Abel Ferrara’s exploitation, arthouse, trash masterpiece, ‘The Diller Killer’, starts with the title card; “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD”. The film goes on to match up to this promise, telling the story of a man driven insane by his artistic inertia and the punk-metal band playing in the flat beneath his until he starts randomly murdering bystanders with drills. The spirit of Ferrara’s exploitation days looms large over ‘Bliss’. Comparisons have been made to his classic vampire tale ‘The Addiction’, but the film ultimately feels like a meeting between the two Ferrara classics, telling a similar tale of blood lust shot through with the kind of grimy insanity and all the transgression that defined Ferrara’s early work like ‘The Driller Killer’ and ‘Mrs. 45’. From the film’s opening credits which have all the retina scorching metal driven thrust of a drug fulled bender with Dario Argento movies like ‘Phenomena’ or ‘Opera’ on in the background.
Shudder Original ‘Bliss’ tells the story of Dora Madison in a barnstorming performance as Dezzy. Like Ferrara’s titular ‘The Driller Killer’, an artist tormented not just by their creative inertia, but by their own inner demons, being driven to fill a hole that can never be filled resulting in an eventual kind of savage thirst. Dezzy is behind on rent, 3 months late for an art piece that is looking distinctly average, and Dezzy is also trying to get clean. The rest of the film is very clearly messaged, an explicit parable about Dezzy absolutely and unequivocally failing to stay clean. She does some weird drugs and things get increasingly weirder from there.
The film itself does also feel on drugs in the absolute best way. It’s edited with this manic coke-head energy that feels absolutely delirious especially during some of the film’s most transgressive moments. You have three-way sex scenes juxtaposed and faded over drug benders and binge drinking and hardcore partying and some of the most metal painting you’ll ever see. The film actually starts off slightly more laid back. More focussed on tableaux and beautifully constructed atmospheric shots that let the space breathe. There won’t be a lot more of these as the film slowly descends into utter delightful mania. The film is shot through with these bold colours, which can be said of so many movies but this one especially so. We haven’t seen lighting this bold since probably ‘The Neon Demon’. That’s the thing that makes, in general, reviewing ‘Bliss’ hard. We’ve all seen films that turn it up to 11, we’ve all seen films that are bold in their lighting or have frenetic editing, not least ‘The Driller Killer’, but there’s something about this film that is more, that pushes it further. Its lighting is more bold, it’s editing is more frenetic, it’s more transgressive.
The transgressive element is a very important point actually. Because, it is directed by a man, and it is very voyeuristic, but its depiction of female sexuality is nowhere near as crass as something like ‘Blue Is The Warmest Colour’. Céline Sciamma, when describing why she thinks her new movie ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ resonates so much, she talks about the male gaze being inherently non-consensual. She talks about how part of the toxicity of the male gaze is how the characters being gazed upon by the filmmakers have no say in the gazing. Sciamma talks about making a movie in which a woman is being gazed upon by another woman and takes that gaze, accepts it, and reciprocates it, and how that, in itself, in cinema, is a revolutionary act. ‘Bliss’ is an interesting case here, because I can’t help but get the feeling that the sexuality in this movie is cooperative with the audience and not so voyeuristic. While something like ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ is clearly performative in a way comparable to ‘Bliss’, and it is also directed by a man, there is something about ‘Bliss’ that feels like there’s an agreement between the camera and the observed. It feels like there is some kind of emancipation, some kind of liberation in not only accepting but inviting the gaze in ‘Bliss’, especially during its sex scenes. That is not to say that if a feminist was to come to me, horrified with ‘Bliss’ that I would be surprised. It honestly depends on what interpretation of the literature from what decade you’re working from, but ‘Bliss’ to me feels like a very contemporary and sex-positive angle on it, and the sheer visual transgression is viscerally exhilarating. The fact is, I wouldn’t blame anyone for denouncing or celebrating the gaze in ‘Bliss’, and mainly because in the process of watching it I have such a hard time falling upon an instinctive take, I just get swept up in the visceral experience of the whole thing which is de Palma and then some.
The other big thing to note about ‘Bliss’ is how much it still retains its B Movie qualities. It has these big arthouse pretensions that remind one of Argento and Noe, but like Argento specifically, or even writers like Clive Barker, despite these arthouse pretensions, it never loses sight of the fact that this is an exploitation movie, and it is here for schlocky visceral thrills. Do you want B Movie schlock and gore? Well, ‘Bliss’ has it in spades at an exceptionally high quality. There is a particular moment of partial decapitation that will live in my mind for a long, long time and particularly delighted me. You may be wondering how narratives of drug addiction and decapitation fit together? Well, that’s all just part of the fun.
Some of these elements may sensationalise, scandalise, or otherwise seem worthy of mockery to some viewers. The dialogue may seem to some viewers a little too self-aware and snappy, the violence a little too silly, or the addiction metaphor a little too on the nose. I, however, found it utterly delightful, charming in its extremity, and overwhelming in its transgression. It is a kaleidoscopic experience of the highest order that any fan of true experiential, extreme, cerebral horror should make an effort to seek out.