Sarah (Claudia Peyton) in a coat, looking over her shoulder

Sarah seems reluctant to follow her boyfriend’s creepy mother into the house.

Blood Beat (1983)

🤯🤯🤯 A midwestern family does psychic battle with a ghostly samurai while unintentionally(?) exploring toxic gender relationships.

Blood Beat is a challenging movie to watch. It’s hard to know where to begin with this one.

Sarah is visiting her boyfriend Ted’s family in Wisconsin over Christmas break. She and Ted have been dating for about five months, and he’s introducing her to the family. The family is mother Cathy, sister Dolly, and Cathy’s boyfriend, Gary. When Cathy and Sarah meet, there is immediate chemistry --- all of the wrong kind. Cathy feels she knows Sarah somehow already; Sarah is creeped out by Cathy, although she is not entirely sure why.

At some point, “Uncle Pete” shows up and insists everyone go hunting. Cathy stays behind, but Sarah reluctantly tags along. Just as one of the men shoots at a deer, Sarah freaks out and runs off through the forest until she collides with another young man who has an unexplained abdominal wound that proves fatal before the ambulance can arrive. This one-two shock proves too much for Sarah, who spends much of the rest of the movie in a Victorian swoon in the guest room while a ghostly Samurai skewers random people.

An older woman looking distinctly unfriendly.

“Oh, the girlfriend. I have heard about you.”

In story-telling skill and technical competence, the movie bears a strong resemblance to MST3K favorite Manos: The Hands of Fate. The acting is distinctly community theatre; the writing, student literary magazine. The dialog all sounds like it was recorded on a Radio Shack portable tape recorder.

So I almost turned it off in the first ten minutes. But I watched the whole thing instead. And despite all of its (enormous, glaring) flaws, I liked it. I am not entirely sure why.

It’s not because it’s “so bad it’s good,” although you could make that case. There’s a lot that’s laughable, like Claire’s psychic battle with a spirit that insists on taking over her painting. Or the fact that when Ted uses his telekinetic powers, his eyes cross, his neck muscles bulge, and he holds his hands out like he’s cupping the most enormous breasts in the universe.

Brother and sister standing together, both appearing to hold invisible large weights in front of their chests.

They shot in Wisconsin because it has huge tracts of land.

So no. Blood Beat never really rises to the level of “good,” at least how we typically understand “good.” The occult story makes no sense at all. But I think I kept watching for two reasons.

First, the movie is bizarre. It follows a narrative structure just enough that you don’t feel completely lost. But it doesn’t follow any of the typical beats of movie-making. You have no idea where the story is going. But it certainly seems to be going somewhere.

Second, the characters. Occult story aside, Sarah is very much out-of-place in this culture, and I feel for her. Ted’s family loves hunting; she hates it. Ted’s mom Claire gives Sarah the stink-eye right at the door. Sarah is uncomfortable and creeped out, but Ted wants to have sex in the guest room and won’t take “no” for an answer.

Claire knows something is going on, but she doesn’t know what --- and she doesn’t feel like she can explain it to the people around her. Her boyfriend, Gary, wants to marry her and have her dote on him. She wants to maintain her independence and focus on her painting, which sends Gary into a positively childlike sulk.

A man in a trucker cap drinks from a tea service set on his bed.

Who doesn’t like wearing their trucker hat while lounging in the water bed with a husky and a full afternoon tea service.

Watching Claire and Sarah pushing against Gary and Ted trying to corral and tame them, all while struggling with each other for space within the house, held far more interest than the stabby samurai ghost. Although, to be honest, it was the stabby-ghost plot that attracted me to the movie in the first place.

I think what’s most compelling about the movie is that it works just enough that you can tease out themes about gender roles and culture shock. But it doesn’t work well enough for you to be confident that writer/director Fabrice-Ange Zaphiratos meant any of it. Do I see the movie that’s there? Or am I making up meaning where none exists? Are my feelings about Sarah and Claire and Ted and Gary what Zaphiratos was trying to say? Or am I reading that into this movie because I’ve spent all of 2020 watching people #fight on Twitter?

Does it even matter?

A woman making a very angry face at the camera.

Goddamn it, you moron! How many times do I have to tell you authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding art!

These questions about theme and meaning are fundamental to art, whether it’s movies, painting, or literature. But somehow, Blood Beat’s almost-failure, near-success at coherence makes the question much more evident than either better or worse movies can manage.

Blood Beat was restored and released by Vinegar Syndrome, and their preservation work on this and many other curious films is deeply appreciated.