Review: Bloodletting (1997)

You couldn't throw a severed ear in the mid-to-late 1990s without hitting a movie that bore the influence of Tarantino. It was a new Hollywood that courted extreme violence and the glorification of the bad guy, and the impact of this bold tonal shift in the industry was felt from the largest studios to aspiring new creators who were just emerging onto the scene. Young filmmakers were given unprecedented opportunities, and a new generation of genre geeks who had been raised in the video store reached for their consumer grade camera and sought to make their own movie magic.

That sets the stage for Bloodletting, a 1997 micro-budget tale of serial killers and romance that very much bears the fingerprints of QT. When an attractive redhead named Serena (Ariauna Albright) shows up at the front door of what appears to be an average twenty-something suburbanite (James L. Edwards), all is not as it seems. After a brief game of cat and mouse, we learn that this everyman is really Butch Harlow, a notorious serial killer that has avoided capture for years. Serena has figured out Butch's secret and wants the outlaw to teach her the art of murder. What follows is 90 minutes of quippy, baroque-trash dialogue and lots of gratuitous violence. 

Bloodletting, written and directed by Matthew Jason Walsh, is a reimagining of an earlier short film called "I've Killed Before," made in 1995 by most of the same people. Walsh is a prolific screenwriter with dozens of credits to his name, but Bloodletting (and the short film that inspired it) represents the majority of his directorial output. Apparently, Walsh wrote the serial killer character specifically for James L. Edwards, who delivers pages of talky dialogue with as much believability as possible and who plays the duality of his role well. He's never sympathetic or likeable (how could he be?), but he's charismatic and seems to be relishing the darker aspects of the story in ways that must have influenced his own much more mature film Her Name Was Christa. Similarly, Ariauna Alrbright has to carry a lot of story here, portraying a murderer with enough complexity that we buy the romance at the center of the film. 

The real appeal of the movie lies in its alternative cinema origins. Made for a few thousand dollars whenever the cast and crew could manage to pull away from their real-life duties (Albright, for instance, was working a full time job), it's an experimental effort from a filmmaker who was learning as he went along--even if that meant learning he didn't want to direct. SOV horror fans already know and love this movie for combining Psycho Lovers and Natural Born Killers into one low-budget bloody buffet, but a another huge part of the charm for movies like this is that they're often made with very limited resources and amateur talent. What can you make in Ohio on a shoestring budget without Panavision cameras, career actors, and a union crew? If you're clever, resourceful, and stubborn, you can make something that people are still talking about 25 years later. Bloodletting also benefits from the editing and oversight of J.R. Bookwalter, the filmmaker and Tempe Video maestro who was at that time coming off of a decade-long run of indie projects and was soon to embark for Hollywood. 

Now Bloodletting arrives on Blu-ray in a spectacular "Signature Edition" that is stuffed to the gills with features. Nobody, and I mean nobody, does home media like Tempe Digital, who always super-serves fandom with their offerings. For starters, the Signature Edition (which is limited to 500 copies), includes a collectible slipcover with wonderful, comic-book-style artwork that has been signed by both James L. Edwards and J.R. Bookwalter. The Blu-ray case itself features a reversible art wrap with the 2003 DVD artwork and the 1997 Tempe Video artwork.

The on-disc features really shine. Viewers have the option to choose between a new 2021 restored version of the film in its original aspect ratio and with DTS 5.1 surround sound or the original 1997 VHS version of the movie with Dolby 2.0 sound. There are THREE audio commentaries: a new 2022 commentary featuring James L. Edwards and J.R. Bookwalter that's moderated by Ross Snyder of Saturn's Core Audio and Video, the 2002 DVD commentary featuring writer/director Matthew Jason Walsh, Ariauna Alrbright, and James L. Edwards, and a new 2022 audio commentary for the 1997 VHS version by members of the No Budget Nightmares podcast. Additionally, a new 18-minute warts-and-all retrospective documentary chronicles the troubled production, which was fraught with ego clashes, inexperience, and lack of interest by several of the key players. The original DVD-era "making of" feature is also present in two different versions: the 27-minute cut and an extended 35-minute cut. A new 2021 four-minute location tour shows us where the film was shot, and there are four minutes of new behind-the-scenes footage making their debut here as well, plus two minutes of deleted scenes. Wait, there's more. The soundtrack for the 1997 VHS version is included on CD alongside an 8-page booklet with an essay on the film by Ross Snyder. If you order from Makeflix.com, you get the 2003 DVD disc that also contains the full short film "I've Killed Before" and you can add the 2003 version's soundtrack (which is different from the 1997 VHS soundtrack) for $5 more. Whew, that's a lotta stuff!

Maybe you're thinking "do I really need all that?" Yes, you do, and here's why: the stories matter. Bookwalter and crew are never anything but honest when they discuss their work (let's remember the "Bad Movie Police" DVDs in which they poke fun at their own stuff) and nobody is acting like Bloodletting is Citizen Kane. In fact, any aspiring filmmaker would do well to study this release not just as a guide for how to start a small production, but also for what not to do. Bookwalter didn't dig the concept and wasn't keen to be involved. James L. Edwards had ego issues and "accidentally" knocked his co-star out cold. "I hit her harder than I've ever hit any man," he says in the bonus features. Ariauna Albright had such a bad experience with Walsh on the short film "I've Killed Before" that she had serious doubts about ever doing anything with the writer/director again. What's really interesting is to compare the 2002 recollections from just five years after the movie was made to the new interviews and commentary, made 25 years after the project. Stories have changed and people have grown up. Some of the actors in the film regretted their appearances and didn't want to come back for the new retrospective. Tempe bonus features often reveal real drama that's even wilder than the movies themselves, and this is no exception. The cumulative effect of spending so many hours with the people who made Bloodletting is that you begin to feel like one of the team. In a way, it's similar to how Kevin Smith has built such a loyal audience: by being unpretentious and unabashedly real, our hosts are inviting us into their inner circle. Their movies are family affairs, and we're invited into that family. 

Bloodletting now joins a host of other Tempe productions (The Dead Next Door, Robot Ninja, Ozone, Skinned Alive, SOV Six Pack, even the recent Shocking Shorts package)  that have been given beautiful restorations from their original source elements and supplemented with tons of features and goodies. If you hail from the video store era when an evening's entertainment was decided by the art on a VHS box, then you already know the dark allure of cult cinema and the magic of discovery. Before genre movies were the fodder for a billion dollar industry, they thrived upon small press magazine articles and word of mouth. Bloodletting is a trip back in time to the days when a Cramps t-shirt and a copy of Femme Fatale was the secret handshake of a subculture. 

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