With so much horror content available on streaming channels right now, it’s surprising that there aren’t more contemporary horror anthology series in the style of Tales from the Crypt. There are a handful of recent ones, from HBO’s Room 104 to Amazon’s Lore to Jordan Peele’s revitalized Twilight Zone on CBS All Access, but mostly, recent series take inspiration from the format without fully committing to it. Shows like Lovecraft Country employ monster-of-the-week elements to tell an ongoing story, while anthology projects like Welcome to the Blumhouse offer stand-alone stories at a feature-length running time.
Hulu’s new movie Books of Blood continues that mix-and-match approach. At times, it feels like two and a half episodes of a horror show remixed into a super-sized pilot — appropriate for a feature-length film produced by multiple TV companies. Its unusual structure makes it both novel and ungainly.
The film was inspired by Clive Barker’s Books of Blood short-story anthologies, some of which have already been picked over and adapted into other films. Remember Midnight Meat Train, starring Bradley Cooper? No? How about the 1986 Irish film Rawhead Rex, or the comically bad Scott Bakula film Lord of Illusions? At least one Books of Blood adaptation found success — “The Forbidden” became the 1992 cult classic Candyman. And still others have been mined for different horror-show anthology projects. Maybe that’s why the most vivid and substantial chunk of the new film adaptation doesn’t appear to come from the books at all. It’s an unsettling story that follows Jenna (Britt Robertson), a young woman suffering from misophonia — a psychological sensitivity that renders the sounds of chewing, in particular, into a nightmarish, overwhelming ordeal.
On the run from her family and blocking out the world’s symphony of crunching and splattering with noise-canceling headphones, Jenna winds up at a small-town bed-and-breakfast run by a genteel older couple. (Why she spends so much of the story in a web café is a terrifying mystery for the ages.) Jenna’s insistent paranoia keeps this segment on edge, without an obvious connection to various go-to horror subgenres like “masked killer” or “damp ghost.” There’s a pervasive omnidirectional creepiness that wrings suspense from the simple, deliberately paced mystery of where this story is ultimately going. The movie also generates curiosity about how Jenna’s story will tie into the seemingly unrelated tale of a grief-ridden skeptic (Anna Friel) seduced, in more ways than one, by a psychic medium (Rafi Gavron).
But on its own, this second plot is more manipulative than chilling, sticking the talented Friel in a broad nerd-professor getup and rushing through both her personal pain and her relationship with Gavron in an unconvincing blur. A third storyline, about a pair of criminals searching for a rare book worth millions of dollars, plays like a framing device awkwardly and unnecessarily appended to what’s already essentially a framing origin story. It’s also the worst offender of the movie’s overall writing style, which has an old-school TV quality, where every other line of dialogue is either exposition or some form of cliché.
This makes some sense, in that director and co-writer Brannon Braga has worked primarily in network-style TV. It makes less sense when considering that Braga is a veteran of multiple Star Trek projects that balance pulp adventure with thoughtful character development. The only character in Books of Blood who’s anywhere close to fully imagined is Robertson’s skittish, troubled Jenna, and even she often comes across as a detailed concept rather than a living, breathing human. Synthesizing its three-ish storylines into a single narrative without a clear thematic purpose, Books of Blood becomes a shaggy-dog story with a few impressively macabre moments and images.
It also pulls together sometimes-disparate horror-movie influences. It’s fun to spot bits of Texas Chainsaw Massacre here and the Insidious series there. But this project, apparently once intended as a full TV series, most closely resembles a 1980s horror anthology like Cat’s Eye, only with more narrative ambition and less overall spooky-story satisfaction. Braga has made a watchable facsimile of a few TV episodes, which seems vaguely designed to inspire some sequels or a series spinoff, but doesn’t exactly demand them, either. Instead, Books of Blood floats around in that mysterious netherworld between television and film.