Clive Barker’s ‘Dread’: Appreciating the Underrated ‘Books of Blood’ Adaptation

2018’s Halloween was undoubtedly a major success. While not everyone loved it, by any stretch, it was pretty well received, did very well at the box office, and more than anything, proudly exclaimed that the franchise was back after a nine-year absence. However, there was one element of the movie that both the people who loved it and the people who hated it seemed to be united in their distaste for, and that’s the whole arc surrounding Dr. Ranbir Sartain.

It is impossible to bring up this movie without hearing someone complain about how unnecessary that character’s whole storyline is. After all, this is largely a film about how Laurie Strode’s forty years of trauma, and her inability to recover from what happened to her as a teen, is manifested in Michael’s return to Haddonfield. A character who worships Michael to the point of killing someone just in the hope it might lead him to understand his patient better, who is obsessed in forcing that reunion between Michael and Laurie, obviously distracts from the main point.

Admittedly, I can’t defend everything about Sartain, because I don’t think it’s great that the Michael-worshipping, self-appointing apprentice character who is also a doctor worse at his job than Loomis ever was, is also one of the movie’s only prominent characters who isn’t white. On paper, though, the basic elements of the character work just fine. They embody a trope that is not remotely new in horror. Sartain is simply the latest example of a good, old fashioned Renfield Complex. 

A Renfield Complex, to me, denotes a character like Dracula’s Renfield, probably the most famous example, who works in service of the main monster, usually appointed by the monster themselves, but not always. After all, unlike most movie adaptations, Renfield and Dracula had never even met in the book before Renfield decided he was utterly devoted to the Count. There are plenty of other examples, too. Stephen King is great at writing low-level villains who work out of devotion to the larger antagonist, from the Trashcan Man in The Stand to IT’s Henry Bowers and Salem’s Lot’s Straker and so many more. I personally love this particular trope because, no matter how its portrayed, it gives the villain a mythic quality, even more so than they may already have. In that respect, it was particularly great to see in a Halloween movie, because even as grounded as this movie is, it makes it feel a little larger than life. I can’t explain it, but seeing a character with that kind of reverence for the killer helps Michael feel like he’s finally entered classic monster status. Which makes sense, as he’s about as old now as The Creature from the Black Lagoon was to me when I was growing up in the ‘90s. 

Sartain is just the latest in a long line, but when compared to other characters driven by a Renfield Complex in other films, there is certainly one unlikely choice with which he has the most in common: Rawhead Rex’s priest, Declan O’Brien. Unlike Sartain, whose obsession with Michael reached critical mass long before the movie began, Declan has no fundamental knowledge of Rawhead before the movie starts. He simply places his hands on an altar and receives visions of Rawhead and it’s pretty much love at first sight. For a man who has devoted his life to God, he gives up God within seconds for a wrathful entity he hasn’t even physically laid eyes on yet. 

Halloween 2018 Dr Sartain

Sartain and Declan are different characters, to be sure. Sartain is much more measured, he is much better at hiding the depths of his obsession and the lengths he’ll go to in devotion to that obsession, until the right moment. Declan, on the other hand, can’t hide a single thing about himself; he’s giddy and absolutely mad in his devotion to Rawhead. But there’s still something lucid in Declan’s manic ramblings, like there’s a genuine happiness, a weight that’s been lifted now that he’s worshipping a creature that he knows exists. There is no divine mystery with Rawhead. He is tangible and he is exactly what he appears to be. These characters both embody these traits of obsession in wildly different ways, but they are fundamentally united in their devotion, because they are both utterly devoted to monsters who are totally indifferent to them. That is where the deepest parallels lie. 

Sartain is driven by a need to understand Michael, that much is clear even from the opening scene, long before we realize just how far down that rabbit hole he’s already fallen. This makes his designation as the “new Loomis” that much more ironic, as he is actually the opposite. Loomis did understand Michael, and was on a constant quest to make other people understand, almost never succeeding. Sartain kills Frank in hopes that by knowing how it feels to take a life, he will feel more connected to Michael. It doesn’t work, it doesn’t actually do anything to sate his obsession. In fact, it only fuels it that much more, to have done something so extreme—and enjoyed it—and to still learn nothing. But it is a totally one-sided relationship.

Michael doesn’t care about him, Michael doesn’t for a second stop to offer Sartain any insight into why he does what he does. One of the strongest elements of Halloween 2018 is how it highlights this obsession with understanding Michael, a kind of clever commentary on the way fans so often theorize about Michael’s nature, not to mention the fans’ desire to see Laurie and Michael reunited, which is literally Sartain’s whole plan. Michael doesn’t care about any of it. Sartain winds up just as the podcasters did, demanding that Michael say something and, as a result, simply gets his face smashed in under Michael’s boot. 

