Well! Heh, heh! Hello there boys, ghouls and non-DIE-naries. It’s me again, your voluble villain of vivacious vicarious violence, Vern! I don’t tend to review the anthologies nearly as much as other types of horror, but this year two of the SCREAM-ing services have new ones that seemed promising. So I’ve prepared for you an anthology of anthologies, a little two-headed review I call THE PAIR-ER OF TERROR!
Hulu’s BOOKS OF BLOOD and Shudder’s THE MORTUARY COLLECTION both find fresh ways to deal with the horror host/wraparound story tradition. THE MORTUARY COLLECTION is formatted as stories told by creepy old mortician Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown, PET SEMATARY II) – he looks like The Tall Man from PHANTASM – to Sam (Caitlin Custer, Teen Wolf), a young woman he’s interviewing for a job. I like that some of the stories had me thinking, “Well, that’s a pretty simplistic moralistic kind of ironic ending” and then Sam would point out as much, to Montgomery’s increasing frustration. And then the last and best segment is a story about Sam, ending with a great twist that leads into the wraparound finale, which really works as the climax of the movie and not just a wrap up.
BOOKS OF BLOOD sort of does the whole thing in reverse – instead of establishing up front what the stories are (comic books, campfire tales, etc.) they unfold and explain at the end what they’re all about, like an origin story. If you’re familiar with Clive Barker’s short story collections of the same name you know what that means (SPOILER: they’re the stories of the dead whose names are carved into a guy’s flesh.)
I haven’t read those books since the early ‘90s, but it’s my understanding that the three stories here are not exactly adapted, but two of them take concepts from “The Book of Blood” and its sequel “On Jerusalem Street,” and otherwise they’re based on new ideas suggested by Barker. It starts as a crime movie. An enforcer called Bennett (Yul Vazquez, FRESH, AMERICAN GANGSTER) comes to collect from an old book store owner (support independent booksellers, you asshole), who unsuccessfully tries to save himself by telling him where he can find an extremely valuable book. Bennett and his partner (Andy McQueen, AALIYAH: THE PRINCESS OF R&B) drive to a scary part of town called Ravenwood – scary not because of crime (which I’m sure they could handle) but because some unspecified bad thing happened there, so shit and/or people are crazy. I prefer the more wildly fantastical Barker of HELLRAISER and NIGHTBREED, but this mix of criminals and the supernatural does remind me of some of his stories that mix in other genres, using cops, detectives, spies or mercenaries.
The movie takes a tangent to follow a young woman named Jenna (Britt Robertson, SCREAM 4, TOMORROWLAND) who suffers from a fear of sounds that causes the chewing and slurping of her parents at the dinner table to be unbearably loud and disgusting. They want to put her in an institution, so (like Cole in THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN) she takes off, winding up at a bed and breakfast where she meets some seemingly nice people, but hears scratching inside the walls and has horrifying nightmares about roaches crawling out of her mouth and shit.
The cool thing about this story is that it keeps bringing in different types of weirdness in waves, so I couldn’t get a grasp of the crazy place it was going until pretty much when it got there. I’m sure to many it’s a negative that it seems to jump through a few different concepts, but I like the unsettling unwieldiness of it. You suspect she shouldn’t be trusting these people, and then she starts finding strange hidden compartments in the walls… a good mix of normal anxieties and the surreal. Freda Foh Shen (THE GLIMMER MAN, AD ASTRA) and Nicholas Campbell (FAST COMPANY, THE DEAD ZONE) are great as the alternately supportive and sinister owners of the place. And there’s a narrative trick or two in this one that successfully played with my expectations.
(SPOILERISH: The story seems to end in a harsh and unsatisfying way, but later continues in an even harsher but much more satisfying way.)
The next story concerns Nicole (Anna Friel, BRADLEY COOPER is LIMITLESS), a professor well known for debunking phony psychics and what not. She’s approached at school by an annoyingly cryptic young Brit named Simon (Rafi Gavron, BRADLEY COOPER’S A STAR IS BORN) who at first seems like he’s harassing her, but ends up convincing her he’s a medium by going into a room naked, and the lights go out and suddenly there are messages written all over the walls in blood.
His demonstration changes her whole world view, and he becomes her partner in work and in bed. This story, in my opinion, drags a little. But it soon reaches that mean exclamation point that a horror short story needs to end on. Because she lost a son and hasn’t gotten over it, she really wants to believe. So when he admits he’s a phony it doesn’t go well for him. At least not by normal human standards. He does get to live the extraordinary life of a bizarre, mutilated Clive Barker character. (SPOILER) He becomes the Book of Blood, with the names of the dead who speak through him carved into his skin, this was the bad thing that happened in Ravenwood, and he’s who Bennett is coming for, thinking he’s looking for an actual book.
BOOKS OF BLOOD is directed by Brannon Braga (Cosmos, The Orville) and written by Adam Simon (BRAIN DEAD, CARNOSAUR, BONES, THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT) and Braga (various Star Treks, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2). Braga and Barker apparently met many times and came up with a ton of ideas and would like to do more. I’d watch another. But if they’re not gonna base them on the original short stories they should have a few nods, you know. Like, there’s a sign for Harry D’Amore’s detective agency, or a Yattering walks by in the background, or during kind of a slower conversational scene they could have Rawhead Rex run in and piss on a priest real quick. Or maybe one of the characters is driving and in the distance we see the cities of Popolac and Podujevo doing battle with all their citizens strapped together into the shape of giants. Just little cameos and easter eggs like that would be fun.
