[An abridged version of the following piece appeared in 88 Films’ Limited Edition Blu-ray release of Christmas Evil (1980), issued December 2019.]I
’m willing to bet that you’ve never seen a stranger Christmas film than Blood Beat. In fact, I’ll assert that you have probably never seen a more peculiar film—of any kind—full stop. A maniacal mood piece of truly esoteric proportions, French novice Fabrice A. Zaphiratos’ debut feature (his first and, sadly, last) was hastily dumped onto home video in ’83, where it languished for several decades before finally re-emerging from the bowels of DTV damnation in the form of a sparkling 4K makeover—courtesy of cult kings Vinegar Syndrome—two years ago.
Everybody’s family is weird, right? Just as we knew that Jack Torrance was crazier than a shithouse rat at the beginning of The Shining (1980), something’s amiss here from the off—particularly, it seems, with New Age-y matriarch Cathy, a sensitive creature who spends most of her time painting and the rest of it bickering with her beau, who’s desperate to make an honest woman out of her. Events take a turn for the extraordinary when Cathy’s grown-up offspring, Ted and Dolly, arrive home for the holidays—joined by Ted’s current girlfriend Sarah, with whom Cathy appears to have established some type of inscrutable telepathic bond.
“Ma, how did you know Sarah was coming?” asks Ted when he spots a gift for his girl under the tree.
“A mother knows everything”, comes the retort.
What initially plays out as a curious riff on slice-of-life domesticity—and the age-old ritual of meeting the parents—quickly careens into unmitigated chaos when Sarah lays her hands on a mysterious casket filled with ancient Japanese armour. We barely get time to shout “don’t open the box!” before an invisible demon is tear-arseing Evil Dead-style through the local woodland, leaving a trail of butchered residents in its wake; and as for poor Cathy’s hysteria, well, it intensifies to a teakettle hiss when her would-be daughter-in-law goes full-blown Linda Blair, writhing vigorously on the guest bed in the throes of irrepressible demonic passion.
As preposterous as the previous sentence may sound, you’d better believe that Blood Beat takes itself very, very seriously indeed. One could argue that the narrative’s inelegant framework was a result of Zaphiratos’ directorial inexperience, but beneath the muddled façade lies an imaginative and singularly fascinating picture, one that evokes the ethereal chills of 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death through its savvy use of sound design—oppressive blasts of classical music and synth, punctuated by the recurring thump of a heartbeat—and eye-catching photography that breathes haunting life into the stark and wintry landscapes of Wisconsin.
Even as the film threatens to buckle under the weight of its own ideas—the final half-hour really has to be seen to be believed—there is no escaping Blood Beat’s fevered grip, as it forces us to self-surrender to its idiosyncratic charms. Simply put: this is rule-free, balls-to-the-wall guerrilla filmmaking at its best.