When it comes to low-budget horror movies, even the good ones tend to slip by unnoticed, which probably explains why “Salem” creators Brannon Braga and Adam Simon were drawn to a brand name like Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood” to package their otherwise generic Hulu horror anthology. Less a proper feature than the ersatz pilot for an open-ended number of future installments, this three-part scare-fest uses the flesh-flaying title chapter in Barker’s 1984 short-story omnibus, “The Book of Blood,” to frame two lesser entries with no relation to the beloved pulp collection — which has already spawned such films as “Rawhead Red,” “Candyman” and “The Midnight Meat Train.”
The cleverest trick about Braga and Simon’s adaptation may be the way it uses a super-shlocky red herring to throw audiences off the scent of the title, which Barker himself has cheekily described as, “Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red.” In this opening vignette, a hit man (Yul Vazquez, “Russian Doll”) presses a rare book dealer for the whereabouts of the eponymous tome, slashing his throat before setting off in search of the ominous treasure. This bit is by far the weakest of the film’s three parts, but it gets audiences who don’t know Barker’s work well looking for a literal book — whereas the collection’s stories are carved by departed souls into the flesh of one unlucky character.
Though the film doesn’t draw from the actual “Books of Blood” so much as from fresh contributions from Barker’s imagination, Braga stays true to this core idea, while spinning it in a way that won’t be entirely predictable to devotees. Truth be told, it’s hard to predict where these stories might be going because the characters are so vaguely defined to begin with. The most significant screen time goes to Jenna (Britt Robertson), a traumatized college dropout who escapes from home rather than being sent to “the Farm,” where, she says, the only vegetables they grow are the patients. Jenna suffers from something called misophonia — a hatred of sound — and Braga has fun amplifying noises would be inaudible to others, like other people chewing and whatever it is she hears scratching under the floor and behind the walls.
Details like these are intriguing, but tend not to add up in any coherent way. Frankly, it’s strange to get short stories with so many loose threads and dead ends as these, considering that other anthology formats (like “The Twilight Zone”) tend to strip away all the excess material and focus on efficiency. Here, we watch Jenna drawing creepy sketches in her notebook — scarier than anything she actually faces in the film — and freaking out when she imagines being followed by a pale man with sunken eye sockets. She finds temporary calm at an B&B tended by a kindly old nurse (Freda Foh Shen) who’s so sweet, something must be amiss. Something most certainly is.
And then there’s the story of Mary Florensky (Anna Friel), an academic dedicated to debunking psychic phenomena who’s forced to reevaluate her skepticism when hunky Simon (Rafi Gavron) shows up with a message for Mary … from her dead son. He strips down and proves to her that he can channel dead souls, and she’s so impressed by what she sees that they become lovers. You can see where this relationship leads for yourself, though it’s worth reporting that this is the closest “Books of Blood” gets to pure, uncut Barker: The author (who also dabbles as a visual artist) has always had a kinky streak, and there’s real erotic heat to Mary and Simon’s chapter that’s missing from the other two entries.
Overall, however, Braga seems less concerned with exploring that unsettling intersection of eros and horror for which Barker is known than with throwing random triggers at audiences: a hypodermic needle to the eye, bugs crawling out of a character’s mouth and up her nose, and overwhelming compulsions to fatally stab or shoot oneself. But these are all fair game, since for Barker, everything goes back to what we do — or allow to have done — to our bodies. Too bad the actors involved here are so inconsistent, delivering the equivalent of daytime-TV performances in scenes that are shot like late-night cable. Let’s not pretend that the hokeyness isn’t part of the fun though. With a certain kind of horror, a laugh’s as good as a scream, and “Books of Blood” delivers plenty of the former.
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