Anyone who’s ever created anything knows the feeling: a deadline is looming and the project is barely started. Worse, anytime you sit to work, everything blanks out. Writer-director Joe Begos’ third feature Bliss starts there. Dezzy (Dora Madison) needs to finish a painting in the next four days. All she’s got so far is a red and orange background with a white circle in the middle, a backdrop she has no idea how to fill.
Her boyfriend, Clive (Jeremy Gardner), comes in after she’s been working for an hour and sums it up nicely, “There might’ve been incremental progress.” The pressure is mounting. Dezzy’s rent is two weeks late. Her agent has told her perfectly named art dealer Nikki St. Jean (Rachel Avery) that Dezzy isn’t going to be ready for the show. Understandably, Dezzy’s “anxiety is through the f***ing roof right now.”
She’s been clean for a while, but she decides that drugs are the only way she’s going to finish the painting on time. Her inspiration of choice is the titular bliss, a mix of cocaine and DMT. Dezzy passes out at her dealer’s house after a sample bump. When she wakes there’s a party outside her friend Courtney (Tru Collins) and Courtney’s boyfriend Ronnie (Rhys Wakefield) want to hang out. They have a threesome as Dezzy hallucinates, and she wakes with two puncture wounds on her neck.
The rest of the film teases the audience, making them question whether Dezzy is turning into a vampire or tripping balls. DMT is notorious for causing wild hallucinations, and there are certainly scenes where Dezzy’s perceiving things that aren’t there. She’s blacking out too. But it’s not clear which scenes are real, or what happens in the time she can’t remember. She’s also suffering withdrawal during the day, which turns out looks a lot like vampirism—sensitivity to light, odd cravings, splitting headaches.
Begos plays with lenses and colors so the images match Dezzy’s boggled headspace. Bliss blurs the screen when Dezzy is highest. There are enough strobing effects that the film has a warning at the beginning for anyone with photosensitive epilepsy. Many of the shots are bathed in red and blue lights. The exaggerated gore cakes onto Dezzy and those colors transform it, making it terrifyingly beautiful. It’s fitting that Bliss, a film about a painter, plays with colors so effectively.
The soundtrack works to capture the feeling of Dezzy’s bender as well. Diegetic punk and hardcore music clashes with the non-diegetic soundtrack. When she’s not listening to music, viewers hear an electric guitar playing blues licks over heavy synthesizers, which again, underscores Dezzy’s muddled mind.
With all that goes into creating that surreal, drug-addled atmosphere, Begos’s best creative decision is to keep bringing up the rent. Surrealist films set in the real world—Andrezej Zulwaski’s Possession for example—work best when there’s a mundane anchor. In that film, it’s Sam Neill’s and Isabelle Adjani’s divorce. In Bliss, it’s the reminders of the rent being due. Without that real world grounding, the film would just be a collection of disjointed images, which works in Eraserhead, but more often ends up a confusing mess.
Like Possession, Bliss makes an entry into the list of all-time dirtbag men in film. Clive is introduced as he insists that Dezzy drives him so he doesn’t have to take the subway. She’s already running late for an important meeting, but he insists she drive him anyway. He’s not quite up the level of Midsommar’s Christian, but he continues the streak of bad horror boyfriends.
Dora Madison is excellent in that scene with Clive, and others. She delivers her lines with an Aubrey Plaza-esque deadpan at first, which brings Dezzy’s personality to life on-screen. When it’s time for Dezzy to really start losing it, Madison is more than up to the task as well.
If there’s anything wrong with Bliss, it’s that it plays into the toxic idea that drugs and/or alcohol bolster creativity. There are infinitely more creative careers ended by drugs than sparked by them.
All in all though, Bliss is fascinating. Every choice Begos makes—from the colors, to the music, to the performances—brings more nuance to the psychological horror of trying to figure out whether the vampirism on screen is a hallucination or a transformation.
The Blu-ray doesn’t have much in the way of bonuses. There’s a minute and a half of deleted scenes, a teaser, and a trailer.
Wicked Rating – 7.5/10
Director: Joe Begos
Writer: Joe Begos
Stars: Dora Madison, Tru Collins, Rhys Wakefield, Jeremy Gardner
Release Date: November 12, 2019 (Blu-ray/DVD)
Studio/Production Company: Channel 83 Films,
Run-Time: 80 minutes
Sub-Genre: Psychological Horror