Incest has always been a go-to subject in the porn industry. For a period of time in the Seventies and Eighties, it was acceptable and/or desired to watch family members bump uglies. Entire movies were produced around the subject, and it played an integral plot point in some others (back when porn films actually attempted to have plots that they followed; and to be fair, some still do, but the vast array of what you’ll find out there on the internet is little more than loop scenes, the same as you would have found in a grotty porn theater booth way back when, just with [usually] better production values and a higher likelihood that you won’t stick to your chair afterward). It’s still a theme in a lot of internet porn, except the producers are very, very careful to explain that incest is a crime in many states in America. They further backstop this by concocting scenarios where the participants aren’t lineally related. They are stepdads, stepdaughters, stepsons, stepmoms, et cetera. Kind of takes the taboo elements out of the equation, doesn’t it? In line with our focus today, incest is also an aspect of some potent horror films, and therein it doesn’t lose its bite, most likely because commonly there aren’t explicit, intrafamilial sex scenes that exploit that element. In horror, incest takes on a sad, often abusive aspect, and when well done, it adds impact to the gut punch that horror films try to deliver. With that said, the inbreeding component in Peter Svatek’s Bleeders (aka Hemoglobin aka The Descendant) does add to the film’s disturbing story, though the film feels like an amalgamation of older, Hammer-esque horror movies and more modern, graphic horror movies.
Back in Victorian times, Eva Van Daam takes up incest with her brother in an attempt to cure the maladies affecting her aristocratic family’s bloodline, like anemia and hemophilia, but bad things develop from this (who could have predicted that?). Cut to: modern times, where John Strauss (Roy Dupuis) and wife Kathleen (Kristin Lehman) travel to the small island where the Van Daam family went into seclusion in search of answers to why John still has such horrible blood-based issues (I guess inbreeding didn’t do the trick). Making the acquaintance of local physician/exile, Dr. Marlowe (Rutger Hauer), the couple dig deep into John’s lineage, while something else is digging deep into the flesh of the local populace.
As stated, Bleeders has a very classic structure to it. There is little seen of the monsters until the end. The majority of the story is a slow buildup of pieces being slid into place, of a mystery being dragged out into the light. The focus is primarily on Kathleen and how she deals with her husband (who you would think would be the main character, but he’s not, and there is a significant reason for this) and his behavior. Further, John is not a nice fellow, and physically he makes Richmond from The IT Crowd look like one of The Wiggles. The action of the film is handled by Dr. Marlowe (in a redemptive/Van Helsing type of role), a man who is pulled into the story reluctantly. I think this is a mistake, since it takes the focus off Kathleen, and it feels akin to the Amazing Larry suddenly becoming a prominent participant in the finale of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
There is also a Gothic atmosphere that the filmmakers use to its fullest extent. The locales are dreary. The island is remote and haunting, like the forested settings of a great many vampire films. The buildings the Strausses investigate are constructed of cobbled stone and creepy as hell. The local cemetery looks like it was transplanted from a blasted heath in Britain, and the coffins supplied by local exploitress Byrde Gordon (Joanna Noyes) are the plainest of old school pine boxes imaginable (that the damage done to them gives them an added texture is just gravy). In the Hammer films of yore (by which I do believe the makers of this film were heavily influenced), there was a sensuality, and, for their time, they were considered quite lurid. This film mirrors the feel of (early) Hammer, but makes more straightforward the more unseemly components (somewhat like later Hammer). Bleeders is also daring enough to not only put children in peril but actually knock them off (and not just once for the sake of shock), and once the third act kicks in, the action and tension ratchet up, becoming a siege film with cannibalistic horrors in place of savages.
It’s intriguing to me, this idea of developing from incest to cannibalism. Both are taboo things in civilized society, but that one could lead to the other is kind of fascinating. It is as if the Van Daams have cursed themselves for transgressing against the natural order, damning what they intended to save. The bloodline they had hoped to purify has not only been further degraded but has also produced monsters. Blood became the means of survival for them, though the blood they need can’t be pure (or that’s what I got from the narrative), because they are no longer pure (or as pure as they ever could have been). In some respects, these creatures appear like children; their heads are large and bald, they are short-statured, they are non-verbal. Yet they also externally embody the consumption of flesh (familial and non-familial, sexual and culinary) which created them: they have multiple noses, multiple eyes, and hare lips. They are gestalts of the piling up of evils which engendered them and which they then propagate across the island. What has been passed down the family tree is equal parts curse and punishment; transforming from one into the other while simultaneously being both is the ironic tragedy of the story. All of this began in order to cure an ill, but the laws of both man and nature were broken in the attempt, and this is why the family in total is penalized. Sure, the creatures may be unwilling participants (we can assume), but their alternatives are non-existent. Surrounding them is a sort of fear of difference taken to a novel level. Incest is certainly not the norm in most civilized communities, and its public exposure turns the islanders against the Van Daam clan, who they likely didn’t care for due to their wealth regardless (especially since we get the heavy implication that the Van Daam’s were both arrogant and uncaring, and this is carried on with John). The islanders (working class) are different from the Strausses (moneyed) are different from the monsters (literally dirt poor), so that all of the inter-relationships create a circle, in addition to the one about social mores (heteronormative to incestuous to cannibalistic). That there is some thought going on beneath the film’s surface is admirable, and the movie overall succeeds more than it fails. Why it isn’t talked about more than it is confuses me, not because it reinvents the wheel or anything (it doesn’t), but because it’s better than its title and cover pic let on (its VHS cover was one of the great gimmicks of the medium, consisting of a layer of blood-colored liquid over a photo of the film’s beasties).
MVT: I love the dark, grim tone of Bleeders. It works for the subject and distinguishes itself from other horror films of the time (and even, arguably, today).
Make or Break: There is a grave robbing scene which hits splendidly, even though you can see what’s coming a mile away. It’s a very well-constructed, well-directed sequence.