“I would do anything for my children,” says Jess (Michelle Monaghan), a phrase she repeats like a mantra that gradually takes on a more sinister emphasis as Blood marches toward its startling conclusion. A recovering drug addict in the midst of a complicated divorce from Patrick (Skeet Ulrich), Jess has gotten custody of their two children and moved into a dilapidated farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Desperate to maintain that custody while staying sober, Jess is what might be called a “helicopter” parent, living in constant fear that the kids will injure themselves and that she will be blamed for it. Teenaged Tyler (Skylar Morgan Jones) does her best to help her mother out, keeping a careful eye on precocious younger brother Owen (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong), but he’s eager to explore the forest surrounding their new home. Here, the kids discover a mostly dried-up plot of land with a haggard-looking tree plunked down in the middle of a now-barren lake bed. The family dog senses something, too, frantically pacing and constantly barking into the woods.
Director Brad Anderson deftly manages all this setup, building tensions from everyday family drama and then magnifying it with increasingly dire portent. Things finally escalate when the dog disappears; Owen is determined to find his beloved pet, while Jess, busy at work and harried by her ex’s lawyers, tries to reassure him that the dog will return on its own. Return it does, but something is different. Its eyes are glowing yellow, its muzzle caked with dried blood. The dog attacks Owen, sending him to the hospital in critical condition. Owen’s prognosis doesn’t look good, and when a battery of doctors can’t figure out exactly what’s wrong with him, it leads to all fingers pointing directly at Jess. While in this frazzled headspace, she enters Owen’s room to find him sucking at a bag of blood hooked up to an IV, which seems to reinvigorate him suddenly. Jess is, of course, shocked and repulsed, but quickly processes this new reality — Owen needs blood, and if he doesn’t get it, his coma-like symptoms return.
It’s here that Blood obviously reveals itself to be a vampire movie, but of a sort, even one that doesn’t hew to many of the standard genre conventions. There’s no talk about garlic or crosses, and sunlight isn’t a deterrent. But the practicality of acquiring a large amount of blood for a growing boy takes on first a procedural element, as Jess uses her position as a nurse to siphon bags out of cold storage, and then a moral one, as maintaining a steady flow of the red stuff becomes of paramount importance. So much so that Jess begins entertaining the idea of putting a terminal cancer patient to use before their demise. Anderson and screenwriter Will Henley gradually expand Jess’ (and by extension the audience’s) understanding of Owen’s condition, as the film shifts from family drama to overt horror. There’s a lot of Stephen King here (particularly Pet Sematary) as well as Let the Right One In and the more recent My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To, but Blood mostly elides any sense of overfamiliarity thanks to fine performances and Anderson’s keen visual sense (this is the director of the remarkable Session 9, after all). Monaghan is particularly good as the put-upon mother who will, indeed, do anything for her child. She’s on edge from the get-go, fearful of her ex and his new fiancé wrenching her kids away, only getting worse as she’s forced to navigate Owen’s condition while trying to hide it from the rest of the family. Thankfully the film leaves the connection between Owen’s thirst and Jess’ own addiction unstated, rather than pushing it too far into metaphor. There are some elements here of the dreaded “elevated horror,” whatever that means nowadays. But Anderson isn’t afraid of, or above, genre. Indeed he delivers ample amounts of the titular substance while still allowing for genuine pathos to shine through. Blood isn’t a masterpiece or anything, nor is it rewriting the vampire movie (Ferrara and Bigelow’s cult status remains unchallenged), but it is a stellar example of good acting and solid craftsmanship reinvigorating what could’ve been just another low-budget addition to the streaming maw. You could say it’s satisfying, reinvigorating even, a gimmick-free horror movie without a high concept hook, just old-fashioned dread.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.