a zoo in hell


when we are opened, we are read.

A long, long time ago I read Stephen King's ringing endorsement of Clive Barker with excitement and optimism. I had read everything in King's bibliography I wanted to read and was searching for more exciting pastures. I needed something stronger. Something compelling. Something new. I read the Books of Blood in a fever of consumption which lasted for a week or so. The voracity of my reading was unfortunate, as it left me little to enjoy until his novels started appearing later. Clive Barker brought something scary and sexy back to horror. He returned the id to a flagging mass paperback horror market. Discovering those short stories is among my fondest reading memories. 

Sadly, most of the cinematic translations of these stories have floundered or failed utterly.  Hellraiser and Rawhead Rex stand out as one of the few successes, more or less. Seems few filmmakers are really up to the task of capturing the full palette of Barker's imagination. It's not unique, of course, the genre landscape is littered with the failed work of sincere or hack filmmakers who both have approached the realm of the prose gods with their camera, lights and talent. 

I tempted fate the other night. I was recovering form my surgery and in the mood for some good horror flicks. Maybe it was the drugs, but I was feeling optimistic and rented both Book of Blood and Midnight Meat Train, expecting some cheap schlocky thrills and little else. 

Midnight Meat Train, directed by RyĆ»hei Kitamura (Versus, Azumi, Godzilla:Final Wars), was a pleasant surprise from the very beginning. The beginning sequences all left me feeling like I was in the hands of a competent and interesting filmmaker. The ferocity of the first murder sequence also reassured me that I was, if not solidly in Barker's neighborhood, I was very, very close to it. As we are introduced to Leon (Bradley Cooper), the photographer at the heart of the story, his flawed and struggling personality is revealed in a interesting and skillful way. He's not a stock detective or any of the other types we've come to expect in our serial killer hunters. He's after something entirely more selfish and perhaps compelling. As portrayed in this film, he is believable sort of Barker protagonist. 

While at times the film's overall effect creeps closer to the standard moves we've come to expect in this kind of story, for the most part it wisely focuses on what made the story original in the first place -- instead of limiting it to appeal to the presumed tastes of general horror fans. Is it predictable? In the sense that it honors the source material, yes, but it follows the same twisted path to the conclusion as the story. There's not quite enough misdirection or red herrings to really obscure the most important plot points for the savvy viewer, but that could be a result of being too faithful to a short story. Short stories thrive on an economy of effect, an economy which can stretch too thin for longer forms. 

Visually the film is very close to the world which I imagined the short story unravelling within. It's a neo-noir world of cold streets, subways; splashed with flares of neon and blood. The special effects, while too reliant on CGI, do bring the visceral "meat" of the story to full effect and provide both the shock and titillation which horror fans require. There's always a dark humor to the best of this stuff, and it is present here, too. Casting is well done, although Mahogany (Vinnie Jones) brings a little too much of the Terminator to his portrayal of the antagonist butcher. More clinical or more feral would be better, but as it is, there's little to separate him from The Punisher or any number of characters the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) has played.

Book of Blood is a synthesis of "The Book of Blood" and it's sequel "On Jerusalem Street", stories by Barker. Directed by long-time genre personality John Harrison, this film was also remarkably faithful to the tone of the original stories. As with Midnight Meat Train, the film is not afraid to embrace the lust and confusion at the heart of most of Barker's work. While not quite noir, this one has plenty of noirish impulses revealed as it unspools the less than angelic motives of all of the protagonists. This story has more of a supernatural element, and visually it recalls films like The Others more than Hellraiser. Aside from the explicit horror at the heart of the wraparound story (On Jerusalem Street), the real horror comes on slow in this film as psychic Simon McNeal (student) and researcher Mary Florescu (teacher) both challenge each other and the ghostly forces they seek to engage. This builds mood and generally enhances the film, as the final turns of the story come fast upon each other when all is revealed about the strange house they research. 

So, the film is faithful to the stories, and pretty good on it's own merits as a movie. The ghost hunting bits are mostly rendered in an original way, steering clear of both the look of  television shows and films such as Poltergeist, and choosing to highlight how this ghost story is just a little different. Unfortunately, the film gets a little off when it spends both too much and probably not enough time on the specific history of the haunted house, there's a lot of proxy Alister Crowley references which don't really go anywhere ultimately. I suppose the inevitable result of faithfully recreating two short stories is that you will have two endings, and this film has a multiplicative effect, having about four endings, give or take a few. Each conclusion works well enough on it's own, but as a series of successive endings, it became a source of fatigue and made me long for a better, perhaps less faithful, final conclusion to the film. Regardless, it was plenty thrilling and left me with no small amount of joy that another filmmaker had somehow gotten the Barker spirit better than many others had before.

I should mention that Clive Barker was a Producer on both of these films; a step closer to the actual production of the film than the customary Executive Producer role he has played on many of the failed adaptations of his work. While I can't say that is essential or necessary for a writer to be present when their work is adapted for the screen (I point to Mick Garris/Stephen King here), it obviously helped in the cases of both Midnight Meat Train and Book of Blood. I wasn't there, I don't know how much Barker had his hands in the mix, but I think it is interesting that even as big name Hollywood folks such as Michael Bay are getting their hands in the red stream of horror filmmaking (Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street remakes), it's taken the hand of the originator and almost twenty years of mistakes for the adaptation of one of the written horror genre's seminal figures to finally get a decent showing in the world of cinema.  Makes one wonder what will become of the upcoming remake of Hellraiser...