A Strong Cast Keeps Slow, Familiar Vampire Horror Blood From Bleeding Out

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A Strong Cast Keeps Slow, Familiar Vampire Horror Blood From Bleeding Out

Brad Anderson’s directorial signatures lend themselves to Blood, a dramatic horror slow-burn that blends his tragic storytelling sensibilities with genre darkness. Writer Will Honley channels familial vampire tales like My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To and Let the Right One in into his woeful narrative, pointed like a sharpened stake yet not wielded with energetic charisma by Buffys or Blades. Anderson introduces messy protagonists, heartfelt custody battles and folkloric demon trees, but simmers a quieter brand of bloodlust. It’s a sullen, trauma-driven approach to horror that’s far less traditional and reliant on human monsters amidst magical mysteries—not a killshot. This prolonged approach lacks decadent suspense or encompassing dread.

Michelle Monaghan stars as separated single mother and ex-addict Jess Stokes, currently fighting over custodial rights with ex-husband Patrick (Skeet Ulrich). Jess moves back into her family’s rustic farmhouse—wallpaper peeling, located off the beaten path—which is an uproot for youngest son Owen (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) and older sister Tyler (Skylar Morgan Jones). Patrick wants his kin closer to school, closer to civilization and closer to his orbit. His argument hinges on Jess’ ability to stay sober and attentive, which Jess defies by celebrating extensive sobriety—then an accident involving Owen and their lovable pooch Pippen occurs, changing all their lives forever.

At the core of Honley’s tale of parental distress and shattered families is a jagged, leafless tree in the middle of a muddy “lake”—no water, just soil-drenched sludge that defines desolation. Jess fears the terrain, which stinks of foreshadowing doom. Anderson doesn’t waste the ominous setting, from the skeletal branch figurations to the pitch-black, endless hole in the middle. Still, Honley’s backstory doesn’t apply a layered foundation beyond what Anderson conveys visually. Owen undergoes a transformation that unlocks a thirst for blood, which becomes the central curse that derails Jess’ hopeful reclamation—the rebuilding of family bonds after drug abuse tears them apart—and yet feels underdeveloped.

Blood relies on Jess’ maternal dedication, Owen’s vampiric threat and Patrick’s legal pressures as a lovesick father. Performances drive every droplet of tension—versus jump scares or creature effects—as Monaghan wrestles with a mother’s instinctual desire to protect her babies at all costs. Wee Wojtak-Hissong plays childlike with a hidden feral side well enough, and Jones grounds scenes as the nervous sister versus Monaghan’s spiraling adult. Although, Blood is a showcase for Monaghan as she pushes the boundaries of motherly love to disturbing extremes, while Ulrich complicates the plot without being a villain—Patrick huffs steely emotional fortitude as he fights to see his children with the same intensity as Jess.

Despite the rocksteady performances, we’ve many times prior seen the conflicts introduced by Jess’ blood-guzzling son, and Anderson doesn’t stir much individuality: Jess and Patrick’s drag-out, achingly combative disdain towards one another trumps the weaker horror elements. The question becomes if their at-odds and raw breakdowns are enough to pull us through an otherwise expected handling of Vampire Lite mythology. Anderson goes dismal and relatable with gut-punch hopes, but drags the experience on as moral quandaries become methodical plot mechanisms churned through with more tepidness than terror.

Blood will attract its audience the same way My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To did, assuredly sharing fans in their overlapping Venn diagrams. Anderson indulges the bleakness of parenthood (at a detriment to the overall experience) because there’s no scarier experience than giving someone your whole heart on a platter. The cast embraces their characters’ downfalls with honesty and forthcoming convictions, yet Blood is often too muted. It’s not that it’s been done before; it’s that it’s also been done better, with more vigor and greater reinvention. Blood runs thick, in that it’s hard to trudge through.

Director: Brad Anderson
Writer: Will Honley
Starring: Michelle Monaghan, Skeet Ulrich, Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, Skylar Morgan Jones
Release Date: January 27, 2023

Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.

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