If David Cronenberg took a bite out of the vampire genre (I see Rabid as zombie lore), it’d probably taste a hell of a lot like Chad Michael Ward’s Strange Blood. Highlighted by one man’s bodily transformation after he’s infected by a rogue science experiment, Ward goes the route of unlocking unspeakable horrors that are birthed by the best of intentions. It’s an age-old story about intellectual experimentation leading to some sort of unimaginable outcome, and the double-edged sword that speaks to the progress of evolution. Humans will never stop thirsting for answers to the unexplained, including the uncertainty that is death, but while searching for clarity, we may discover a fate more damning than our own mortality. Or we may just accidentally invent a race of super-vampires. You know, just another side-effect of scientific accomplishment!
Robert Brettenaugh plays Henry Moorhouse, an ambitious scientist whose latest project is meant to present a universal cure for all diseases. He does so by creating a living incubator he names Ella, a grotesque, pulsating organ of sorts, that can recode any virus he loads into her system. But while injecting Ella with a formula, the blob shoots pin-like spikes into his hand, much like a porcupine, and Henry starts to undergo an alarming change. While he feels a new aura of perfection, he also starts to crave human blood, which puts his assistant/love interest Gemma (Alexandra Bard) at risk. Because of the secrecy concerning Henry’s project, only Gemma can find a cure to reverse Ella’s hold over Henry, before his kills go public.
Strange Blood doesn’t play like a straight horror film, and certainly doesn’t mention the usage of vampire mythos when scientific reasoning is to blame, but all the subgenre notes emerge over time. Once Ella’s matter is injected inside Henry, he physically transforms into what early vampires used to consider fashionable – no hair, sunken eyes, rotting teeth, and a slender, gangly physique. He also begins to avoid sunlight, which Gemma helps him combat by using thick-rimmed goggles, and most importantly, he begins feasting on human blood. Again, this is all because of genetic jargon and scientist talk, but for my money, he’s a modern-day vampire birthed from a test tube.
And it works.
It’s always interesting to see how man might bring about his own demise by continually playing God (see any Jurassic Park movie), and Strange Blood manages to balance the fragile line between remaining procedurally accurate through Henry’s continued testing and an obvious strive for horrific imagery. This is mainly thanks to Brettenaugh’s chilling performance, especially when asked to become a soulless, calculated killing machine who has no regard for the humanity he was trying to save. Even in his blood-sucking state, Henry continues to examine formulas and study his own painful mutation, which delivers an unsettling level of cognitive acceptance, yet a true villain flashes its fangs when subdued by Gemma. Henry’s speech becomes very slow, almost guttural, and threats of slitting Gemma from [explicative] to mouth become haunting lines that echo a cold sincerity. There’s no baselessness – given the chance, new Henry would do just that.
Ward’s special effects team does craft a slimy, mean prop in Ella, and Henry’s nastier form does strike a menacing presence, but not all the gross-out oddities are on Cronenberg’s level. This is obviously due to low-budget constraints, which handcuff many independent directors, but that doesn’t mean we’re able to ignore a few noticeable visual blemishes. When Henry is cutting into his own skin, pained by something growing inside, these little bug-like creatures start crawling out in droves, like a spider egg hatching. The leading moments of skin-separation are as icky as you’d imagine, but the bugs look like nondescript CGI blips – nothing special or noteworthy.
The film does lose a little steam towards the end, especially when delivering a closed-book ending in the form of an unnecessary post-credits scene, but Strange Blood boasts some very good ideas that Ward is able to capitalize on nonetheless. By using red-tinted color filters, Henry transforms into a devilish monster without truly becoming one, and the quick-cut fantasy sequences of women writhing in blood adds a trippy sense of seductive chaos to the whole mess, but the true horror is found in man’s complete lack of humility. Something that Hollywood is convinced we’ll never learn.
It's nothing game-changing, but Henry's tale is another cautionary glance into our never-ending curiosity, riddled with death and spiked with a frothy witch's brew of scientific magic.