It has been a while since I’ve opened the operating table, such as it is.
And tonight, ladies and gentlemen and other sentient beings, we have an interesting specimen on the table who didn’t so much die young and leave a beautiful corpse so much as leave a glorious mess of bile and beauty, blood and Diablo in its wake. I am, of course, taking about Joe Begos’ 2019 film Bliss.
I, figuratively, walked in on Bliss as one woman was vomiting up blood, and another took a chunk out of another woman’s neck in a club bathroom. Aside from reminding me of my limited clubbing days, though not in Los Angeles as this film takes place, I wondered if I had accidentally crashed one of Dionysus’ revels in the twenty-first century. I left it alone for a while, once I saw this part on Shudder TV, my brain occasionally mixing it up with Panos Cosmatos, Elijah Wood, and Aaron Stewart-Ahn’s 2018 film Mandy, and eventually decided to revisit this strange, yet beautiful specimen after the subdued revelry of the New Year.
What I found was … blood can spoil, and so can films — or people who talk about them — so please mind these Spoilers, or chase them down with a gallon of red, or paint, or your favoured kind of debauchery. Or you can follow the good example of Bliss‘ protagonist Dezzy and, in the words of Neil Gaiman, “Make good art.”
I can see why some others have compared Bliss to Mandy. Aside from the fact that they both played on Shudder, they have heavy psychedelic sequences: with the bright strobing lights, and disjointed shapes, shadows, and shrieking noises that form the basis of every seizure warning disclaimer displayed before the film even plays. But this is the only thing those two films have in common. Before I set the record straight, I had this vision of the female protagonist of Bliss being kidnapped and she and Nicolas Cage engaging in witty banter as they slaughter every human and demon in their way to escape.
This did not happen.
Bliss, on the surface, seems like the kind of film — experimental and with art-house elements — that a critic and personality like Joe Bob Briggs would despise, or at least pick apart. Dezzy, played by Dora Madison, is an artist living in Los Angeles, with a clueless boyfriend content make a moderate living, while needing new experiences to help her break her artist’s block to finish her most recent art commission: a painting that will be displayed in an art gallery. All, obviously, isn’t well of course. It’s a chain reaction of Dezzy having this creative block, not getting paid by her agent, who isn’t getting paid by her, the owner of the gallery not getting the commission she paid for, and Dezzy dealing with a rut in her own life.
So what does Dezzy do about this? Well, it’s really simple. She goes to her drug dealer friend, and his older buddies, and gets some drugs — some alternative consciousness perhaps — to break through her block, and create her painting which at the beginning of the film is almost literally an ember that will ignite into a bloody, terrifying, incredible inferno. However, it is Dezzy’s life that needs to explode out there first.
The cinematic narrative perspective of the film follows Dezzy — and only Dezzy. It’s confusing enough as it is without adding anyone else’s perceptions into the mix, and Begos does this on purpose. On the surface, it would be so easy to say that after indulging in a self-destructive lifestyle of sex, drugs, booze, and rock and roll Dezzy loses her sanity, and kills herself but not before creating her last great work. As I said, this film can easily follow the burden of artistic genius and creative block trope easily: complete with hallucinations that are very much in line with the content of Dezzy’s painting.
But this isn’t taking the vampires into account.
Those vampires, seriously. You almost miss them at the beginning of the entire thing, and it’s easy to do so. In fact, Begos seems to hope that you will. It’s hard to keep track of a lot of events, in between time speeding up, becoming fragmented, and bouts of Dezzy being sick in the washroom, or screaming in terror into a phone and punctuated, rather brutally, by frequent blackouts.
Oh, there are some … crimson herrings of course. At the beginning of the film, Dezzy’s drug dealer offers her the drug called Diablo, and it’s another clever trap: where you might think that she’s inhaling the ashes of a demon that possesses her, and every interaction she has beyond that is incidental, or integral in triggering this entity into controlling her and destroying everyone around her: something like a twisted throwback to the genius, or muse, or daimon of ancient times: the old Mediterranean paradigm of a creator being inspired or inhabited by an outside creative spiritual force that makes them make things. But it seems like this is more than a kakodaímōn that encourages a person to commit terrible deeds such as murder, even if the metaphor might actually be implicit there.
Courtney and her boyfriend have a threesome with Dezzy during a party at her dealer’s house. And it’s only after this act, that we see Dezzy getting sick. And the imagery doesn’t end there. It is complete with Courtney killing a woman in a washroom and sharing the blood with Dezzy, as well introducing Dezzy to a man named Hadrian — who suspiciously resembles the kind of businessman elder vampire we all know from current vampiric films and literature, though we don’t see much as Dezzy’s senses are distorted from alcohol and drugs to the point of passing out.
