“Horror is anything that heightens the internal fear, and that fear could be social anxiety or things that are very grounded and real. Horror is any kind of metaphorical extension of those feelings.” Canadian director Amelia Moses certainly puts this thought process into action with her outstanding feature debut “Bleed With Me,” a psychological horror that explores codependency, obsession and the sinister side of relationships. As part of our Fantasia Fest 2020 coverage, I was able to chat with Moses about her new film, her previous work and horror filmmaking as a whole.
In “Bleed With Me” we meet Rowan (Lee Marshall), a shy and vulnerable woman who is invited on a winter getaway with her seemingly perfect friend Emily (Lauren Beatty) and her boyfriend Brendan (Arys Tyros). After the awkward feelings of being the third wheel, Rowan’s appreciation for her friend soon turns into fear when she begins witnessing nightmarish visions of Emily extracting her blood during the night.
Three years ago, Moses released “Undress Me,” a critically acclaimed body horror short film that tackled social anxiety through the story of an awkward college freshman whose skin starts to peel off after a sex experience at a frat party. Moses continues exploring those themes in “Bleed With Me” through the examination of the insecurities and aspirations in a friendship.
“In ‘Undress Me,’ the main character’s way to feel like she could fit in was to sleep with someone at a party. It’s not what she wants as an individual, but it’s what she feels will give her what she needs,” said Moses. “In ‘Bleed With Me,’ Rowan projects into Emily. She thinks Emily has the perfect boyfriend and life. If she could be what Emily is, she could be happy. Obviously, both of those things are fallacies because that’s not usually how the world works. We put a lot of stock in social expectations or the people around us.”
However, this wasn’t always the case. The earlier stages of the script showed a one-way relationship in which Rowan idolized Emily. During rewrites, Moses realized how important their connection was as a whole.
“They both need something from each other, but they are very different things. From Rowan’s perspective it’s an idealization of somebody else. On the other side, Emily wants people to need her, so they weirdly compliment each other,” said Moses about the relationship between her main characters. (Fun fact: another previous version of this story had Emily being a full-on vampire.)
In the middle of this friendship exploration, we have pure psychological terror. There’s an atmosphere of uncertainty around Rowan. Is Emily really taking her blood? Is it just paranoia? Is Emily actually manipulating Rowan? Moses draws us into a world of tension and anxiety through slow burn horror, a style that she’s very comfortable with.
“I really like those kinds of films that take their time. I think it’s really interesting when something is creepy but you don’t know why, when everything seems normal but you are really unsettled. Achieving that is the goal because I find it to be a very fascinating atmosphere to live in,” said Moses on her slow-burn approach. “Yes, you are taking your time to get to your ‘big stuff,’ but you have to let that early stuff be weird, be off, be strange, or else you won’t be drawn in. You want to have that tension even if there’s not a lot going on. Overtly, you still have to build that atmosphere.”
“Bleed With Me” doesn’t play by the rules. You won’t find jumpscares because the horror resides in the nature of its characters and the feeling of restlessness around their thoughts and actions. Through subversion of reality, Moses makes you uncomfortable and gets under your skin.
“I’m always looking for subversion because we have seen so many things before, and I think it’s always fun when the film takes you somewhere different,” she said. “The tropes are there to be played and subverted with, so thinking critically about that stuff, rather than just doing it for the sake of it, is a good thing to do.”
One of the creepiest and most memorable scenes involves Rowan experiencing sleep paralysis. Have you ever been in that state? It’s absolutely horrifying, and the dread it produces must not be easy to represent on film, but Moses managed to pull an accurate depiction of it.
“I didn’t want to overdo it. Sometimes the less we see the better, so we just see Emily’s silhouette, or things that are slightly distorted, but still within our world. Nothing too trippy. That was the balance we were trying to find,” said Moses. “The sound was huge to finesse those scenes because you are not seeing a lot. The first time Rowan has sleep paralysis we don’t really know what’s going on, but we still included metal sounds, glass and little things to set up for later on. I think they’re pretty creepy and unsettling so I’m happy how those turned out.”
Most of the film takes place inside an isolated cabin surrounded by snow. This place is comforting at first, but then it becomes its own character, a key feature of the plot and a symbol of claustrophobia and dread. “It was a tight space to shoot in, but I think that a small location gives your film so much more production value and can become a character unto itself so it needs to have this atmosphere and essence. That place was pretty perfect. I cannot imagine not shooting there,” Moses said.
Due to budget restrictions, the crew didn’t have the money to bring anything in, so they needed a place that was pretty much set. After a long time they found a perfect spot in Quebec. But then the weather came into play.
“Logistically it was a bit of a pain because it was on top of a hill. Normally you would walk up in the summer with no problem, but we shot in January and February, which is deep, deep winter. You have snow that turns to ice, and back and forth,” she said. To transport gear, the team set up a pulley system with a sled. They even used this to carry co-star Lauren Beatty up and down the hill because she’d recently been in a motorcycle accident and had a limp.
Despite the weather and logistical nightmares, the cabin ended up working just perfect to set the mood. “It added a lot to the creepiness. The place was very isolated and very much in the middle of nowhere and the crew felt that,“ said the director. “Everything that happened in the film happened to us: The power went out the first day, we had a crazy snow storm where we had to stop shooting because everyone was worried about the roads. We were in it, but it was good. It got everyone in the right headspace.”
With snow storms raging and being in such an isolated space, could “The Shining” experience develop inside the cabin? Amelia jokingly assured me that Lee Marshall (who plays Rowan) would’ve been Jack in that scenario because “she really [got] into the role” and even got pumped up Jack Nicholson-style for some scenes.
For decades, the horror genre has been used by male directors to portray women as ‘crazy,’ ‘neurotic’ or other tropes. “Bleed With Me” benefits from Moses’s vision of exploring deeper facets of female friendship and intimacy. “I was a bit worried at times. Is this film about two crazy women and one normal guy in a cabin? However, it’s all coming from a truthful place. Emily and Rowan are both complex characters. If people are pushing for more positive representation in cinema, that’s good, but you can’t just show the strong female lead all the time,” Moses said. “In horror, the more women are directing and having that perspective, the more authentic those female characters are gonna be.”
Moses’s next project is “Bloodthirsty,” a coming-of-age horror film starring Lauren Beatty as a queer, vegan pop singer that, after having some visions, starts transforming into a werewolf. Moses definitely has a bright future ahead. And she was kind enough to share some tips for aspiring horror filmmakers.
“You have to make stuff. You can do all the research in the world but until you do it practically and see what works for you, there’s not one single way to make a movie. All the rules can be broken and it’s very important to figure your own methods.”
“Bleed With Me” will have its world premiere on August 26 at 7:10 p.m. (ET) as part of Fantasia Fest 2020. The second virtual screening will take place on September 1 at 3:00 p.m. The film will be accompanied by the comedy horror short “Don’t Text Back” and will be followed by a Q&A with director Amelia Moses and actors Lee Marshall and Lauren Beatty.
Ricardo is a Mexico City based bilingual writer, digital animation graduate and awards season nerd. He also enjoys pro wrestling, is a Paddington fan and is the founder of the film website “La Estatuilla.”