Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Bliss (2019)

Night Of The
Living Pez

USA 2019
Directed by Joe Begos
Eureka Entertainment

Warning: Spoilers here be... you were warned.

I missed Bliss a couple of years ago when... I think it played FrightFest over here in the UK? I think it was a case of really not liking the poster design (I still don’t) and having other movies on my priority list that year. The only reason I came back to this is because the writer/director, Joe Begos, made another movie I saw recently called The Mind’s Eye (reviewed here) which was... well it was kind of an unofficial sequel to Cronenberg’s Scanners, to my mind. The stand out of that movie for me was the score by Steve Moore, which sounded a lot like early to mid phase John Carpenter by the finish of it. Anyway, astonishingly, I managed to find a soundtrack CD to that movie (which is great, by the way) and when I was looking at the website of the company that put the CD out, Relapse Records, I came across a couple of other CD scores by the same guy including this one, Bliss, which was for the same director. So there we are... I wasn’t expecting too much but I gave it a go and... wow.

I really wasn’t expecting to be as impressed by this movie as I was (so much so that I’m going to order a Blu Ray copy of it real soon... and the CD, of course). A certain amount of that is down to the director and crew. I don’t know who Begos is but it’s like, since The Mind’s Eye, his confidence and boldness with what he is trying out with the camera and editing has matured and grown to the point where he really delivers something which demands your attention. The crucial part of this movie for me though, was the absolutely brilliant, tour-de-force performance by an actress I’ve never heard of called Dora Madison, who plays the films central protagonist Dezzy.

Okay...the plot is extremely simple. Dezzy is an artist, working on a big piece on canvass for an exhibition but has been ‘blocked’ for months. She can’t seem to get the painting done and it’s got to the point where she has no rent money and is dumped by her agent. So she goes to one of her drug dealing friends, played by Graham Skipper from The Mind’s Eye and gets something called Diabolo, which is the drug ‘Bliss’, referred to in the title. The effect is marked and immediate and Dezzy is out of it until she wakes up at a party and then has a threesome with two friends... Courtney (Tru Collins) and Ronnie (Rhys Wakefield). Because she’s riding the effects of the drugs and booze she doesn’t notice when, during the sex session, Courtney delivers a vampire bite to her neck and sucks her blood and then gives her some in return. The effect on her painting, however, is beneficial and the rest of the film is about her getting paranoid, getting drugs, finally realising she’s a vampire and then killing people to drink their blood (in some fairly graphic ways) so she can finish the painting... because she will stop at nothing to complete the painting and, that’s kind of my way into the character because I can kinda sympathise with that. Anyhow, that’s the film in a nutshell, if plot is your kind of thing but it's the performance and direction which really make this one of the true vampire masterpieces of our time.

Now, most people who know me know that the quality of the performance in a film rarely comes up but, this one’s hard to ignore as Madison gives her all to the role and really lets go of herself to deliver one of the grittier and gutsier acting jobs I’ve seen in a movie for a long time. And it works in spite of the character she’s playing. I mean, honestly, she’s a hard person to like. She’s bratty, antagonistic, generally unsympathetic and, normally, this would be more than enough to turn me off a movie but, somehow, the actress finds a little of the light of the character to keep me interested in this one (even though she wears a Death Waltz t-shirt and, honestly, vinyl is not my thing... give me a CD any day of the week). I think, for me, the absolute obsession of her to finish the art at the cost of everything and everyone in her life is the glimmer of empathy I needed to get me into the character. I used to love doing ‘fine art’ before I became a graphic designer and the obsessive ‘art trumps people’ kind of attitude you kinda need as part of your psyche to pull this stuff off was something I’d forgotten about but was happy to be reminded of.

And a lot of the scenes in this are wordless, as she gets naked in front of her canvass (both physically and spiritually) and just tears into it with paint and, yeah, sometimes blood. It’s astonishing stuff and the way the camera works in this, totally focused on her character the whole time, really pays off. Such as when the camera is doing 360 degree turns in a bar with a swirl of noise and music before we are suddenly jarred out of it with an overhead shot of her naked on the floor, back in her studio.

Indeed, the way her performance is captured is inevitably a big contributing factor towards the success of the movie too. There’s a party scene where various conversations are chopped up and cross cut to give a real naturalistic feel of people dipping in and out of conversations, fuelled by booze and drugs. My favourite thing, though, is there seems to be almost an absence of establishing shots for most of the film. So instead of going to the next scene, we’ll suddenly be surprised by already being in a different location in the next scene without any preliminary visuals to give us a location fix and this works really well as an on screen indicator of the level of paranoia and the drug/blood heightened sense of dislocation of the character. There are even a few of those shots where the camera is connected directly onto the actor so the front or back of her is static in the middle of everything else she’s moving around... it’s not done often these days but it’s a trick that never really gets old, it seems to me. It’s great stuff and, all the while, Steve Moore’s very different but still kick ass score punctuates the splintering visuals with something which lifts them even higher.

Also, in addition to all this (as if this wasn’t enough), there are some great new takes on the old school vampire legacy. Such as, when a vampire is staked in this... instead of crumbling to dust they just kind of melt away like ice cream (which I suspect is possibly how the practical special effect of this was achieved). Ditto, when a vampire is exposed to sunlight, it’s not a disintegration, it’s a full on blood splashed explosion of flesh. And some of the kills are really memorable too... in addition to seeing George Wendt (Norm from Cheers) come up very close and personal with Dezzy’s new vampiric blood lust... there’s also a scene where she literally pops a guy’s head back like he was a Pez dispenser, leaving the head attached by a hinge of flesh while she dives into the bloody stump of the neck for her next, urgent fix. It’s a memorable moment for sure.

And, yeah, that’s me done with Bliss (until I watch it again which, well, which will be when the Blu Ray arrives and I take an evening off from writing). This feels like one of the best vampire movies in the last ten years and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who has an affinity to films that portray obsession, horror, vampirism or, like this one, the thrilling intersection of all three. If you like that kind of stuff... go seek this one out now, it’s truly phenomenal.

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