Dark Sky Films
Blu-ray Release: November 12, 2019
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 80 minutes
Director: Joe Begos
Dezzy (Dora Madison) is brilliant painter facing the worst creative block of her life who will turn to anything she can to complete her masterpiece, spiraling into a hallucinatory hellscape of drugs, sex, and murder in the sleazy underbelly of Los Angeles. (From Dark Sky’s official synopsis)
It’s a little known fact that every indie and arthouse director worth their salt is actually required to make at least one subversive movie that re-frames the rules of vampire lore as a scientific problem and/or a metaphor for a societal malady. Early examples include George Romero’s Martin (1977), Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973), and John D. Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971). Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (2009) and Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2011) continued the tradition into the current millennium, but the two films I find most pertinent to the subject of this review, Joe Begos’ Bliss (2019), are Wendigo (2001) director Larry Fessenden’s Habit (a 1995 remake of his own shot-on-video, 1981 movie) and Ms. 45 (1981) director Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995). Given its brand excess, Bliss is sort of the Requiem for a Dream of indie vampire revamps (i.e. many of the same camera tricks, though far fewer kaleidoscopic editing techniques). As such, it could have felt dated, but it also follows a (semi-)recent pattern of hyper-stylized, gritty, neon-drenched and intensely hallucinatory horror movies, like Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018) and Gaspar Noé’s Climax (2018) – both movies I’ve seen Bliss compared to.
I was dismissive of Begos’ feature debut, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque Almost Human (2013), but was nonetheless impressed with his do-it-yourself ingenuity. I didn’t see his second film, The Mind's Eye (2015), so I can’t accurately measure his growth from film to film, but I can say that Bliss’ choice of referential material is more impressive than Almost Human’s more pedestrian fare (pedestrian does not equal bad in this equation, merely typical). Connections to The Addiction, Habit, as well as Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) are the most pronounced, at least from a surface-level standpoint, but references and homage to Ferrara’s work extends beyond that to character types, their motivations, and even connections between frustrated artistry, self destruction, and violence. For the first hour, it almost has more in common with The Driller Killer (1980) than The Addiction.
Bliss also does a better job designing a movie around a tiny budget, so that Begos’ work doesn’t ever feel compromised or cheap. The performances help in this regard, but the “cinéma vérité meets music video” aesthetic is also key to covering the monetary constraints. The veritable walls of psychedelia and gore are the biggest selling points here (similar to Mandy) and Begos delivers pretty regularly on that level. The first act is a brain-melting attack of one damn thing after another – designer coke snorting, blazing neon, group sex, slam dancing, and so many strobe lights that the movie opens with a warning to epileptic viewers. After that, the gore is wet, painful, and creatively executed. If that’s all you’re really here for, I can hardly recommend Bliss enough. Personally, the surrealistic, uh, bliss was hampered by the affected nihilism. Likability clearly wasn’t part of Begos’ design (the consistent anger expressed by almost every on-screen character seems to be satirical on some level), but I think the reason good movies about addicts and malcontents usually work is because there’s a level of charm to the characters. In this case, a little charm and likability could’ve given the relentless dovetail into debauchery a hit of tragedy. As is, there’s unnecessary emotional disconnect.
As I already mentioned, Bliss has that oh-so-modern gritty, yet slick look. Begos and cinematographer Mike Testin achieve it by mixing stylishly saturated lighting schemes with grain-caked Super 16mm film. This 1080p, 2.40:1 Blu-ray transfer reproduces that planned look very well. The 16mm source leads to soft edges and chunky grain, but there’s little in terms of unintended artifacts, save perhaps some grain clumps turning into compression squares. Even the occasional snow effects and print damage (mostly white scratches) are part of the film’s grimy design, rather than accidental digital damage. The super vivid palette – sometimes consisting of a single, overlapping hue, like red or green – is often at war with the consistent darkness and use of dim source lighting, which leads to inconsistent black levels, bleeding edges, and cross-coloration. Again, this is a design choice, not a problem with the transfer.
Bliss is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The vivid aesthetic is matched with a wall of grunge, industrial, and punk rock. Dialogue and incidental effects are fine, clear, and centered, but the track’s vitality is found almost entirely in its music and music-like sound effects. The score blasts over the stereo speakers, the effects zip around the surround channels, and diegetic source material is convincingly mixed to recreate the sounds of a busy rock club. There were times I had to turn the sound down, but, for the most part, levels are steady between soft dialogue and blaring music.
Commentary with director Joe Begos and star Dora Madison – This is an intimate track, in which Begos and Madison lay back and recall the behind-the-scenes story. It turns out that neither the director nor actress are all that far from the main character, as Madison claims to have based her performance on Begos himself and may or may not have blazed one before recording (no judgment here!).
Commentary with director Joe Begos, editor/producer/assistant director Josh Ethier, and the Russell FX Team – Begos, Etheir, and Josh & Sierra Russell are a little more down to business while exploring various aspects of the production in this technical track.
Deleted scene (1:49, HD)
Trailer and teaser
Trailers for other Dark Sky releases
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