Director: Joe Begos
Stars: Dora Madison, Tru Collins, Jeremy Gardner
Joe Begos had a productive 2019. His John Carpenter homage VFW recently hit Netflix and was one of two features he brought to bear. Eureka Entertainment have given his other feature Bliss a welcome physical outlet. A limited edition is already starting to seem scarce, but a standard release aims to keep this scuzzy little number in circulation. It is quite easily the pick of the two features, although no less beholden to ghosts of the past.
Where VFW felt like Jason Eisener taking on Assault On Precinct 13, Bliss feels like, well, Jason Eisener taking on Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction. Seeing as the Hobo With A Shotgun director seems to be somewhat missing in action at present, Begos is welcome to fill his shoes, especially if the results are as off-the-chain as this exploitative and gnarly little riff on the vampire joint.
Dora Madison embraces the darkness as Dezzy; a brilliant artist struggling to pay her rent, whose predilection for substances is about to take her to unprecedented places. Her connection (Graham Skipper) puts her onto a new strain of a drug called Bliss – packaged as Diablo – and a night of sex and plentiful consumption leaves her with a new habit. As things progress, however, her new addiction brings with it extra bite; a taste for human blood. Her new acquaintance Courtney (Tru Collins) doesn’t see this as a problem, and only eggs Dezzy on. As the cravings return, Dezzy slips and starts losing time.
The parallels with Ferrara’s The Addiction are awkwardly conspicuous. That picture – one of the best genre exercises of the ’90s – used vampirism as a metaphor for the irresistible drives of a consuming drug habit. Through it’s protagonist – Lili Taylor’s philosophy student – Ferrara was able to wax lyrical on the evils inherent in man. Begos has little interest in making his film into a backdoor thesis though (and he certainly doesn’t have a Christopher Walken as a hold card), so instead he leans hard on his preferred aesthetic – a continuous and shimmering bleed of reds and blues and the purple haze that roils in between, often set to a soundtrack of drone-metal fuzz. That and the pyrotechnics of gory physical effects work.
In the process he’s created, you might say, a truer exploitation feature, shorn of lofty ambition. Dezzy’s relentlessly foul mouth pitches Bliss at a particular level and there it happily remains. Come the second half, Begos and his effects team roll out the gooey gratuity. It’s performative for its own sake and that’s absolutely fine; recalling the heyday of ’80s B-cinema, when physical effects teams would try to outdo one another with their ingenuity. Bliss delivers visceral surface thrills in this regard. Madison, for her part, is fully committed to the role, and also takes a producer credit, suggesting this is a passion project for her as well. It comes out in the work.
Early on, one of Dezzy’s T-shirts offers up a code to the mindset at work throughout this project. As she argues with her landlord over rent due, her torso is emblazoned with the Death Waltz logo (Death Waltz being a record label that puts out, primarily, remastered soundtracks to ’80s horror gems and obscurities). This codification of the old is the beating heart of Bliss, a neon-hewn love-letter to the upstarts of yesteryear, who’d have taken a place on the Video Nasties list as a badge of honour (though would much rather have made some money in the process).
It isn’t just lush lighting and buckets of fake blood conjuring this feeling. Begos shoots on 16mm, and the resulting film has a worn-in dustiness that helps bolster its yearn for lo-fi authenticity in no small way. Mike Testin’s camerawork is quite lovely at times. It may well be little more than a roll in the gutter of VHS’s glory days, but Bliss goes the distance in recreating the working conditions of its forefathers far more dutifully than a lot of lesser fare that we’ve seen in recent years. One of my own petty little bugbears is nostalgia pieces shot on digital; the facade is cracked instantly. Bliss feels like the real deal. Shrewd it may be but, for horror fans, the heart is in the right place on this one… right up until it’s ripped out or impaled with a hefty wooden stake.