FANTASIA FESTIVAL REVIEW – ‘Bleed With Me’ is an unnerving psychological horror rooted in its ambiguity and manipulation of reality

From The Evil Dead to Cabin Fever, the idea of setting a horror film in a creepy cabin in the woods is nothing new. It’s practically a sub-genre all of its own, particularly after Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon sharply skewered the conceit with the meta-aware genius that was 2011’s Cabin in the Woods. By virtue of unfortunate timing, writer/director Amelia Moses’ Bleed With Me stands as the third horror film of 2020 to take place within the claustrophobic confines of a spooky, isolated cabin. Thankfully, Moses delivers something completely unique and genuinely unsettling.

Painfully introverted and self-destructive Rowan (Lee Marshall) accepts an invitation from her apparent best friend and work colleague Emily (Lauren Beatty) to take a trip to a cabin deep in the snow-covered Canadian mountains. With Emily’s boyfriend Brendan (Aris Tyros) tagging along for the vacation, Rowan immediately feels like an awkward third wheel, which is only exacerbated when she overhears Brendan grumbling about Rowan ruining their chance for any time alone.

Regardless, Rowan is determined to enjoy the peace and quiet and take advantage of the opportunity for some much-needed relaxation time. But Rowan’s serenity is soon broken when she begins experiencing bizarre nightmares in which Emily is stealing and drinking Rowan’s blood. If the dreams weren’t bad enough, Rowan awakens with unexplained slashes on her arm and begins to suspect her best pal might actually be draining her blood while she sleeps.

With a slow-burn structure that modestly takes its time to arrive at its intended destination, Bleed With Me will likely test an audience’s patience and engagement, especially for those more acquainted with horror films that launch into terror at the drop of a hat. Moses crafts an atmospheric foundation littered with subtle moments that hint at the horrors to come and how this peaceful retreat will soon become a terrifying nightmare. It’s a progression that feels organic and allows you to journey the narrative alongside Rowan, but it’s curious to see a filmmaker take such a leisurely pace in a film that only runs for 79 minutes.

With such a brief running time, we’re robbed of the opportunity to truly explore the characters deeply, particularly the troubled pasts of both Rowan and Emily. There’s deep-seated trauma in their histories, but it’s portrayed in a ubiquitous style that doesn’t dig deeply into what these women have experienced in their lives. It’s far from fatal in your ability to connect with these characters, but stretching the run time out slightly may have been to the film’s overall benefit.

Bleed With Me is an unnerving psychological horror rooted in its ambiguity and manipulation of reality. It’s consistently unclear if Rowan’s suspicions of Emily are something entirely sinister or merely the result of a fractured mind affected by claustrophobic paranoia. How you choose to read this film will prove to be an entirely personal experience. If Emily really is the parasitic vampire of Rowan’s nightmares, it’s a pertinent portrayal of gaslighting by virtue of Emily using Rowan’s damaged mind against her. We’ve seen echoes of male gaslighters in recent horror films like The Invisible Man and Midsommar, but never as the central conceit of a film’s entire plot and rarely in the form of a female best friend.

At times, Emily seemingly cruelly manipulates Rowan’s faltering sanity in a bid to absolve herself of the accusations of the bloody theft Rowan is convinced is occurring. It’s a startling portrait of the crippling power of manipulation on those too vulnerable to realise they’re being controlled by someone they consider an ally. But Rowan is an unreliable protagonist, and Moses never offers definitive answers as to whether we are indeed witnessing gaslighting or simply the paranoid delusions of a woman in the grips of a mental breakdown.

In such an intimate character study, everything here hinges on the performances of Marshall and Beatty, with both offering starkly differing turns within Moses tension-heavy narrative. Marshall effortlessly captures Rowan’s vulnerability and anguish, particularly in moments where her mind appears to betray her. It’s an emotional performance mostly sold through Marshall’s facial expressions that convey the essence of a character in utter turmoil. Beatty is equally impressive, playing Emily as someone whose maternal sweetness may or may not be a total facade. It’s impossible to tell if Emily is genuinely concerned for Rowan or it’s merely the masterful manipulation of an intelligent sociopath and therein lies the power of Beatty’s work.

The film is peppered with occasionally striking and haunting imagery, captured by the raw cinematography of René Arseneau and elevated by the claustrophobic production design of Stephanie Burbano. The string-heavy score of Dominic Caterina adds to the rising tension and burst to life at just the right moments. Moses’ screenplay can’t quite match the power of her visuals, with the dialogue often feeling too stilted to really match what the director is trying to say visually. She’s made a conscious decision to ignore the temptation to neatly explain the ins and outs of her narrative and leaves on an ambiguous ending that will either delight or frustrate the viewer.

If you prefer your horror movies to make concise sense by their conclusion, Bleed With Me may not be the film you’re hoping for. It’s a psychological thriller that will have you questioning everything its protagonist sees and refuses to offer any clarity to the journey you’ve just witnessed. There’s something terribly refreshing about such an approach and it’s hard not to admire everything Moses has crafted here. Whether it’s a disturbing portrait of manipulation or a terrifying depiction of paranoia, Bleed With Me will be swimming in your mind for days.

Distributor: Telefilm Canada
Cast: Lee Marshall, Lauren Beatty, Aris Tyros
Director: Amelia Moses
Producer: Lee Marshall, Amelia Moses, Mariel Sharp
Screenplay: Amelia Moses
Cinematography: René Arseneau
Production Design: Stephanie Burbano
Costume Design: Stephanie Burbano
Music: Dominic Caterina

Editing: Mattias Graham
Running Time: 79 minutes

‘Bleed With Me’ plays as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2020 from August 20 – September 2. For more information and tickets, head HERE.