[note that, after this review was written, a new murder set-piece, which I have not seen, has been added to the very beginning of Bliss of Evil]
With his earlier features Status Quo (2013) and Louie Louie (2018), writer/director Joshua Morris has become associated with romance, but the bed with which his latest feature Bliss of Evil opens is not a place or eros, but a zone of horror.
After introductory text claiming that “the events depicted in the film took place in Brisbane, Australia during the winter of 1997” (with an explicit promise of deaths), and a title sequence featuring a tableau of blood-drenched guitars, cymbals, drums and sheet scores, Isla (Sharnee Tones) is shown waking in her bed to the sounds (but not sights) of heavy breathing, of intense female distress and of a bone cracking. Hyperventilating and rooted to the spot in terror, Isla is not so much living an assault as reliving the ghostly shadow of its trauma. For the plaster cast on her left arm is not the only scar she bears as she slowly recovers from a horrific event whose details the film will only gradually reveal – and even then, that primal bedroom scene will be ‘shown’ in flashback mostly through closed doors, so that its nightmarish horror is heard rather than seen.
This focus on the auditory is key to a film whose protagonist is a sound engineer. Despite her lack of sleep and her mental fragility, Isla insists on spending the night working at Elephant Studios, a family business run by her straight-talking Uncle Michael (Wayne Bassett). There she will be mixing and recording a grunge band whose line-up includes lead singer Nic (Shanay De Marco), casually racist, misogynistic, homophobic bassist Roy (Brendan R Burman-Bellenger), vegetarian drummer Rhea (Emily Rowbottom) and the obnoxious new guitarist Lee (Jordan Schulte), while the smarter-than-she seems groupie Courtney (Chenaya Aston) and Isla’s best friend Jamie (Michaela Da Costa) hang around on the lookout for sexual opportunity.
Isla has history with this band. Nic is her girlfriend, and the ‘creep’ guitarist whom Lee has replaced was, before his supposed death, at the root of Isla’s traumatic experience – indeed just hearing his signature song Bliss of Evil is enough to give Isla a full-blown panic attack. “This sucker is fortified,” Isla will say of the small but labyrinthine studio, with its barred windows and secured doors – and as various band members pursue their sexual kicks (wanted and unwanted), and as Isla reverts to a fraught state of psychic vulnerability, all will discover that they are locked in with a cold-blooded killer.
Not only is Bliss of Evil a slasher, but it is self-conscious about this status. Events unfold in front of a poster, visible on the wall, for D.W. Griffith’s murder mystery One Exciting Night (1922); the band is called Prom Night; and when Jamie and Lee introduce themselves by name, Jamie comments, “We’re just missing a Curtis, wouldn’t that make, like, our romance a horror?”, to which Lee responds: “Well I can make you scream.” After all, the film is set just one year after Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) gave the moribund slasher form a fresh postmodern spin.
There is a lot of blood spilt in Bliss of Evil, but the gory kills themselves are kept largely off screen. This is no doubt due in part to considerations of budget, which is plainly low – but these elisions have the additional effect of generating uncertainty and ambiguity. For it is unclear whether we, faced with these narrative lacunae, are witnessing a real massacre perpetrated by a deranged heavy-breathing murderer (Corrie Hinschen) possibly back from the dead, or a return of the repressed unfolding, maybe entirely, in a damaged brain.
After all, Isla really does have recurring PTSD nightmares about herself and her friends coming to harm, and there are hints here, reinforced by the heroine’s bizarre closing speech, that all this has been a psychodrama where traumas are being restaged, anger, fear and helplessness are being re-expressed, and our heroine is maybe even managing to heal by confronting her terror and regaining the sense of control that she has long since lost.
Although these two readings, one literal, the other psychological, cannot entirely coexist, here they are brought into paradoxical, uncanny alignment, in what is all at once a psychokiller thriller, a ghost story, and a tale of painful recovery. Perhaps, in the end, Isla never leaves that bed, but reenacts in her dreams her own salutary cover version of a disturbing song from her past. Or perhaps she is engineering events to make herself seem sounder than she actually is. This very equivocation, left to linger in the viewer’s mind after the film is over, remixes the disorientingly tenacious tunes of trauma.
strap: Joshua Morris’ retro(ish) slasher brings a sound engineer back into confrontation with the trauma of her past assault
© Anton Bitel