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Bloodletting   A-

Tempe Entertainment

Year Released: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Matthew Jason Walsh
Writer: Matthew Jason Walsh
Cast: Ariauna Albright, James L. Edwards, Nina Angleoff, Joseph A. Daw, Sasha Graham, Tina Krause, Scooter McCrae, Randy Rupp.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Early on in Bloodletting, smart-ass serial killer Butch Harlow is teaching his lovely protégé, Serena Stalin, how to kill. Butch holds the victim, a drunk young woman, pinning her arms behind her head. Serena stabs her in the stomach, which makes a nice red mess, but doesn't even come close to getting the job done. Butch, understandably annoyed, yells, "What the fuck do you think this is -- a Friday the 13th movie?" Serena throws down the knife. "Fuck you," she says. "This is my first time killing somebody, okay?" And despite the morbid, discomforting fact there's an innocent woman bleeding to death right there, at the hands of our two heroes no less, the scene is brilliantly funny. It's less about killing somebody than it is about the beginning of Butch and Serena's rocky but genuine relationship.

That's the charm of Bloodletting, the 1997 feature directorial debut by writer-director Matthew Jason Walsh. Even with a few over-the-top gore scenes that would make H.G. Lewis proud, it's always about the two central characters and their relationship. At the start of the film, Serena (Ariauna Albright) blackmails notorious serial killer Butch (James L. Edwards) into schooling her on the craft of murder. Fittingly, they fall in love and begin murdering unsuspecting innocents in between candlelit dinners and passionate lovers' spats. In the heat of their first big argument, Serena earnestly tells her frustrated teacher, "This isn't about killing people anymore, Butch. This is about us." Not so coincidentally, this goes for the movie as a whole: it's not a body count movie but rather a delightfully twisted, shamelessly ironic, and shockingly funny tragicomic love story.

Naturally, the young lovers eventually run into some pretty hefty relationship problems. When Serena's ever-increasing bloodlust surpasses Butch's own, it's a harsh blow to his manhood, even if he denies it -- because, in a way, it's her libido that proves too much for him to satisfy. Equating Serena's desire to kill with her sex drive is especially apt considering the reason she gives Butch for wanting to learn the tricks of his trade: watching her best friend die at his hands two years ago, she had her first orgasm. As Serena proves insatiable and Butch refuses to face up to his sporadic impotency, things get really ugly really quick.

While James L. Edwards' performance as a wisecracking sociopath tends to overshadow Ariauna Albright's less showy turn, it's the undeniable chemistry between them that makes Bloodletting work. Edwards gets all the best lines (Serena even says that Butch sounds like he just stepped out of a Quentin Tarantino movie) and has charisma to burn, but Albright (who has some off moments early on) turns in an equally striking performance as Serena's psychosis takes hold and she becomes an even bigger monster than her maker.

Of course, one can't dismiss Matthew Jason Walsh's near-brilliant screenplay and efficient direction. The film is based on Walsh's short film "I've Killed Before" (which is included on Bloodletting's new special edition DVD), a rough, amateurish, but effectively funny sick joke with a killer punch line. On a technical level, Bloodletting is far superior to the short, especially thanks to the slick editing by Tempe Entertainment honcho J.R. Bookwalter, who also executive produced the film. As a micro-budget effort shot on digital video, there are a lot of rough edges, but Walsh's energy and wit help eclipse most of its shortcomings.

Maybe there's something a bit morbid about praising a movie that features a baby being splattered all over a wall due to an accidental shotgun blast, but as Edwards points out on the DVD commentary track, "it's so Monty Python you can't get pissed at it." Bloodletting doesn't take itself too seriously, but -- like all great black comedies -- it forces us to think about things we'd normally rather avoid. As the opening credits montage mixes real-life death and violence from mondo documentaries like Traces of Death with gory scenes from Tempe's Skinned Alive, the film seems to be asking right from the start: Have we become so desensitized to violent images that the line between real-life violence and fictional violence has all but vanished? Bloodletting may be charmingly tongue-in-cheek in tone, but its implications are truly disturbing. While the last-minute twist negates some of what came before and destroys the film's internal logic, it's a funny and unsettling kicker that's thematically consistent with the film as a whole.

All that aside, Bloodletting can simply be appreciated as the tragicomic story of two psychos in love and their messy, troubled relationship. As much as Walsh's screenplay, dialogue, and direction are integral to the film's success, Edwards and Albright hold everything together with their inspired performances and wonderful chemistry. With the release of the fantastic new DVD (packed with great extras and a digitally restored version of the film with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound), I only hope that the best serial-killer love story of all time finds a wider audience.

Review published 08.06.2003.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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