If seasonality factors into your film watching, there’s a Christmas flick for just about every genre film fan this time of year. Whether you dig musicals (WHITE CHRISTMAS), comedy (ELF, THE MUPPETS CHRISTMAS CAROL), action (LETHAL WEAPON, I COME IN PEACE), animation (THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, TOKYO GODFATHERS), or horror (GREMLINS, CHRISTMAS EVIL) there’s no shortage of options, no matter what mood strikes. If you’re short on time and need multiple itches scratched in one movie, the 1983 supernatural-slasher-science fiction-Christmastime-family drama BLOOD BEAT exists to meet all of our festive viewing needs.
New-age expressionist painter, Cathy (Helen Benton), lives in the remote wilds of Wisconsin with her classical music-loving and bow-hunting beau, Gary (Terry Brown). While she toils away into the wee hours painting mystical scenes of vivid color from some deep place in her soul, he rises early to hunt deer, chop firewood, and feel nature upon his face. On the surface they seem to be opposite personalities, but they’re deep in the domestic bliss of a long-term relationship. One would think, then, that Helen would be well-accustomed to observing the grisly products of Gary’s hunting hobby, but on this particular morning, she is horrified by the sight of a dead deer in the back of his pickup truck.
After breakfast, as Gary cleans and field dresses his morning kill in their front yard, a car full of Helen’s college-aged children (from a prior marriage) pulls up to visit for the Christmas holiday. Still covered in viscera and the stench of death along with whatever residual odors an all-bran breakfast may have left behind, Gary greets Dolly (Dana Day) and Ted (James Fitzgibbons) like his very own kin. Visiting this place for the very first time is Sarah (Claudia Peyton), Ted’s girlfriend. Upon hearing the ruckus of their arrival outside, Helen appears at the doorway and greets her two children with joy; when she exchanges pleasantries with Sarah, something is deeply wrong for both of them. Underscoring the weirdness is that Helen purchased a Christmas gift for her despite not knowing that her son had a girlfriend at all.
In the spirit of the season, the group moves past the awkward moment and gets ready to celebrate the holidays. A hunting trip on horseback with Uncle Pete (Peter Spelson) is on the agenda for early dusk. Helen is painting and Gary is chopping wood. When Ted takes Sarah upstairs to her guest room for the stay, she senses that something is eerie about this space. They start kissing on the bed, but as the affection escalates and Ted gets handsy, she willfully resists, citing that she feels she’s being watched. In the basement, Helen is locked in what appears to be a trance. In the room, and throughout the house, her paintings are mounted for display. Certainly, they are nice works of art, but might they also function as some psychic surveillance system? Nobody knows for sure, least of all the artist.
During the late afternoon deer hunting trip, Sarah disrupts the group’s collective kill shot with a massive freakout, and she runs away into the woods only to collide with a bearded stranger sporting a lethal abdominal wound. In the aftermath of that trauma, Sarah is told by Ted to “sleep it off” because tomorrow is a new day. In the middle of the night, she awakens to discover a trunk full of samurai armor at her bedside – however, nobody else can see it. The night goes on, and Cathy asks her son whether Gary has mentioned any relationship troubles; all Ted wants for Christmas is some money to fix the front fender on his car. The cat is lounging on the Monopoly board, halting any potential game-play. Uncle Pete leaves to get some booze. Gary and Cathy begin to argue passionately about their future together. Things are getting stranger and more emotionally charged.
As the night goes on, Sarah has a half-asleep sexual climax that correlates with a malevolent force in samurai armor stalking and killing nearby neighbors. There are telepathic and telekinetic struggles between inhabitants of the house, Helen has additional trances, and a demonic presence terrorizes everyone in a series of low-budget POLTERGEIST-like hijinks. At the same timeTed and Sarah have sex in the guest room, more people die by the hand (and sword) of the spectral samurai.
When there’s no outdoing the holiday gems of the genre — this was a few years after BLACK CHRISTMAS and CHRISTMAS EVIL — what’s a first-time filmmaker left to do? Produced over a period of eight cold weeks near the small town of Spring Green, Wisconsin by a first-time French-Vietnamese director named Fabrice-Ange Zaphiratos, BLOOD BEAT can be described as a mash-up of CARRIE’s psychokinesis with the spooky quirks of HAUSU and the awkward family dynamics of MEET THE PARENTS, as co-directed by Bill Rebane and Don Dohler on psychoactive drugs. That it’s also a regional slasher film set at Christmas is arbitrary; this is a genre-bender that reflects the diverse influences of its young creator throwing everything in the stew for his first film. While some are more fully formed than others, the film’s characters are distinctly rendered, and the narrative focus on them constantly shifts, keeping us off-balance amidst the increasingly strange happenings.
Born in Vietnam but raised in France, Zaphiratos grew up on a pop-culture diet of Marvel Comics characters, science fiction, the fantasy worlds of films like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and Fleuve Noir novels. His father was a filmmaker, and Zaphiratos took acting classes in his youth. This education included stunt-work training that came in handy for this film, as he doubled for one actor during a scene where the character escapes his home by jumping through a real glass window before landing on the hard ground below, all in one shot. Everyone involved did what had to be done in order to get the film completed, no matter the logistical challenges or budgetary constraints.
There are amateurish moments, to be sure, perhaps unsurprising considering that almost nobody in the cast had ever acted on-screen before, and Zaphiratos was in his early 20s and by his own admission, as revealed in supplementary materials from Vinegar Syndrome’s 2017 release, was smoking weed and who knows what else during the production. He and his brother created the film’s signature minimalist analog synth soundtrack (which makes for an odd fit with the repeated classical music motifs like “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”) and a French post-production lab did all of the film’s rough-and-ready (but oh-so endearing) optical light and glow effects.
BLOOD BEAT is both a personal favorite for the holiday season and an easy film to recommend to the more adventurous and forgiving film fans in my life, in part because I get something new from it on every watch and I enjoy hearing about the reactions of others (good or bad). Beyond its genre trappings, intentional or not, it successfully meshes the generalized stress of the holidays with the anxiety of meeting the family of your college romantic partner for the first time, and especially the anxiety of getting caught having sex in their childhood home, which, due to all the wood paneling, carries sound with frightening ease. That’s a sentiment just about everyone can appreciate.