Slowly, inevitably, we begin to realize the reason Dezzy is vomiting up blood isn’t because Diablo is destroying her body, or some monster is eating her up from the inside: though those things, both physically and metaphorically do take their toll on her. It is her vampirism. It is from all the moments she feeds and kills and blacks it all out of her mind — and it’s only later — when she comes face to to face with this addiction she can’t overcome, or have Courtney take away from her, that we see her kill: this almost somnambulist, animalistic state overcoming her, and making her murder and devour all her friends, and loved ones. .
Bliss‘ vampires are different. They seem to be able to eat food, drink, use drugs, and have sex. If anything, they seem more like Maenads — again with the Dionysian imagery of reveling women lost in drink and dance and becoming enraged to the point of ripping people apart and feasting on their blood — than something undead, or rotting. It could also be that Dezzy herself is in the transition into becoming one of these beings. Indeed, after her encounter with Courtney and her boyfriend, she can still walk around in the sunlight and eat: but it’s earlier on, and as she loses track of time and events spiral swiftly onwards, we get caught up in the whirlwind of the entire time. Eventually, looking back on everything, you wonder if Dezzy is only ever out at night now, indulging in her addictions and her creativity, and her madness.
But the vampirism in this film is almost besides the point. Somehow, it gets sidelined. What is fun is realizing that Courtney and the other vampires probably told Dezzy the rules of what they are, and how they are to operate in society, but because Dezzy is so suffused with Diablo — apparently, and ironically, the only thing keeping the edge of her hunger — she might not even remember those conversations having taken place. If you look at it on the surface, it seems like Courtney just threw her friend into the world of vampirism and “fucked around and found out”: just letting Dezzy go out of control until needing to do something about like — you know — devouring her instead.
Courtney isn’t blameless, of course. She knows Dezzy. She knows how to indulge her worst traits, or enable them. She probably knew it would come to drugs and killing sprees and orgies of death in general. Perhaps she underestimated the scope of them, or the focus. Because, here is the secret of this entire time: the lynch-pin of this film if you’d like. Dezzy’s primary addiction isn’t sex, or drugs, or alcohol, or money, or power, or blood and immortality.
Dezzy’s ultimate compulsion is the creative process.
Dezzy needs to paint. She needs to create. She castigates her boyfriend or lover, who wants to settle for mediocrity, because she tells him that he doesn’t know what it’s like to make something, and it shows. It is the main part of their disconnect. It’s the reason she went on this new odyssey to begin with, but the journey becomes the destination. It might have started with needing to pay bills, or gain fame, or keep up the money she needs to maintain her lifestyle but the seeds of all of this had been planted in the ash-covered ground ages before, watered by the blood of Dezzy’s friends and enemies. She only did the bare minimum to keep living, to have outlets for her physical needs in order to continue her artistic passion: her need for freedom, and the power of creation itself.
Everything has been a means to that act of art: the drugs, the alcohol, the sex, the interpersonal connections, and even the vampirism. E. Elias Merhige’s 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire posits that its monster isn’t the vampire, or human greed, but the cold, soulless lens of the camera that wants to consume everything that it views in its mechanical gaze. Bliss‘ monster is all consuming love of creativity, and the process, at all costs. And, just like the vampire playing Max Schreck, Courtney, the inadvertent vampires made by Dezzy by feeding off of everyone she knows, and Dezzy herself are all consumed by this burning passion: culminating in a joyous, bloody explosion by sunlight, and her painting displaying a beautiful summoning of a road into hell.
The vampires of Bliss can be killed by a stake through the heart, but it’s the light of the sun — the sunset at the beginning of the film, and the red dawn at the end — that sees the beautiful disaster of Dezzy, once well-meaning but become a blood-splattered glory, to the ascension of everything she ever truly loved … and destroyed. After all, it is no coincidence that the damned souls depicted in her painting look an awful lot like the people in her life taken down with her, and the central figure surrounded by them herself.
Perhaps, like Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 A Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night — another excellent vampire film and reimagining — Joe Bob and others might see this as artistic cliché and masturbation, but it hits close to home for a lot of reasons. Dezzy isn’t perfect, but despite what she inhales she isn’t the Devil, and there is something about the mentality of the creative process being all-consuming, like fire over a vampire and the release of the mess of emotional gore inside artistic expression combined with Begos’ cinematic unreliable narrative perspective, that truly speaks to me, and I am glad that after my horror writing hiatus from the last year, this is the film with which I chose to wreck it.