With Declan, it’s even more extreme. He has abandoned God entirely in favor of Rawhead. This is partially because Rawhead is real and tangible, partially because of the supernatural visions that gave him his first glimpse of the creature, but also likely because he was using God’s wrath as a stand-in for the belief that most people just deserve to die. And now instead of giving sermons, there’s a real beast ready to kill anyone and everyone and Declan is acting very much like a kid in a candy store. He’s devoted his mind, body and soul to Rawhead and this is made most obvious in the film’s most infamous scene. He kneels at Rawhead’s feet and the monster urinates all over Declan’s head. This is the perfect embodiment of the one-sided idolization at the heart of both movies. For Declan, this is the most important moment of his entire life. This is the moment he truly becomes a disciple of what he considers to be his new God. For Rawhead, he’s just taking a piss. With both Sartain and Declan, their devotion is completely unrequited. They simply cannot take a hint, utterly losing themselves in their refusal to admit that neither of these monsters are into them. And both of them receive nothing but death for their devotion, as Sartain gets his face caved in and Declan gets his throat torn out.

Rawhead Rex Declan

Both Michael and Rawhead are utterly uncaring entities in their respective films, both simply content to wreak havoc wherever they find it, their motives entirely their own and not shared with anyone. While the respective Renfield Complexes of Sartain and Declan and their unrequited devotion are the major things the two movies have in common, though, they are far from the only things they have in common. 

In Rawhead Rex, a small community is tormented by its long-buried past. Rawhead ruled this land when humans were young, roaming the countryside and devouring and destroying everything in sight, until he was buried literally by the townspeople of the past and historically by the early Christians, effectively eliminating the pagan past of a land they had claimed for themselves. Because of that, no one even remembers the stories of Rawhead in the present. Only a single stained glass window depicts his image. He is forgotten, and this buried past of course comes back to run amok amongst the present. He’s devouring everything in sight, striking with no rhyme or reason, going from door to door to barn to trailer to church, it doesn’t matter. He’s simply devouring life wherever he finds it. 

In Halloween, it’s a very similar situation. In this incarnation, Michael Myers struck forty years ago and while it’s still probably what Haddonfield is known for, most people in town have forgotten all about it. Even the teens who are aware of what happened—and even then, they’re friends with the granddaughter of a survivor, so they’re more closely linked than most—don’t know any of the details. Dave asks if it was Laurie’s brother who killed all of those people in a very pointed nod to the previous sequels. He doesn’t even seem to know Michael’s name and passes off the events of the 1978 murders as being tame by today’s standards, even though he clearly knows next to nothing about what happened. Michael can even freely walk down the street without anyone telling him his costume is in bad taste. This is certainly a part of Laurie’s frustration in the movie, as she is still in the grips of her trauma, just as if Michael’s attack had happened yesterday, and the town moved on. It forgot and she didn’t and the only people who remember are the family members who grew up in the shadow of her fear of Michael Myers and obsessed people seeking to either exploit or rekindle the horrific events that she suffered through. 

Michael’s rampage when he returns home even has much in common with Rawhead’s, certainly more than any previous Halloween entry. This is the only Halloween film in which Michael does not have a target. He doesn’t even seem to be after Laurie. As much as I love it, I do admit that it feels at times like the movie forgets in retaining Michael’s original mystery that Michael’s mystique was never that he wasn’t targeting anyone in particular. He very clearly was after Laurie in the original, the mystery was that we didn’t know why. Here, Michael is totally unpredictable. In one of the film’s best sequences, he goes door to door, basically trick-or-treating in his own way, killing with no real rhyme or reason. It is very similar to the way Rawhead simply makes his way from place to place as he runs amok throughout town. In Rawhead Rex, the monster even famously kills a child. While that doesn’t happen in Halloween, there is a moment when Michael pauses at a baby’s crib, and even if he doesn’t actually kill the infant the intent of that moment is definitely to make you think that he might. 

In Rawhead Rex, the monster is literally repelled by womanhood. It’s the beast’s one weakness, and one that worked a little better in the short story, where the creature was basically a walking phallus with teeth. Most monsters of the era in which Rawhead was made were defeated by women, so Barker if anything simply hammered the point home by showing the monster not only being afraid of female power, but female life, bodies, autonomy, everything. Michael’s certainly had his ass handed to him by a number of women over the course of the franchise, but the ending of the 2018 movie is by far the most similar to Rawhead in that regard. Here, Michael is defeated by three generations of Strode women, staring up at them with helpless contempt as they leave him caged, boxed in as the flames close in on him. There might be more contempt for womanhood in that moment than Michael had ever shown in any of the preceding movies. 

Still, it is with Sartain and Declan that David Gordon Green’s Halloween and Rawhead Rex have the most in common. Even if these men go about their obsession in different ways, they both embody the exact same kind of devotion, worshipping monsters who barely even notice that they are there. It’s just an added bonus, really, that the two stories share so much else in common as well. I’m not saying that 2018’s Halloween is a loose remake of Rawhead Rex, but I’m not sure I’m not saying that either. I think the similarities are wholly accidental, and that honestly makes them so much better. It would be delightful if the latest Michael Myers outing cribbed anything from Barker’s monster-on-the-loose tale, but it is absolutely incredible that these things happened unintentionally and, in some ways, makes me love both things just a little bit more.

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