Though his debut feature, Almost Human, was rooted in contemporary concerns, writer-director Joe Begos followed up with The Mind’s Eye, an expert ‘80s pastiche – though it feels more like the likeable 1990s direct-to-video sequels to Scanners than the rigorous David Cronenberg original. With Bliss, Begos inhabits the world of another indie genre auteur and fuses elements from Abel Ferrara’s filmography while trying for the sensory overload of recent assaultive cinema like Climax. An opening caption warns epileptics not to watch the movie, which is almost non-stop flashing or flickering or blazing lights – the warning might also apply to its vampire characters, who literally explode at dawn.
Los Angeles-based artist Dezzy Donahure (Dora Madison) combines the Ferrara/Jimmy Laine character from The Driller Killer (obsessive, economically stressed painter working on a huge canvas which is supposed to turn her fortunes around) and the Lili Taylor character from The Addiction (new-made vampire, giving in to a bloodlust that racks up a body count all around her) along with the prodigious drug intake of the Harvey Keitel characters in Bad Lieutenant and Snake Eyes. In her Los Angeles studio, Dezzy is hassled by her landlord about being behind on the rent, though it’s later mentioned offhandedly that she was given a $30,000 advance by gallery owneer Nikki St Jean (Rachel Avery) — NB: the cameraman on early Ferrara films was Nicholas St John – and for all her bitching about being rooked by agents and publishers she’s successful enough to be recognised by an adoring fan in public (and she tells the poor guy to fuck off). She’d be self-destruction incarnate, if she weren’t also nightmarishly awful to everyone in her life – including her boyfriend Clive (Jeremy Gardner) and even her drug connection Hadrian (Graham Skipper).
Two new things come into her life – a drug she’s warned against using too much of (‘Diablo’ – oddly, ‘Bliss’ is the drug she rejects in favour of the Devil’s powder) and a three-way with her shades-after-dark pal Courtney (Tru Collins) and Australian rock musician Ronnie (Rhys Wakefield). One or both of these things infect her with a strain of vampirism that leads to surges of creativity in which she works on her apocalyptic orange painting – in the end, a self-portrait – but also horribly convincing jitters and jonesing, as she walks round in circles ranting at the few people who’ll take her calls, and an escalating series of collateral deaths as she starts ripping through the folks she knows. The film features very impressive gore effects and vampire dissolutions – melting to puddles of goo – after the manner of The Devil’s Rain or The Evil Dead, but the most horrifying thing about it is that turning into a literal monster doesn’t make Dezzy a worse human being, and actually killing the people she habitually rips off or exploits or abuses just seems more honest.
Madison goes all-out in the central role – daring to be unlikeable in a way that charismatic male movie psychos often are, and physically contorting herself (often while caked in blood and paint) into a screeching, ecstatic savage. It’s all a bit too much to take – every scene is relentless, with background characters (George Wendt and Abraham Benrubi cameo) snarling at each other or pulling guns during arguments and Dezzy turning every social encounter into an excuse to lay into someone or other. But being a bit too much to take is the strategy of the film.
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