The Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in Austin has been a haven for seeing the strange, obscure, and forgotten since I moved to Texas a few years ago. Their weekly series like Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday have exposed me to numerous oddities that I wouldn't have been able to see elsewhere. Once a month, they take it a step further with their Video Vortex series, which they describe as "VHS insanity from beyond the universe". While I've been able to catch a few of these over the years, ranging from terribly funny to charmingly incompetent, their recent showing of Michael J. Murphy's 1985 film Bloodstream actually blew me away with how much I loved it. The host for the evening told us of the film and director's story, including some personal correspondence he had with Murphy before his death last year. This was a film that was never meant to be seen and one that the director hated, though ironically it might be his best. The host also prepared us for the worst, expressing his love for the film, but admitting it's low quality from being a dub of two different copies, one with better sound and one with better picture. I was pleasantly surprised by how well his mishmashed copy played and even more surprised by the genuine talent I saw up on screen from a frustrated filmmaker that never really made it. Its meta-horror style and films within the film played like an 80s Eurotrash version of Popcorn, but with the look and inventiveness of a Don Dohler film (someone I also discovered at a Video Vortex screening).
Bloodstream was Murphy's cinematic response to all the shady production deals and little to no profit he had seen from his previous features. It follows a no-budget horror director named Alistair Bailey (Patrick Oliver), who delivers his latest film Bloodstream to his sleazy distributor William King (Mark Wells), only to be told it's shit and have it thrown in the garbage. King cheats Alistair by invoking a clause in their contract, canceling their deal if he isn't satisfied with the picture. While Alistair mopes around about his latest failure, King secretly releases Bloodstream and watches it become a surprise hit, while giving no credit or royalties to Alistair. King's secretary informs Alistair of the misdeed and pushes him to get revenge on all those involved with his mistreatment. She also drops off a stack of video tapes for him to watch as he slips further into madness. These tapes are made up of other Murphy films (most unreleased or unfinished) that are able to act as other examples of Murphy's passionate work, as well as signals of Alistair's fading mind. This works on multiple levels, showing Murphy working with the same group of actors in each film (his little ragtag performance group), the same characters involved in the filmmaking showing up multiple times in these low-rent pictures (everything from a rip-off of The Exorcist to a post-apocalyptic biker picture), and Alistair losing it as characters in this film show up as symbolic visions he places in the films he watches (the actors playing the secretary and distributor appear as the damsel in distress and the evil antagonist). He begins to kill his adversaries one by one, while dressed as the slasher from Bloodstream and filming each murder to make his ultimate horror film.
While most of these kills have the silly low-budget charm you'd expect from a film like this (the dismemberment by chainsaw is a highlight), by the end some of the murders were downright disturbing. When Alistair kills King's mistress, her screaming and pleading while being tied up before getting a knife down her throat, I squirmed in my seat. The juxtaposition of the silly gore and violence Alistair watches on the tapes with the grittier kills that happen within the film is powerful and provides some scathing commentary towards the whole “Video Nasties” hubbub happening in the UK at the time (which Murphy's films also suffered from). After finally dispatching King (and showing him the snuff film he made of the previous murders), Alistair discovers the secretary's true motivations behind helping him. Let's just say she had dollar signs in her eyes and she winds up falling victim to the monster she helped create. The film has a lot to say about the frustrations of low-budget horror filmmaking while crafting a movie that fits easily on the shelves next to the films it's commenting on. This film is worth seeking out and I will be trying to dive into the rest of Murphy's career...if I can find it. Bloodstream is actually in its entirety on YouTube, but I can't attest to the audio/visual quality on that one. This is the kind of movie that makes me thankful for places like the Alamo Drafthouse and happy that there are so many others that love to obsess over these lost and forgotten gems...especially the ones where someone sets a dog on fire, just for the fuck of it.