THE BLOODHOUND (2020)
Strange events plague a young man when he's summoned to the secluded home of a wealthy childhood friend and his twin sister.
The Bloodhound is a reworking of The Fall of the House of Usher. Although first-time director Patrick Picard claims he only used the opening of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 story as inspiration, his film ends up being a rather good adaptation by reinventing a tale of terror as a contemporary relationship drama. But don’t let that put you off! He circumvents the expected Gothic imagery while remaining poetically aligned with the source material and evoking the same pervasive atmosphere of stifling melancholia. It’s redeemed by a deadpan humour stemming from the stilted, sometimes enigmatic dialogue, as the socially awkward boyhood friends strive to rekindle lost innocence and intimacy. They’ve become estranged after years apart and, as they search for connection through shared reminiscences, we also get to know them better.
Picard writes and directs with the assured confidence of someone destined to be an important filmmaker. From the start, The Bloodhound asserts a unique and darkly fascinating strangeness. It really feels like a new talent, with a personal and poetic take on the world, has managed to realise an uncompromised version of their vision.
It’s a low-budget independent film and all the better for it. The core team are all recent graduates of the American Film Institute who’ve held onto that common experience and benefited from already knowing each other. As a result, it does feel like ‘a student film’ but in the same way as fellow alumni David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) did—fresh and fiercely creative, informed by a good contextual understanding of film and the wider visual arts.
The Bloodhound opens with a disquieting and seemingly disconnected sequence. Too dark to see anything, we hear the sounds of something moving in water, splashing… in the dimness, a liquid surface, and something bubbling beneath. At first, it’s difficult to make out the distorted human form, its face hidden by something like a scruffy ski-mask. This is the titular ‘Bloodhound’; a fictional folkloric character born of dreams.
The frightening, freakish figure drags itself out of the subterranean culvert, writhes along the front path of a lonely house, through the open door, crawls up the stairs like an injured thing and shuts itself into a closet. If this were a dream, or more likely a nightmare, any pop psychologist would make a meal of its metaphors! In many ways, we’ve just been presented the film’s premise in a Jungian nutshell. It’s an engrossing opening to a phycological drama that’ll keep things just as dark and intriguing to the last.
We will learn, from an on-disc interview with the director, that this puzzling imagery is straight out of a dream that impelled him to make the film. For him, it’s just as important as Poe’s text in spawning the narrative. Having set the uneasy tone, the rest of the film plays with blurred transitions between dream and reality, memory and experience, thoughts and actions.
It feels like a horror film and, though in never quite becomes one, touches nearly all the Gothic horror tropes, placing its own inventive twist on each one. There’s a mysterious ‘presence’ in the ‘haunted’ house. Is this presence a stranger, simply squatting in the empty spaces, avoiding the occupants? Some scenes suggest this, though the hider-in-the-house might also be a figment of one of the character’s disturbed imagination, an escapee from their nightmare.
The house feels haunted, for sure. There are the sounds of breathing heard in empty rooms as the camera slowly moves through darkened interiors at night. These beautiful, poetic shots demand the viewer’s complete attention as we search the unlit areas for clues or movements. Was that just a draught moving the curtain? They’re like something dimly recalled and, considering they’re so subdued and uneventful, end up being the images that linger longest in the memory.
Cinematographer Jake Magee uses wide lenses and deep focus throughout, constantly aware of how textures interplay. The dullness of muted linens countering the hardness of the abundant reflective surfaces. His considered compositions evoke architectural photography and a clinical Modernist aesthetic, suggesting the house shares that cold, unyielding character.
The Gothic house archetype is very deliberately exploited here: the building becomes a metaphor of body, the rooms its anatomy, the players its psychological and emotional make-up. We never get to see what the house looks like as a whole, the few exterior shots present different views, but none really feel like the facade of the building, which thus remains ‘faceless’. Likewise, we never get a real sense of the interior layout, so although we do share the characters’ increasing claustrophobia, at the same time we’re always a little bit lost, unsure of how one room connects with another. It’s all about interiors. About being lost, within.
The Fall of the House of Usher began with a journey through barren wastelands and an arrival at a foreboding, crumbling Gothic mansion. Here, Francis (Liam Aiken) drives winding mountain roads through scenic forests to arrive at the lonely modern house in the woods. Initially at least, it looks like an ideal retreat. Like Poe’s protagonist, he’s responding to an invite from an old friend in need, ‘J.P’ (Joe Adler), whom he hasn’t seen in years.
