‘Blood’ review: Michelle Monaghan finds some bad habits can’t be broken in a tough horror movie

Vampirism has been treated as a metaphor for more prosaic addictions in previous films. In “Blood,” however, it’s one more nuisance that a recovering addict doesn’t need to add to the burdens of her already jarring family life. Starring Michelle Monaghan as a mother fresh out of rehab whose young son is bitten and then develops an insatiable appetite for the titular fluid, Brad Anderson’s film takes a middle path between dysfunctional domestic drama and supernatural horror. That balance doesn’t quite work. But strong performances and strong, occasionally unpleasant content make this an engaging, if not entirely satisfying, watch. Vertical Entertainment will release it in limited US theaters this Friday, then on On Demand platforms on January 31.

Having completed a residential program for never-quite-defined substance abuse problems, Jessica (Monaghan) returns to work as a hospital nurse and is reunited with her children, though teenager Tyler (Skylar Morgan Jones) and young Owen (Finlay Wojtak -Hissong) are not particularly happy to move with her to a remote and rather gloomy old country house inherited from her late grandparents.

Less happy still is her ex-husband Patrick (Skeet Ulrich), who has had these children to himself for three years. He is resentful that Jessica uprooted them, as well as doubtful of her recovery: she clearly put them through the mill. He has also made progress in establishing a new marital relationship with Shelley (Danika Frederick), who started out as the children’s nanny and is now pregnant with her half-brother. This doesn’t sit much better with Jessica than the sinister rumors of her about regaining full custody of her.

Easing the transition a bit, at least for Owen, is his dog Pippin, the kind of golden Lab so docile you’d trust him not to hurt the proverbial fly. But Pip seems drawn to and concerned about something in the surrounding woods. One night he sneaks out and finally comes back a couple of days later… not himself. Bright-eyed, he seriously attacks Owen, who must be saved by Mom at the cost of the dog’s life. Whatever Pip “possessed” soon seems to have passed on to her victim, whose recovery is erratic until Jessica realizes she needs blood, not just through a transfusion in her hospital bed, but orally, in amount. Once she gets him back home, satisfying that ever-increasing need pushes the narrative into pretty creepy territory, pretty quickly.

Playing a leading lady whose motherly devotion rarely wavers across some dire lines, Monaghan doesn’t hesitate to make Jessica unsympathetic. As she lies, schemes and worse to support her son’s grotesque habit, it’s no wonder Ulrich’s ex suspects she’s drugging again. Jones is good as the teenager who suspects what’s going on before anyone else, while Wojtak-Hissong does well as a boy who gradually fades into wild demeanor and creaturelike appearance.

The cruelest aspect of Will Honley’s script is the fate that awaits Helen (June B. Wilde), an older woman who confides in her nurse about her suicidal despair over a terminal cancer diagnosis. That information in turn leads Jessica to a truly horrible rationalization once she needs a long-term blood “donor” for the little monster at home, willing or not. The prolonged, gruesome suffering that follows is almost more than this film can handle, the nauseating aftertaste of it barely eased when the narrative finally renders poor Helen irrelevant.

In feature-length work (unlike the series), Anderson has been reliable in the tonal melding of the disparate elements of variable scripts, from the sinister mental health conundrums of “Session 9” and “The Machinist” to international intrigue. of “Transsiberian” and Beirut. However, at times his material has defeated him, as in “Stonehearst Asylum” and “Vanishing on 7th Street.” “Blood” falls somewhere in between: its psychological realism adds depth to a fantasy-horror hook that is itself somewhat underdeveloped and unable to fully transcend. (We never find out who or what the whole vampirism thing came from, beyond an ambiguous connection to a dead tree in a dried-up lake near the farm.)

The forced marriage of opposite elements of the story never goes as smoothly as it does in other cinematic depictions of offbeat bloodsuckers, from Romero’s “Martin” to “Let the Right One In.” However, the director and his collaborators bring some determination and propulsion to a macabre concept. If the effect is often less suspenseful than simply baffling (because Jessica’s actions are frequently do make it look like he’s relapsed), that also has appeal to certain horror fans.

Shot primarily in Manitoba, the American production has rugged, beautiful, and inconspicuous design elements that reinforce its tonal lean more as a depressing tale of family bad luck than an open-ended immersion into the fantastic.

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