Promoted as a modern spin on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” sans any such onscreen accreditation, “The Bloodhound” does eke an atmosphere of suffocation and doom from one domestic interior — in this case, an impressive mid-century modernist manse whose stark clean lines seem to repel human warmth. Patrick Picard’s debut feature is more persuasive as a stylistic exercise than as horror or psychodrama, growing a bit arid even at just 72 terse minutes. But those with an affinity for genre material in a cryptic, ascetic arthouse mode may fall under its chilly spell, and even those who don’t may be curious to see what this writer-director does next. It’s part of Arrow Video’s December streaming lineup for the U.S. and Canada.
An opening text message summons Francis (Liam Aiken) to long-incommunicado friend Jean Paul (Joe Adler), who says he’s “not well and could use a little help.” That’s about as specific as J.P. is willing to get, though his mystery ailment is real enough to trigger a brief visit from a doctor (McNally Segal). Nor is any diagnosis forthcoming for his twin sister Vivian (a seldom-seen Annalise Basso), who “hasn’t been right since Dad died.” While Francis is strongly discouraged from entering her shuttered room, on his first night she seemingly appears on his bed to say, “Get out of here, or you’ll die like the rest of us,” before scuttling away.
The next day, J.P. doesn’t believe that encounter happened, or pretends not to. In any case, he says the house he hasn’t left for two years is “very much like you’ve entered a dream, for better or worse,” and it (or he himself?) is prone to play imaginative tricks. We can’t tell if one of those tricks is the title creature (Chad Kotz), whom we first see crawling out of a riverbed, into the house, then shutting itself in a bedroom closet. Is it real? A demon? A metaphor? The most frightening thing here, however, is very prosaic: a moment when we fear Francis has been lured to a basement vault just so J.P. can entomb him there.
“The Bloodhound” has a mathematically precise aesthetic crafted of DP Jake Magee’s elegant compositions, David Scorca’s editorial rhythms, and an original score whose dissonant, minimalist chamber music would’ve been apt for a cutting-edge recital whenever this house was built. (When wealthy J.P. actually arranges a private concert, however, he gets a soprano singing Mozart.) Production designer Arielle Ness-Cohn accentuates the unwelcoming sleekness of the setting, in which tasteful beiges and browns often retreat into menacing shadow, or sometimes pulse with inexplicable red lighting.
But there’s no solution to the riddles here, almost no backstory to the characters, and a fadeout that reaches for a pathos that’s unfelt. There’s a deliberate queasiness to the central relationship, but it’s hard to know whether Picard meant it to be quite so old-school in the way it comes off: Adler plays J.P. as a kind of retro homosexual menace, preying upon his earnest-but-poor guest in ways alternately passive-aggressive and intimidating. He’s chalk-faced, sexually provocative, pretentious, vaguely debauched, and of course eventually a bit of a cross-dresser. It’s a dextrous performance, but this is one hoary dramatic type no one was really nostalgic for. That dynamic also depends on the figures here being so artificially detached from modern life that we never see them make a phone call, let alone glance at a computer screen.
The result is accomplished, but perverse in ways that aren’t necessarily rewarding, with an arresting mood that the script gradually wears thin. Still, “The Bloodhound” has an idiosyncratic air all its own, enough to make one hope Picard translates his evident strengths onto better-developed material next time.