February 8, 2023

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‘Blood’ review: Michelle Monaghan headlines a gritty vampire tale

3 min read

Vampirism has previously been considered a more prosaic addiction metaphor in film. In “Blood,” however, it’s just one more hassle a recovering addict doesn’t need to add to his already disjointed family life. Starring Michelle Monaghan as a mother whose young son is bitten – then develops an insatiable appetite for the titular liquid – Brad Anderson’s film steers a middle course between dysfunctional domestic drama and supernatural horror. That balance doesn’t quite work. But solid performances and some strong, occasionally unpleasant content make this a thoroughly satisfying watch. Vertical Entertainment is releasing it in limited US theaters this Friday, followed by on-demand platforms on January 31.

After completing a residential program for substance abuse problems, Jessica (Monaghan) is back as a hospital nurse, and reunited with her kids — though teen Tyler (Skyler Morgan Jones) and little Wayne (Finley Wojtak-Hissong) are late grandparents. Not particularly happy to move with him to a remote area inherited from nearby.

Even less happy is ex-husband Patrick (Skeet Ulrich), who kept the kids to himself for three years. He resents Jessica for uprooting them, as well as being suspicious of her recovery: she clearly put them all through the mill. He proceeds to form a new spousal relationship with Shelly (Danica Frederick), who started out as the children’s nanny and is now pregnant with their half-sibling. This doesn’t sit well with Jessica much more than her ominous ruminations about winning back full custody.

Easing the transition a bit, at least for Wayne, is his dog Pippin, a golden lab type so docile you’d trust him not to sting the proverbial fly. But Pip seems attracted and worried by something in the surrounding woods. One night he runs away, and finally returns a few days later… just not by himself. Eyes glazed over, he seriously attacks Wayne, who must save his mother at the cost of the dog’s life. Whatever “possessed” Pip soon seems to have passed on to his victim, whose recovery is uncertain until Jessica realizes that he needs blood — not just by transferring it to his hospital bed, but orally, in quantity. Once he brings her back home, that ever-increasing supply of need moves the narrative into pretty dire territory, pretty quickly.

Liming a hero whose motherly devotion rarely flinches from crossing some terrible line, Monaghan doesn’t shy away from offending Jessica. As she lies, cheats and worse to keep up with her son’s strange habits, it’s no wonder Ulrich’s ex suspects she’s using again. Jones is good as the teenager who suspects what’s happening in front of anyone else, while Wojtak-Hissong does well as a child who gradually disappears into wild behavior and animal makeup.

The most brutal aspect of Will Honley’s screenplay is the fate of Helen (June B. Wilde), an elderly woman who confides in her nurse her suicidal despair over a terminal cancer diagnosis. That intel leads Jessica to some truly terrifying logic once she needs a long-term blood “donor” for the little monster at home, willing or not. The lingering, gruesome suffering is almost more than this film can handle, its uncomfortable aftertaste hardly alleviated when the narrative ultimately renders poor Helen irrelevant.

In feature (as opposed to series) work, Anderson is reliable in tonally melding screenplays’ diverse elements, from the ominous mental-health puzzles of “Session 9” and “The Machinist” to “Transsiberian” and international conspiracies. “Beirut.” Sometimes his material defeated him, however, such as “Stoneheart Asylum” and “Vanishing on 7th Street”. “Blood” falls somewhere in between: its psychological realism adds depth to a fantasy-horror hook that’s itself somewhat underdeveloped, and which it can’t quite overcome. (Beyond a vague connection to a dead tree in a dry lake near the farmhouse, we never find out who or what the whole vampirism thing came from.)

Other offbeat bloodsuckers from Romero’s “Martin” to “Let the Right One In” never take it easy on the shotgun marriage of the story’s antagonistic elements to the screen portrayal. Still, the director and his collaborators bring some grit and propulsion to a macabre concept. If the effect is often less suspicious than uncomfortable (because Jessica’s often work to do (it looks like he’s reanimated), also appeals to certain horror fans.

Shot primarily in Manitoba, the US production has sturdy, handsome, ambiguous design elements that reinforce its tonal slant as a depressing tale of ill-fated family fortunes rather than a clear dive into the fantastical.

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