Ben Watches Television : Bleed (2017)
Last Tuesday, I reviewed Ed Kurtz' claustrophobic tale of home owning terror Bleed and I liked it quite a lot. It's a fun horror novel with a little bit of everything in it: monsters, gore, symbolism and pretty rad allusions to classics of the genre. And if you're not a reader, rejoice! Bleed is currently being produced for the web by director Paul von Stoetzel and I had the privilege of watching the first three episodes. With the novel still fresh in mind, I could really appreciate how an adaptation can transform and improve the experience.
So, if you're unfamiliar with the universe of Bleed, here's what you need to know : Walt Blackmore in an English teacher who recently bought an old Gablefront house and inherited a persistent blood stain with it. That blood stain turns out to be a little more than a blood stain and the more Walt interacts with it, the bigger and stronger it becomes. The monster feeds on the attention Walt is giving it and puts everyone around him in danger. I'm not going to say more than that because it would spoil twists that aren't in the show yet, so here are my thoughts.
What Bleed did right
The casting is simply perfect. Grant Henderson breathes a new life into Walt with his out-of-style haircut and by using the slightly nasal voice of an unself-conscious nerd. He's got what I call the "Michael Douglas factor." That's when you both root for and against the protagonist. Douglas had a series of parts in the eighties where he played two-timing businessmen fighting for the lives while trying to hide their infidelities. He was the protagonist, but not exactly the hero of his story. It's the same for Grant Henderson's Walt who is endearingly insecure, yet rigid and controlling at the same time. Henderson made me understand the character better by making him sound like some dudes I know.
Japanese horror inspiration
Bleed is a novel that wears its inspiration on its sleeve and so is the series. There is very little of the novel in these three episodes (maybe fifty, sixty pages?) but it definitely goes in its own direction in regards to influences. I saw many throwbacks to turn-of-the-century Japanese horror. Takashi Miike's seminal movie Gozu, for one. Paul von Stoetzel spliced surreal scenes halfway between vision and nightmare in the novel's narrative in order to illustrate the growing control the house is exerting on Walt. There are three levels of reality going on here: domestic, supernatural and surreal. That is right from iconic Japanese horror movie directors' playbook and it works out great.
I loved how unpredictable it was (another thing the Japanese are apt with). The heavy, ominous synth would sometimes be heard in banal domestic scenes, sometimes in surreal moments. Sometimes there would be nothing at all in both. Soundtrack is an indicator of mood and several horror movies in recent years have been guilty of relying on it too much for scares. Paul von Stoetzel's playfulness and unpredictability with soundtrack usage was refreshing. I had finished the novel literally a week earlier and couldn't tell when a scare was actually coming because of that. Filmmaking has a lot to do with pacing and von Stoetzel used soundtrack to change tempos in Bleed.
What Bleed did wrong
The first scene
It seems like a mundane detail said like this, but it's kind of clumsy and it will potentially drive less patient audiences away. In the novel, the first scene happens in the 1920s and somewhat explains what the blood monster in the house is (it involves child abuse so, uh. Trigger Warning, I guess).The series couldn't have done without it, but it's shot with this really overbearing voice-over that reads from the novel. It didn't need that. The scene would've worked beautifully without and single word and the obnoxious adult-trying-to-sound-like-a-child voice is bringing an over-the-top quality to the scene that conflicts with the dramatic tone its trying to set. The series picks up from there, but I know it will make some people quit.
Bleed is trying to do a lot in a very little time. I understand the purpose of the web format (episodes are between 4 and 10 minutes long) but von Stoetzel tackles a LOT in very little time here. So, the first three episodes of Bleed feature short, jagged scenes that....you know, in all fairness add to the unpredictability of the show, but could've used more breathing room to let the claustrophobic feeling of the novel simmer with the audience. I guess it's complicated to have your cake and eat it too when you're directing. And it's not a problem if you haven't read the novel.
Anyway, Bleed is different from what's out there, yet respects the philosophy the novel was written with. There's more coming in 2018, so keep an eye out!