Friday, October 09, 2015

Bloodstream (1985)

In 2004 the late Michael J Murphy (who died earlier this year) told an interviewer: "I am now in my fifties with very little to show for it, except great memories, which is maybe more than many people have."  Which is a pretty succinct summing up of what it is to be involved in low-budget, independent, exploitation film-making.  Murphy might not be a household name, but, in a career spanning more than thirty years, he became one of Britain's most prolific film directors, managing to complete (according to the Imdb) at least thirteen features, all made on miniscule budgets, most of which achieved some kind of distribution, be it on video or cable TV.   Eschewing the normal sources of film finance, Murphy instead raised production funds from family and friends, meaning that, although the amounts raised were tiny by industry standards, he was able to actually get his movies into production and retain creative control over them.  A keen film maker since childhood, Murphy never allowed his lack of resources to restrict his ambitions, with the subject matter of his features ranging from Arthurian sword-and-sorcery (Avalon), lost world fantasies (Atlantis), post-apocalyptic science fiction (Death Run), psychological thrillers (Death in the Family) and horror (Invitation to Hell).  Based in Portsmouth, his locations ranged from Wales to Greece and Portugal.

One if his most interesting films, however, remains unreleased.  Bloodstream was very much a personal project for Murphy: a reaction to his poor experiences with distributors, the film offers both a satire on the whole direct-to-video horror boom of the eighties and a commentary on the whole 'Video Nasties'  phenomena which accompanied it.  Shot on 8mm (apparently the only feature since the late sixties to use this format) and a non-existent budget (Imdb estimates it at £400!), the film focuses on film director Alistair, who finds himself sacked from his latest feature 'Bloodstream', a direct-to-video horror flick, by its producer, who invokes a clause in their contract, claiming that the film is of such poor quality that it is unreleasable.  Of course, the sleazy producer proceeds to release the film, which he believes will be a hit with post-pub video viewers, having cheated Alistair out of any royalties.  Egged on by the producer's embittered secretary Nikki, Alistair plots a terrible revenge against those who have wronged him.  In between binge-watching horror videos, the director, dressed as death, systematically murders, in various unpleasant ways, the family and close business associates of his nemesis, filming each killing.  Growing increasingly unhinged, he edits the murders together into his own 'video nasty', which he forces the producer to watch, telling him that 'this what a real horror film looks like'.

Clearly, Murphy is addressing the central thesis of the moral panic which surrounded the so called 'video nasties': that exposure to the violence depicted in these films would inevitably encourage their viewers to try and emulate what they have seen.  But in Bloodstream, the horror videos which Alistair obsessively watches after being kicked off of his own film, are clearly just cheap exploitation films with fantasy violence and obvious fake gore which would never convince any but the most naïve and uncritical viewers.  The actual murders he commits - motivated by revenge - are far nastier than anything in the clips of the videos that we see, (even the dog of one victim is burned to death), involving chainsaws, electrocution and the like, rather than mummy stranglings, blood drinking and werewolf killings.  What Alistair ultimately presents to his producer is a snuff movie rather than a 'video nasty' - a key point, as part of the moral campaigners seeking to ban the 'nasties' was to deliberately imply that at least some of them depicted real violence and, perhaps, even murder.  The two, as Alistair effectively points out, are, in fact, quite different.

In terms of actual quality, Bloodstream is ultimately compromised by its tiny budget, which undermines its ability to give its intriguing central concept full justice.  With non-professional performers, grainy picture quality and tinny sound, it sometimes comes over as a very elaborate home movie. That said, it is clear that Murphy was a film maker of considerable ability: shots are well composed, suspense scenes well constructed, the murders well realised and he generally succeeds in coaxing adequate performances from his cast.  Overall, it is certainly far better than the majority of direct-to-video horror films from the era and certainly far more intelligent.  Indeed, it's hard not feel that, with a bigger budget, better resources and an actual release of some sort, Bloodstream could well have become a minor cult hit.  But a bigger budget and more resources could well have resulted in the film's subject matter becoming compromised as a result of pressure from backers and distributors to deliver a more 'conventional' slasher  movie.  If nothing else, the world of low budget exploitation film making at least allowed movie makers like Murphy to pursue their personal visions, a point realised by contemporary directors like Ben Wheatley, who deliberately choose to work on low budgets so as to retain greater creative control.  Sadly, though, I doubt that any of Murphy's films will ever be as critically feted as Wheatley's are.

At the end of the day, the likes of Michael J Murphy should be admired: these are the people who are so in love with film making that they are prepared to work on next to no budgets, under the most trying of circumstances, in order to pursue their creative visions.  All for little or no reward.  Nothing, it seems, could stop Murphy from making films, not an eight year stint in he 1990s as a carer for his mother after she suffered a serious stroke, not Parcel Force losing most of the footage of one of his films in transit to the lab, nor the fact that in the latter part of his career he was forced to work part-time in an off-licence in order to make ends meet.  Sure, many of his films feature rickety effects and uneven acting, but at least he got out there and made them, rather than spending years trying to raise finance and dissipating his creative energies in endless meetings with studio executives and financiers in order to gain 'script approval', before losing control of his own film.  We really should be celebrating the likes of Michael J Murphy more.



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