The beginning of Henry Jacobson’s feature debut Bloodline seems comfortable (at least to the horror viewer) because it is so steeped in cliché. A nurse (Christie Herring) wanders an empty hospital corridor at night, thinks she hears something behind her, enters the shower room, undresses, and has a shower, while a POV shot makes it clear that someone else – besides us – is watching and waiting. We follow this unseen figure’s perspective up to the naked nurse, who turns around only to have her throat slashed wide open. The scene ends with the camera panning over her body to a deep pool of her blood being washed down the drain. It is an obvious evocation of the iconic shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), updated, with graphic stabbing and nudity, to the later slasher. We then see Evan (Seann William Scott) go from a makeshift grave that he has dug to his East Angeles home, where he rejoins his wife Lauren (Mariela Garriga) and infant son.”It’s ok, Andrew,” Evan says menacingly as he cradles the baby, “Daddy’s here.”
Cut to three months earlier, and the focus shifts to Evan, a family man and high school counsellor who also just happens to be a serial killer. It has been a while since he last committed murder, but the stresses of his job and his now sleepless home life are driving him to seek release through old habits. In other words, this is to be one of those films that follows a man’s struggle to keep his homicidal urges and his family situation apart – something along the lines of Bruce A. Evans’ Mr Brooks (2007) or television’s Dexter (2006-2013). Scott, who has already played a divided self in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006), here relishes the radical code switching required of his rôle, and manages to make Evan seem both repellent and sympathetic from one scene to the next. It helps that the victims, at least at first, are straightforwardly terrible people – the physical or sexual abusers of the pupils whom Evan sees at school, all recalling Evan’s own abusive father.
The nurse is the odd one out. Though shown (twice) being dismissive and downright rude to sensitive new mother Lauren in the hospital, she is hardly in the same league as the violent men who tend to be Evan’s prey – and while the opening sequence of her death will be repeatedly recontextualised by the film, there is clearly an increasingly challenging morality at work here, as Bloodline divides the viewer as much as Evan, offsetting our knowledge that killing is wrong against our innate desire for the (cinematic) satisfaction of justice. It also, via a manoeuvre familiar from Hitchcock, generates tension from our belief that the killer should be caught – e.g. by the circling police detective Overstreet (Kevin Carroll) – and our perverse hope that he will get away with it. It is not just that we are along for the ride with Evan as the protagonist of this psychodrama, but also that a series of flashbacks make it clear that he too, in his way, is as much victim as perpetrator of horrific acts. Even as the film makes us feel constantly uncomfortable for siding with the devil, it undermines the simplicity of reducing either Evan or his errant quarry to devils.
The film’s initial allusions to Psycho are not merely casual. For like Norman Bates, Evan too is under the thumb of a dominant mother whose influence he has internalised – except that Marie (Dale Dickey), far from being dead, has moved right in with Evan and Lauren to help them with Andrew. “Everything is going to be ok, Mother’s here,” she tells Evan when she first arrives, echoing his own earlier words to Andrew. For here, psychosis is handed down from one generation to the next, in a bloodline that is also a cycle of abuse – and the family that slays together, stays together.
Working from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Avra Fox-Lerner and Will Honley, Jacobson carefully constructs Bloodline to push buttons and unsettle the viewer. In a film that is already extremely morally murky, Nigel Galt’s editing messes even further with our perspectives and prejudices, while Isaac Bauman’s cool orange-and-blue lighting scheme and Trevor Gureckis’ synth score bring a hyperreal edge to what is ultimately a domestic drama. If, as Evan insists, “a happy daddy makes a happy home”, then it seems entirely reasonable, perhaps even inevitable, that the rest of his kin should share in a bit of that happiness…
Bloodline was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2019