Having tackled alien abduction in Almost Human and head-bursting telekinetic battles in The Mind’s Eye, indie filmmaker Joe Begos has established a name for himself as someone who delivers buckets of blood in an 80s-throwback fashion that goes beyond synth soundtracks and neon title fonts. Bliss is a huge step forward for the filmmaker in terms of craft and ambition but comes with all the blood and body horror you’d expect, all shot on Super 16.
It’s also just as nostalgic as his previous features, although the interest lies in a slightly different direction. Bliss draws heavily on Tony Scott’s The Hunger and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, but with its sunglasses-sporting pleasure seeking hedonistic vampires transplanted from New York to LA and with a lot of Gaspar Noé-esque visual madness stirred in.
The film follows artist Dezzy (Dora Madison), who is spiralling after losing her agent and struggling to finish a painting. She pays a visit to her friend/dealer Hadrian (Graham Skipper) who hooks her up with a batch of hard-hitting bliss. After a heavy night of partying with Courtney (Tru Collins) and Ronnie (Rhys Wakefield), she gets her muse back…but she can’t remember how.
Turns out, Courtney and Ronnie have dosed her with something stronger and stranger, and now she can’t find her muse unless she succumbs to her violent new impulses.
While there was a level of old school comfort in Begos’ previous retro work, Bliss switches gears for an aggressive assault on the senses. With cinematographer Mike Estin and editor Josh Ethier, the filmmaker launches full tilt into dizzying and disorienting bad trip set-pieces as Dezzy tears her way through bars, clubs and parties then, subsequently, strangers and friends. The practical gore effects are very much still present and correct with some shocking moments of violence with buckets of blood hurled around with abandon.
The whole thing is anchored by a ferocious performance by Madison, who effortlessly convinces as the frustrated broke artist before ripping the doors off the film as the darkness inside Dezzy is unleashed. There are good supporting turns around her from a talented bunch (including, somewhat surprisingly, George Wendt) but it’s her film and she owns it.
To say it’s not for everyone will be stating the obvious. Although Begos manages to keep the escalation going, anyone outside the niche target audience will almost certainly find it as exhausting as being the sober one at a house party where everyone’s off their face, and the stylised blood and boobs occasionally feel like the work of someone who thought The Hunger wasn’t horny enough, but it’s a giddy, gory, well-crafted ride if you let yourself go along with it.
It’s also, crucially, committed to being a story about addiction and the dangers of feeling the need for artistic inspiration from intoxicants. Begos is definitely having fun pushing the intensity, the visuals, the light and sound, but that is the focal point he keeps returning to. Whether or not it sticks the landing is up for debate but that keeps the whole thing from floating away. If you think you’ll enjoy this kind of trip you should absolutely buy a ticket and find out.
Bliss was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2019.