder that amplifies “mouth sounds” such as chewing, swallowing, slurping, licking, or teeth-grinding. Family dinner becomes a torture session, a ride on a packed bus one of Dante’s inner circles. Robertson’s nuanced performance is the movie’s strongest element. She generates an ocean of empathy for the character through Jenna’s flight from home, a trauma-triggered trip that lands her at the world’s most suspicious bed and breakfast.
It’s clear from check-in that Jenna’s hosts (Freda Foh Shen, Clive Russell) are hiding something diabolical with their folksy, salt-of-aphorism and preponderance for hugging total strangers. But the really scary part of Jenna’s plight isn’t her possible Sweeney Todd/Mrs. Lovett-adjacent hosts. Any female who has spent time alone on the road or as a solo guest in unfamiliar lodgings knows the anxiety of wondering if you’ll truly be safe as you fall asleep. Robertson captures that fear, even when the plot has her doing the hoary, ridiculous damsel-in-distress nonsense (going into dark rooms alone, not leaving when that wallpaper seems to start talking, etc.)
Still, Jenna is ultimately stuck in a movie that relies on torture-porn tropes (sewing and surgical instruments a’hoy!) rather than characters and story.
The other primary story here belongs to Mary (Anna Friel), a professional hoax-debunker grieving the death of her seven-year-old son from leukemia. Sparks and perhaps also ghosts start to fly when Mary falls for a man purporting to commune with the dead (Ravi Gavron). It is at this point that director Braga leans into the spooky children who may or may not be ghosts. It’s a conceit that’s been with us since The Omen, and Books of Blood has nothing new to add.
As bookends to both Mary’s and Jenna’s tales of woe, Braga offers up a pair of hitmen (Yul Vazquez, Farid Yazdan) whose hapless bookshop proprietor target offers them the priceless titular tome (singular) in exchange for his life. If you are the sort of person whose dream domicile is a castle filled with floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves that come with ladders, you will want to gorge your eyes on the long tracking shot that winds through one of cinema’s grandest bookshop scenes.
But it’s lazy. It does nothing new, merely retreading places we’ve already been. v