Content warning: This article discusses Bloodwash's themes of gender-based violence.
The walk from my third floor apartment to the ground floor laundry room is one of my least favorite things. A narrow concrete passageway leads to a flimsy wooden door, rigged with three locks because you never know who might try to get in. My partner would rather jump from the roof than go down there alone. Who wants to get murdered next to a pile of your own underwear?
It's this mindset that Bloodwash, an indie horror game set primarily in a late-night laundromat, taps into to occasionally great effect. Taking major inspiration from Italian giallo films, a horror genre prevalent from the '60s to the '80s that commonly followed alienated women being violently hunted by slashers and plagued by psychological or sexual trauma, Bloodwash sets itself apart from the other indie frights—if you can stomach its often exploitative tropes. Wrapped in a visual style reminiscent of PS1-era graphics, plus a fuzzy VHS tape filter, it's a game that successfully pays homage to a bygone era.
You play a young woman named Sara with a lazy drunk for a boyfriend and a baby on the way. She needs clean clothes for a make-or-break job interview tomorrow, but someone didn't bother to do the laundry while she was at school. So it falls to her. Of course the way to the laundry is a dilapidated concrete tunnel, and it turns out the building's washing machine is busted anyway.
It's getting late. Your last bet, according to your only kind neighbor, is a 24/7 laundromat on the edge of town. So you pack up your things and try to catch the last bus, paying no real mind to the newspaper reports about the “Womb Ripper” serial killer who's been targeting pregnant women. Yeah, it's that kind of tale.
I love every inch of Bloodwash's laundromat and its surrounding strip mall, which houses a questionable pizza joint, an adult video store, and a failing appliance store run by a cigar-chomping brute. You can practically smell the wood panel wall and the sticky tile floor, and there's gentle fuzz from a CRT television in the corner running old horror flicks and frat house comedies. This is pre-cellphones, so we're left to kill time by wandering around. I find a few comic books to read, a full three-volume story about a pair of resurrected women fighting against demons with some sort of Pinhead-looking guy. It's exactly the kind of garbage I used to find in my mom's old salon.
I dig the first half of Bloodwash because it's content with setting a benign but unsettling mood. I have to literally wait 10 real-world minutes for my laundry to finish, so the mind is left to wander and wonder, “Oh shit, where did that one guy disappear to?” Did he go to the bathroom? For a smoke break? Or did he get strung up like fleshy confetti?
I particularly love the characters in Bloodwash, who feel one part giallo and another part Troma schlock. Friendliness and common decency are in short supply in this world, dominated by the types of men who will sniff your hair and call you a slur for telling them to mind their business. A man known only as “the creep” asks to sit next to you, and almost immediately proclaims that you're going to die tonight. That doesn't mean there aren't civil or even genuinely nice people to meet, like a fellow late night laundromat user, though he's too awkward to be someone you'd ever willingly hang out with.
I'll leave the bulk of Bloodwash's true horrors for you to discover on your own, but it's worth mentioning that the latter half of the game falls into both some film and videogame tropes that will likely polarize (and perhaps even repulse) casual and hardcore fans. Of course, the whereabouts of the mysterious “Womb Ripper” come back to play a role, and your trip to the laundromat becomes a nightmarish descent into hell. What sticks with me is how Bloodwash handles themes of gendered violence. Giallo is lousy with graphic violence and hyper-sexualization of femininity—yes, welcome to the horror genre, I know—but Bloodwash relies much more on themes of power and dominance, the madness of its antagonist, and body mutilation more than any of Dario Argento's color-soaked surrealism.
Bloodwash walks the line between stylish homage and cliché-ridden romp. The PS1-style graphics and VHS tape artifacting really do heighten the discomfort of simply turning a corner or witnessing a gruesome scene. It softens some of the blow of its gore and violence, but if you have trouble stomaching the sense of misery and doom that comes with these types of stories, you're better off looking elsewhere.
I wish Bloodwash's developer's had more to say about their giallo inspirations, as it's clear they genuinely admire what the films did for horror. Like the horror genre, though, as time goes on, we leave any meaningful cultural commentary behind for the same jump scares that plagued the inevitable parade of sequels and imitators.