In most aspects of horror, recent films have been incredibly successful at expanding the seemingly burned-out genre. However, as much progress as independent horror films have made over the past few years, the vampire subgenre has remained relatively untouched. Writer-Director Joe Begos’ latest film, Bliss, neatly fits into this insufficiency of vampire films and violently thrusts the genre back into relevancy by expertly combining some truly horrifying moments with a poignant cross-examination of addiction and desire.
Set in the dark underbelly of the Los Angeles art scene, the film tracks the descent of Dezzy, a young painter facing a possibly career-ending creative block. Dezzy, played by the brilliant Dora Madison, seeks creative inspiration at the grip of a new drug, bliss, which essentially is a combination of an array of the hardest recreational drugs on the street. After a night of hard partying and intense hallucinations, she awakes to know nothing of the night before, albeit the current piece she was struggling to start had begun to take shape at some point during her blackout.
Begos is clearly channeling his inner Gaspar Noé throughout the runtime of the film, populating his grainy, gritty frame with some of the most memorable drug sequences of not only the year but also of all time. The drug-induced scenes are an intense, contradictory combination of fantastical paranoia and the bitter reality of hard drugs. This contradiction is amplified with the gorgeous 16mm which Begos used to shoot his film. The grainy feel of the film grounds the audience in the gritty aspects of the film while transporting the viewer to celluloid paradise.
Noé’s films such as Enter the Void and Climax may serve as inspiration, yet Begos manages to take his film an entirely new, dangerous direction. The descent of Dezzy can certainly be traced alongside the increased usage of bliss, but her mental deterioration is more closely linked to the pressure from her agent to produce another piece, her landlord’s constant bickering regarding her late rent payments, or the cringe-inducing advances from a man who claims to be her friend. The drugs aren’t to blame for the chaos in Dezzy’s life, and, if anything, the bliss actually serves to ground her in reality rather than remove her from it.
Aside from the paradoxical reality created by her use of bliss, Dezzy’s desire for a harder high is fueled by her painting that continues to be inexplicably created during her highs. When introduced to a new high by a mysterious friend whom Dezzy runs into at a party after her bliss high, Dezzy’s long nights become longer and inescapable darkness falls over her life. Yet even when Dezzy’s thirst turns to humans, Begos never fails to keep the film grounded in this harsh, sleazy reality that she has found herself in. However, he also smoothly creates a dichotomy between Dezzy’s reality and the audience’s reality while viewing the film. Begos’ ability to create this doubt is about as careful and precise as someone attempting to cut a piece of paper with a chainsaw. Begos’ doesn’t just lack subtlety, he actively works against any ounce of subtlety working its way into his film. The head throbbing punk soundtrack that pounds the audience into submission throughout the film is directly linked to the hammer of reality hammer Dezzy into creative submission.
However, while Begos thrashes his viewer around for the entirety of the 80-minute runtime, there is also a close examination of mental health. As Dezzy slowly begins to become more and more dependent on bliss, it becomes clear that the drug is not the only aspect of her life that is pushing her over the edge. Begos pushes is audience right into the same place in life that Dezzy has found herself in, and despite the fantastical nature of a few elements of the film, everyone can relate with exactly how Dezzy feels at her breaking point. While Begos doesn’t provide an avenue for Dezzy to cope with her situation in a healthy manner, he is successful in depicting exactly how one feels when they feel they are succumbing to the weight of their surroundings.
As well as a deviation from the vampire genre, Bliss marks a clear step forward in Begos’ filmography. His previous films are more conventional in nature, and lack of nuanced balance between poignant displays of important topics and intense, heart-pounding horror as seen in Bliss. While his influences may seem borderline plagiarized from Gaspar Noé on the surface, Bliss transcends beyond the implied and morphs into an incredibly special film.