Ho, Ho, Huh? — the Bewildering Beauty of Blood Beat

[An abridged version of the following piece appears in this Blu-ray edition of Christmas Evil.]

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’m willing to bet you’ve never seen a stranger Christmas film than Blood Beat. In fact, I’ll assert that you’ve 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 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 giants Vinegar Syndrome) two years ago.

Everybody’s family is weird, right? Just as we knew that Jack Nicholson was crazier than a shithouse rat at the beginning of The Shining (1980), something’s amiss here from the off; particularly 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 a kind 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 the age-old ritual of meeting the ’rents cascades into unmitigated chaos when Sarah happens upon a mysterious trunk filled with ancient Japanese armour. Before you can yell “DON’T OPEN THE BOX!” there’s a malevolent force tearing Evil Dead-style through the local woodland, leaving a trail of butchered residents en route; meanwhile, Cathy’s sanity takes a nosedive and poor Sarah goes full-on Linda Blair, writhing vigorously on the guest bed in the throes of irrepressible demonic rapture.

As preposterous as the previous paragraph sounds, you’d better believe that Blood Beat takes itself very seriously. One could argue that the film’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 has to be seen to be believed — there’s no escaping Blood Beat’s fevered grip, as it forces us to surrender to its idiosyncratic charms. Simply put, this is rule-free guerrilla filmmaking at its balls-to-the-wall best.