ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jesse Berberich is a media critic and regular contributor to online publications and the retro zine, Drive-In Asylum. He is also the co-curator and host of Disreputable Cinema, a cult genre film screening series at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NYC.
I had a moment recently sitting in Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema. As credits began to roll on Bliss, the new feature from writer/director Joe Begos (Almost Human), I felt a familiar burning sensation rise up from my neck to the back of my brain. I felt it, smiled, and confessed: “goddamn, I wish I wrote that.” I’ve learned that every writer is prone to envy, though envy with the kindest intentions, of course. Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery, after all—jealousy is.
And, what’s not to be jealous of? Bliss is a thrilling blood red and neon tinted masterpiece of splatter mayhem with a supersonic soundtrack of punk rock and heavy metal that will knock your teeth loose. Equal parts modernization of the vampire tale and character study of a self-destructive artist with maddening interludes of abstract yet breathtaking visuals and montages, this film is certainly off the beaten path and may be too odd for some viewers. Those who can stomach it, though, will be welcomed into the mad, mad world of a horror film more original than anything being offered in the genre today—a film that easily could, and should, be the biggest and most popular, audience-winning cult midnight movie hit since Mandy.
After the booming bass and frenzied visual assault of the opening credits, we are introduced to Dezzy Donahue (Dora Madison), a painter with a sharp wit and a bit of a chip on her shoulder who hits a creative block on a piece that is already way past its promised completion date just as she’s getting short on funds. So, what does she do with all this mounting pressure? She visits her drug dealer friend, of course, and purchases a highly potent new drug called Bliss, which is said to have some powerfully euphoric and hallucinogenic effects. Dezzy’s first taste of the drug hits her strong and knocks her out, but once she comes to, she’s changed. She parties like an animal, without inhibition, existing on a purely physical level. She doesn’t remember much in the morning, but finds that she’s been painting again while in her haze, and painting better than she has in a while, even. From here, the cycle continues as viciously as you’d imagine: Dezzy takes Bliss, goes wild, blacks out, and wakes up, every time with more of her ominous masterpiece completed. However, when people begin dying, and she starts waking up covered in blood, she suspects a sinister influence has taken hold of her life.
While the supporting cast is quite strong, Dora Madison is simply stunning as the lead. Since this film largely tells by showing through abstractions of sex and violence, Madison acts as our guide, with the entire story resting on her shoulders. In the hands of another actress, the dynamic between the weight of Dezzy’s turmoil and the gooey, gruesome gore would likely have fallen flat. Luckily, Madison shines through the blood and guts like a true star and gives a fearless performance. She plays Dezzy as relatable in her struggles as an artist with a touch of innocence, which is startling given her willingness to slip into the underworld that the Bliss drug reveals, but it is that willingness that betrays her naivety, insecurity, and vulnerability and leads her to her monstrous fate. Dezzy’s transformation has a haunting separation from reality and humanity, and a methodical power appropriate for a film about vampirism thanks to Madison’s work.
The handling of vampire lore in Bliss says much about Dezzy as a character and Madison’s performance, in fact. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s analytical book on the horror genre, the Master explores the sexuality of the vampire, specifically the infantile sexuality of the figure. The oral fixation and the idea of taking fluid rather than giving symbolizes oral sex as the acceptable or most easily digestible (pardon the pun) form of sexual interaction amongst teenagers because of its exploratory and noncommittal nature, with the vampire, of course, being the manifestation of our anxieties during puberty and the changes in our bodies. Now, Bliss doesn’t really tackle those sexual dynamics, but it does make use of the narrative of vampirism as metaphor for a replacement of one interaction for an easier one. Writer/Director, Joe Begos, updates the metaphor and applies it adults, exploiting the fears and anxieties of a young person attempting to “make it” in today’s world and what they may turn to when the struggle becomes unbearable.
In the film, Dezzy’s deep self-doubt is her worst enemy. She weighs herself down and suffocates her own ambition by choosing to escape reality rather than face it. Her drug use does inspire her painting, but she does not remember painting while high. She has become separated from her craft, from engaging with it even in times of struggle, and she is happy for it. All she cares about is following ambition but with an absence of stress. In Bliss, vampirism is as much of an escape or a retreat as Dezzy’s drug use is because it promises to remove her away from her angst and the pressures of real life. So, she loses herself to the darkness and becomes an agent of its chaos and a slave to its hunger. and Madison plays this transformation with a haunting separation from reality and humanity, and a methodical power appropriate for a film about vampirism. It’s poignant for a film some critics have said isn’t trying to make any grand statement.
The sophistication of Madison’s performance and the use of the vampire’s more metaphorical functions is mirrored in the creativity of the production. While they have strong cult followings, the first two features from Joe Begos, Almost Human and The Mind’s Eye, unfortunately received lukewarm critical responses despite being well made films that showcased the emerging talent of a promising genre filmmaker. That talent is fully realized in Bliss, marking a new level of maturity in Begos. The film’s style is unique and visceral, with visuals and effects that are gory, brutal, and surreal. The film quite literally drips and oozes with grit and sleaze from the characters down to the almost living menace that L.A. is framed as. Begos arrests the audience with carefully composed and edited scenes, placing Dezzy most prominently in all of them and drawing our eyes toward her. This probably works best during drug fueled episodes when the camera fixes on Dezzy and mirrors her moves hypnotically before it becomes downright nauseating and relentless in a way that visually expresses Dezzy’s looming loss of self-control. This makes us a part of her journey. We feel what she feels throughout it all. The audience is involved after first being engaged, an experience that is sometimes lost in the modern horror film.
Bliss has an old-school, grindhouse charm to it. It’s wild, uninhibited, fast moving, and merciless, much like its main character. It’s no wonder that this film has been on the tips of every horror fan’s tongue this year. Its allure is undeniable, and it is one hell of a cinematic ride. And, most importantly, it tells a story. Even in the craziest moments of the picture, neither Begos’ direction nor Madison’s performance move too far away from the objective of laying out a concise tale of darkness and mayhem. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to see Bliss, do yourselves a favor and sink your teeth into this one before the new year…and let it sink its teeth into you.