[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, you’ve probably never seen a more peculiar film—of any kind—full stop. A mystifying mood piece of maniacal proportions, French novice Fabrice A. Zaphiratos’ debut feature (his first and last) was hastily dumped onto home video in 1983, where it languished for several decades before being extricated from the bowels of DTV damnation—in the form of a glittery 4K makeover—by cult kings Vinegar Syndrome two years ago.
Every family has its quirks, right? Just as we sensed that Jack Torrance was crazier than a shithouse rat at the beginning of The Shining (1980), something feels askew here from the off; particularly with protagonist Cathy (Helen Benton), an emotionally frail hippie-cum-painter who splits her time between abstract artwork and the live-in boyfriend who’s desperate to make her his bride. The weirdness well and truly escalates when Cathy’s full-grown kids—son Ted (James Fitzgibbons) and daughter Dolly (Dana Day)—arrive home for the holidays accompanied by Sarah (Claudia Peyton), Ted’s new squeeze, with whom Cathy appears to have initiated an inscrutable psychic 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!” she retorts.
What starts out as a mildly eccentric riff on slice-of-life domesticity—and the anxious, age-old ritual of meeting the parents—careens into unmitigated chaos when Sarah lays her hands on a secret casket filled with ancient Japanese armour. We barely have time to yell “don’t open the box!” before an invisible samurai entity is tear-arseing—Evil Dead-style—through the woods, a trail of butchered locals left in its wake; and as for poor Cathy, well, the hysterics surge 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 rapture.
Preposterous as all this sounds, it is to the credit of Zaphiratos that Blood Beat takes itself very, very seriously. One could argue that the story’s inelegant framework was an upshot of the young director’s inexperience, but beneath the muddled façade lies an immeasurably inventive and singularly fascinating picture, one that evokes the ethereal chills of John D. Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) 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, wintry landscapes of Wisconsin. Even when it threatens to buckle under the weight of its own ideas—the frenetic third act has to be endured to be believed—there’s just no escaping Blood Beat’s iron grip as we find ourselves surrendering to its idiosyncratic allure.
Those craving a hearty dollop of esotericism with their turkey and stuffing need look no further: this is rule-free, balls-to-the-wall guerrilla filmmaking at its finest.