Written and Directed by: Joe Begos
Starring: Dora Madison, Jeremy Gardner, and Graham Skipper
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I started painting again..."
The last decade has seen several exciting new talents emerge in the horror genre, but very few of them have been as attuned to my own particular sensibilities as much as Joe Begos. Yes, you can argue that the likes of Almost Human and The Mind’s Eye are essentially riffs on Carpenter and Cronenberg, or that Begos is the latest in a long line of artists that thrive on crafting homages to their predecessors. And yet, both efforts bear their own unique charms and impeccable craftsmanship, allowing them to speak for themselves instead of merely echoing previous glories. Begos is at it again with Bliss, a splatterpunk freak-out that has him trying on Abel Ferrara digs, meaning you’re once again inclined to consider this as a work of homage, this time to stuff like The Driller Killer and The Addiction. It’s a somewhat inelegant mash-up, but I think that’s the point: this is a primal whir of a film that captures a hellish descent into addiction, madness, and desperation, not to mention a significant leap for Begos, who proves he’s more than just a gorehound stitching together pastiches with blood and guts.
Like The Driller Killer, Bliss carries a warning before its opening credits; this one cautions viewers about the rampant strobe effects littered throughout the film, but it might as well also encourage them to play it loud. From the outset, Bliss is the jarring, somewhat abrasive tale of Dezzy Donahue (Dora Madison), a struggling artist trying to complete her latest commissioned work when her agent unceremoniously drops her, leaving her with nothing but a severe case of artists’ block. Seeking inspiration, she hooks up with her dealer (Graham Skipper), who suggests a new strain of high called “bliss,” which sends her spiraling down a hallucinatory path lined with neon-spattered punk joints, out-of-body sexual trysts, and, eventually, a thirst for human blood. However, it also awakens her artistic impulses, allowing Dez to unconsciously paint a bizarre, cryptic piece of work that comes into focus with each nightly trip.
Nobody ever utters the world “vampire” in Bliss, but it’s heavily implied that Dezzy’s bloodlust stems from an encounter with a pair of nefarious bloodsuckers (Tru Collins & Rhys Wakefield) that begins to turn her into a ravenous fiend. Mixing this with Dezzy’s literal addiction to drugs allows Bliss to double as an obvious (and at this point, well-worn) parable about addiction that’s so on-the-nose that you’re initially inclined to wonder if maybe Begos hasn’t just made something derivative this time out. At this point, there’s no shortage of grounded vampire tales that also explore the psychology and horrors of addiction, and Bliss doesn’t exactly shed new light on this ground.
Slowly but surely, however, Begos does put his own stamp on this material with both alluring aesthetics and unexpectedly poignant character work. The former is less surprising, of course, since Begos’s first two films were expertly crafted, and Bliss finds him more assured behind the camera than ever. Where his previous efforts were conventional narratives, this one is a bit more laconic in an effort to capture the maelstrom that quickly engulfs Dezzy’s life. As her blackouts become more frequent and her memories grow hazier, so too does Bliss become unstrung from lucid logic. Viewers descend into this chaos right alongside Dezzy, whose life becomes a blur of agony and ecstasy set against a strobing, neon-grunge backdrop scored by vicious, thrashing punk music. At times, Bliss captures the experience of being thrashed about in a mosh pit: it’s exhilarating, terrifying, and somewhat alienating all at once as the film spirals further out of control.
It’s almost remarkable that a compelling character drama emerges from this. Just as Bliss threatens to be slapped with the dreaded “style over substance” label, Dezzy’s ordeal becomes a compelling portrait of an artist lost in the throes of desperation and madness. She’s not the easiest to be around, at least at first, when she’s alienating nearly everyone around her. Not that most of her company is much more hospitable, as just about everyone in her orbit has something nefarious going on, whether it’s her unscrupulous drug dealer, her exploitative agent, or the predatory vampires who introduce her to a lifestyle she doesn’t want. Everyone flings around profanity in a way that might even make Rob Zombie blush, and everything’s just generally unseemly: Bliss might radiate neon, but it’s caked in a layer of grit and grime that contributes to the film’s raw, primal power.
From that primal squalor emerges the desperate, anxious howl of Dezzy’s frustrated creative impulse and the even more desperate bewilderment of those surrounding her. Boyfriend Clive (Jeremy Gardner) grows more alarmed with each blackout, and it’s this relationship—roughly sketched though it may be—that anchors Bliss. Gardner captures the helplessness of someone who’s forced to watch a loved one spiral out of control right up close, yet always at arm’s length. Because Bliss is such a dizzying wail of a movie, its quiet, almost tender moments are starkly realized. Likewise, Dezzy is such a spitfire for most of the film that the few moments Madison has to dwell on her loneliness, confusion, and horror emerge as the most crucial scenes. Without these vulnerable glimpses into Dezzy’s tortured soul, Bliss would feel a little more hollow, simply a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But Begos has always invested in his characters to give his films meaning beyond their gory outbursts, and Bliss is no different. Sure, he eventually indulges his impulse to pain the walls red with a crimson-soaked finale, and maybe the climax features the gnarliest, grossest vampire bite in recent memory. Yes, it all threatens to be so over-the-top that it feels like the work of a genuine lunatic. However, Begos reins in the chaos just enough that this unhinged finale feels like a fitting whirlwind of euphoria and sublime terror. It suggest something awful about the nature of art: the way it consumes us, the way even its triumphs take an enormous toll from us, the way the only way out creatively speaking is a searing journey straight into our souls. All that remains in its wake is oblivion, save for the art that lingers on as an enduring—if not cryptic—testament to our tortured, transient existence. Bliss is a mesmerizing vision to the act of creation, here envisioned as a flurry of sex, blood, and flames that only leave behind embers and ash.
Bliss is now available on DVD & Blu-ray from Dark Sky Entertainment. Supplements include an audio commentary track featuring Begos and Madison, plus another track with Begos, producer/editor Josh Ethier, and the film's effects team. A deleted scene and a pair of trailers is also included.
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