I kind of liked this though. There are some pretty good haunting images here and there, and it captures a little bit of that Clive Barker feeling that there’s something really fuckin bizarre going on nearby, something painful and perverted and unholy. It’s just across town, or in the next room, or just inside the wall, and if you get too curious or too unlucky you might see it and then it’s over, you can’t take it back, now you know, and can never un-know it. In RAWHEAD REX and NIGHTBREED there are actual priests who see monsters and abandon their entire belief systems to worship them. This one doesn’t bother to get into it with Christianity, but there are characters who see the crazy Clive Barker shit and instead of being repelled like you’d expect, they think yeah, let me try that on. In the tradition of, “You know what – yes, seductive porcupine lady at the cemetery that I am raiding with my fellow officers, I will succumb to your charms.” Clive Barker characters can be very open-minded.
That said, I really miss the Clive Barker of HELLRAISER and NIGHTBREED, who created monstrous races and implied fantastical worlds unlike anything we’d ever seen, unlike movies before or since, a completely unique vision. This is a TV movie with some kind of weird parts, it is not a completely unique vision. But then again, I bet this cost way more than HELLRAISER.
Anyway, if nobody has tried to make a NIGHTBREED show in the era of horror television then what are we even doing here? I don’t know if that Clive Barker will ever be allowed to manifest on the screen again. Do I have to solve a puzzle box to summon him?
THE MORTUARY COLLECTION, instead of revolving around a place called Ravenwood, is at a place called Raven’s End, which is totally different. It’s one of those neat little coastal town where whoever designs all the signs and logos understands that it should look a little like a haunted house attraction at a theme park. Montgomery Dark of Raven’s End Mortuary gives his young job applicant Sam a tour of the place and tells her little anecdotes and stories about dead people going through different decades. In the 1950s, a purse thief (Christine Kilmer) gets attacked by tentacles. In the ‘60s a frat boy lothario (Jacob Elordi, THE KISSING BOOTH 1-3, THE VERY EXCELLENT MR. DUNDEE) seduces a girl (Ema Horvath, THE GALLOWS ACT II) partly by preaching sexual liberation through safe sex, but sneakily slips his condom off, resulting in a monstrous, uh… condition. A solid Tales From the Crypt type premise.
The one in the ‘70s has that quality I liked in the Jenna story of BOOKS OF BLOOD: it’s just left turn after left turn, in this case feeling like a bad dream as things get worse and worse for this desperate guy Wendell (Barak Hardley, VAMPIRE DAD), who contemplates letting his comatose wife Carol (Sarah Hay, BLACK SWAN) o.d., thinks better of it, but then has a horrible accident. I’ll just say it involves one of the rabbit knick-knacks whose frequent closeups have seemed to pass judgment on Wendell throughout the segment. And it gets worse from there. Wendell does not make good or relatable choices, in my opinion, but I enjoyed his sad, horrible misadventure.
The centerpiece is the story that Sam tells about herself, called The Babysitter Murders. That was, of course, the original title of HALLOWEEN, and it’s also the title of a slasher movie Sam is watching on TV that’s either a parody of HALLOWEEN or a parody of ripoffs of HALLOWEEN. The movie doesn’t seem to bother her even though she too is babysitting and there are stories on the news about a child killer escaping during a prison riot. Suddenly a confused, bloody man (Ben Hethcoat) is in the house trying to get to the kid, and it turns into a slasher movie style battle. I won’t give away what makes it more interesting than that, but even on the surface it’s well executed, with a good look to both the movie and the movie-within-the-movie, and some clever meta bits like things happening in the foreground identical to what’s happening on the TV in the background.
I can’t claim to have been completely on board for the whole movie, but it’s not like most anthologies where there’s “the bad one” or the only good one. The weakest one is the first and the shortest. Each story is a little more involving than the last and gets more interesting as it goes along. I also like the way they’re tied together with reoccurring characters, and there are some of the good animatronic type FX creations that I like. Tom Woodruff Jr. (THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, THE MONSTER SQUAD, TREMORS) is credited with special effects makeup.
The writer/director is a guy named Ryan Spindell who has been doing shorts since 2007 – in fact, The Babysitter Murders was released as a short in 2015 to help raise Kickstarter funds for the larger movie, so this has been long in the works. It’s a good start – I’m sure I’ll check out whatever he does next.
Anthologies are still not up there with my favorite horror subgenres. The format seems to encourage disposable cleverness over depth, so I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that hits me on a deep level, much less one that knocks me on the ass with the extravagance of its execution, and I’d really like it to do both. But there’s also something undeniably fun and comforting about the ritual of people (characters) trying to impress and outdo each other with scary stories, and the cinematic tradition of trying to find cool ways to link them together. I appreciate the attempts here. ’Tis the season.
NOTE: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated “man, I did not realize that was Paige Turco – April O’Neil from TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II and III” in reference to a character that was actually played by Anna Friel. Turco in fact played the mother with the loud chewing noises. Thank you to Fred for the correction and my apologies to Friel, Turco, the Ninja Turtles and Splinter for all the emotional distress this has caused.