Finding the door ajar and the house seemingly deserted, Francis ventures in and is attracted to an arrangement of decorative ceramic pots. He’s about to photograph them (his reasons for doing this are clarified later) when J.P appears behind him and ominously refers to the collection of urns as his ancestors. As with The Fall of the House of Usher, J.P and his twin sister, Vivian (Annalise Basso), are the last in the line of a dysfunctional Gothic family but, rather than dusty clutter, we find them within a cold clean interior that’s so neat it doesn’t really feel ‘lived-in’. A subtle suggestion that it isn’t, or hasn’t been. The modern décor places it in a specific period of the more recent past—distinctly 20th-century ‘Interwar’, rather than 19th-century ‘Georgiana’.
The twins still suffer from an unnamed affliction that renders them pale, vulnerable, and vampiric in appearance. This adds another twist of unease. The notion this is a genetic fault of the family line still lurks, though the suggestion of incest is no longer overt, perhaps affording us greater sympathy and concern for their wellbeing. It’s far easier to become invested in the characters although they are not made easy to like. There’s certainly an element of insanity, but we have to figure out who’s insane.
Aiken and Adler keep their nuanced interactions interesting, intriguing, and intelligent. At the heart of the film’s success are their engrossing, emotionally honest, performances of these two characters that are wholly believable despite their many quirks. I mean, who doesn’t have some idiosyncrasies once you get to know them? What friend is without flaws, and isn’t it the mutual acceptance of each other’s quirks, and forgiveness of their flaws, that constitutes friendship? Ultimately, for all its marketing as a ’modern chiller’, The Bloodhound is a delicate, fragile drama about delicate fragile people.
One thing I found a little disconcerting is that they seem so young to be reminiscing about their long-lost youth. Then I remember I first saw Aiken in the excellent family film Good Boy (2003) in which he played a 13-year-old, which places him in his thirties here. That breakthrough role was sandwiched between Road to Perdition (2002) and A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) and he’s kept busy ever since with a low-profile career of TV appearances, film shorts, and indie dramas like this. His co-star, Joe Adler, is a familiar face having appeared as Jason Wylie in the final two season of The Mentalist (2008-2015), Dr Isaac Cross in Grey’s Anatomy (2015-17), Roger in Twin Peaks (2017), and more recently D.L Sullivan in Damnation (2017-19). He, too, has boyish looks that belie his years of experience.
It’s a shame Annalise Basso only makes a couple of fleeting appearances that may or may not be in dreams as she whispers a few words of warning. I’m sure that, if given half a chance to register her presence, I would’ve known her from playing the young Karen Gillan in Oculus (2013), which was made the same year as she was nominated for the ‘Young Artist Award’ for ‘Best Leading Young Actress in a Feature Film’ for the coming-of-age drama Standing Up (2013). She followed The Bloodhound with a recurring role in Netflix’s Snowpiercer series.
It’s nice to see writer-director Patrick Picard in a cameo as a hapless pizza delivery guy, but all the other characters that briefly show up seem surplus to requirements. The doctor’s necessary for a bit of exposition, and a pianist and soprano J.P hires don’t enter, they’re just there for the scene and gone with an edit. Likewise, a solicitor does appear to deliver some key dialogue but we’re hardly given time to register their presence either.
This all adds to the sense of disjoint and isolation from the outside world but it may as well have been a two-man play and would’ve worked beautifully on the stage, too. That’s if it wasn’t for those velvet textures and modernist compositions of Jake Magee working perfectly with the austere architecture and cool décor of the setting.
The Bloodhound ends with a kind of ‘punchline’ and part of me wished it didn’t. But that’s probably the arthouse elitist in me craving a more challenging and baffling denouement that would’ve haunted and troubled me long after the end credits. Instead, Picard provides satisfying closure that makes an important point and thwarts any high bound pretensions, effectively bringing everything back to the human heart of the story… and I’m sure the majority of the audience will be grateful for that.
USA | 2020 | 72 MINUTES | 1.66:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer & director: Patrick Picard.
starring: Annalise Basso, Joe Adler, Liam Aiken, McNally Sagal, Kimleigh Smith, Gaby Santinelli & Dylan Gentile.