By Thomas Puhr.

A bold work, one which – though scattershot – still ranks among 2020’s superior genre releases.”

A hooded figure emerges from a lake. Without making a sound, it crawls over the rocky shore, through the doorway of a sleek house, and into a closet, where it will remain for much of the ensuing narrative. Thus begins Patrick Picard’s enigmatic The Bloodhound (2020), a directorial debut which showcases a promising new voice in genre cinema but doesn’t quite escape the shadow of its filmic and literary forebears.

The house into which this mysterious character has holed up belongs to the fabulously-wealthy, garishly-named Jean Paul Luret (Joe Adler), or “JP.” A title card reminiscent of Hereditary’s opening obituary displays his letter to an estranged childhood friend, Francis (Liam Aiken): “To be perfectly honest I’m not well and could use a little help…Why not stay here a while?” If the setup sounds familiar, that’s because the film is (very) loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The story’s basic elements all make an appearance: the moody, lethargic pacing; the inexplicably-ill sister, here named Vivian (Annalise Basso, deeply unsettling in her brief scenes); and, of course, the vault.

The opening scenes between JP and Francis are by far the strongest, confidently mixing deadpan humor, surreal visuals, and good old-fashioned haunted house tropes (creaking doors, billowing curtains). The duo’s replaying of a childhood game – in which they wrestle each other in zipped-up sleeping bags – would be right at home in a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. The hooded figure calls Magritte’s The Lovers to mind, its emergence from the lake among the year’s most memorable opening shots.

I could go on with the allusions (a hint of Gaslight here; a touch of Les Enfants Terribles there), and that’s part of the problem. Indeed, Picard and cinematographer Jake Magee exhibit a keen visual eye (they’ve studied up on their Kubrickian dissolves and one-point shots), but their style feels more like affectation than anything else, perhaps because there’s not a whole lot happening under the picture’s carefully-arranged surface.

Still, many of their compositions – especially their baroque close-ups – are quite arresting. Take, for instance, the care with which they frame and light Francis’ hand as it delicately holds Vivian’s bracelet. By fetishistically lingering on small items in the Luret home (urns, drinking glasses, a hand mirror, an antique mask) they use what’s obviously a low budget to their advantage. Elsewhere, Jillian Cainghug’s costume design cleverly reveals the characters’ vulnerabilities; JP’s outfits, with their matching turtlenecks and socks (the latter of which can be glimpsed under cheap plastic sandals), betray a man-child playing the sophisticate.  

On the other hand, Aiken and Adler’s middling chemistry fails to sustain the film, even though it barely passes the 70-minute mark. The latter’s moody posturing and monotone delivery elicit some laughs (and chills) early on, but the act quickly wears thin. He’s not so much detached as conspicuously trying to seem so. The former, as JP’s guest-cum-caretaker, exudes more confidence in his character’s shoes. He’s also given more material to work with, as Francis’ ulterior motives for coming to his friend’s aid slowly surface.

Much time and care has clearly gone into making Bloodhound look and feel like a dream (the characters explicitly refer – too often, come to think of it – to their nightmares), but a key distinction separates it from the greats. When Laura Dern delivers her dream monologue in Blue Velvet, you’retransported, forced to surrender to Lynch’s inscrutable, beautiful logic. Any one of JP’s monologues feels more akin to humoring a friend as they recount a “crazy dream” they had last night. Like Francis, we listen with politeness and diminishing patience. Outside expert hands, dreams tend to be interesting only for the dreamer.

With its low-budget, crisp running time, and indebtedness to classic genre cinema, Bloodhound reminded me a bit of Tilman Singer’s Luz (2018). Like the latter film, Picard’s feels more like an exercise (albeit, an impressive one) in dreamy aesthetics than a fully-realized idea. Also like Luz, it seems destined for attaining a small, devout cult following. Nevertheless, the tableau-heavy mood piece has been done much better in recent years, as in Gastón Solnicki’s hypnotic Kékszakállú or Ben Wheatley’s disorienting A Field in England.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh on what’s ultimately a bold work, one which – though scattershot – still ranks among 2020’s superior genre releases. Moments of unexpected pathos eventually do emerge (a final letter from JP, revealed in the denouement, packs an emotional punch and casts the preceding narrative in an entirely new light) and linger in the mind. I’m eager to see where Picard takes us next.   

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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