Welcome to Cutting It Close, a monthly column that tackles one of the most popular subgenres in horror: slashers. Alas, there’s a catch—we won’t be discussing the likes of Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. No, this series will only look at those slasher movies that aren’t as iconic, yet they can hold their own for various reasons. They may not be top-tier or even popular, but, as the column title suggests, they cut it close.
When a young Fabrice-Ange Zaphiratos first arrived in the United States, he lived in rural Wisconsin. His growing captivation with Midwestern Americana influenced him to make a movie there. Even with very little money to spend, Zaphiratos made good on his wish — he created one of the most outlandish films to ever come out of the area.
The inspiration for Blood Beat sprang from nights of getting high on a farm. Despite his inclination towards science fiction, the young auteur wanted to make a horror movie that related to his interest in space and the afterlife. His only experience with the horror genre at the time was Friday the 13th, though. Producer Helen Boley was the film’s original financer, whereas Fabrice-Ange’s father, also a producer, funded the tail end. Regardless, the budget ended up only being around $100,000. Shot on location in rustic Wisconsin with a cast of novice actors and none of the amenities found in a typical Hollywood picture, the movie was filmed in only eight weeks. However, it wasn’t until fifteen days into production did the director realize his movie was being shot in the wrong aspect ratio.
Although set at Christmas, the 1983 movie was filmed around February. Any hope for a wintry background had been dashed by reality, and the wooded area in and around Spring Green was unseasonably snow-free. The setting is drab and autumnal; rustling, fallen foliage blankets a land drained of its verdancy. The countrified backdrop provides a strangely warm and inviting context, though. The nearest town is twenty minutes away, and all goods — everything from clothes to supplies — can be found at one local hardware store. This is “Deep America,” the director stated in an interview about his one and only film.
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Money ran out at the end of shooting, which explains Zaphiratos’ father’s involvement. The final portion of editing took place back in Paris before Fabrice-Ange shopped the movie around in Los Angeles and New York as well as at Cannes. The struggle to find a distributor led to Zaphiratos’ eventual departure from filmmaking; he was put off by specific aspects of the industry. Nevertheless, he and Boley found relative success from distributing the movie themselves.
Spending so much time in a flyover state like Wisconsin, Zaphiratos became a sort of cultural anthropologist. He studied the people around him and how they all subscribed to a distinct way of life. The director was sure to include these observations in every part of his movie. Like almost everyone else in the area, most of the film’s characters are hunters. At the start, Gary (Terry Brown) comes comes home to show his partner Cathy (Helen Benton) his catch. She feels uneasy at the sight of the dead doe, but her reaction has more to do with what’s to come next. After the couple has an uncomfortable conversation about why they’re not married yet, Cathy‘s two children, Ted (James Fitzgibbons) and Dolly (Dana Day), arrive. As happy as she is to see her kids home from college, Cathy is discernibly nervous at the sight of her son’s new girlfriend, Sarah (Claudia Peyton). That tension is mutual seeing as Sarah can barely make eye contact with her boyfriend’s mother.
Throughout the film, Sarah is at odds with the matriarch, whose own initial feelings of discomfort are more psionic than personal. Cathy simply cannot shake this overwhelming feeling of déjà vu whenever she looks at Sarah. Eventually, their dispute goes from unspoken to realized as soon as Sarah undergoes an incredible transformation upstairs in her bedroom. While recovering from her traumatizing run-in with a dead man in the woods, Sarah is drawn to a suit of samurai armor inside a trunk. Her discovery triggers a full-bodied, mystical response in Cathy, too. She unconsciously paints a shadowy figure on her canvas until Sarah slices her finger on the samurai’s sword. Freed from her supernatural stupor, Cathy goes with Ted to check on their guest; neither son nor mother can account for any samurai armor in the room, much less the entire house. Yet the mere mention stirs up a childhood memory for Cathy: her younger self once cut her finger on the very same sword.
The quiet before the storm ends when Sarah enters a meditative slumber that inspirits the samurai suit. Coinciding with Sarah‘s carnal and hypnotic fervor, the armor-clad warrior wets his sword with blood. Cathy uses her natural psychic abilities to stave off the approaching evil, but she is outmatched. It is only when her children join the battle does the deadly samurai finally disappear.
No movie genre better understands estrangement than horror does. Blood Beat director Zaphiratos intentionally alienates the character of Sarah by making her different in both name and appearance. She isn’t blond like Cathy‘s daughter, and her name is of Jewish origin. Adding to the contrast between herself and her hosts, Sarah flees and panics when the family goes hunting. The mere thought of bloodshed sends her running across the forest before she collides with a man who has been mysteriously killed. Sarah reflects a visitor’s perspective to hunting; her own life experience and ethics clash with this new and unfamiliar culture.
The inclusion of a samurai is among the film’s most bizarre elements. After seeing a set of Japanese armor in a Chicago antique store, Zaphiratos reworked his script to include the samurai. The villain was no longer an ordinary man brandishing a sword; he was the spirit of a Japanese soldier who Cathy‘s grandfather killed during a war. Using Sarah as his vessel, the dormant ghost is given material form so that he can now carry out his long-awaited revenge. The samurai-themed slayer acts upon Sarah‘s onanism and feeds on her sensuality. As the woman unconsciously pleasures herself, the warrior becomes stronger and more ruthless. The erotic and cerebral aspects of the story undoubtedly reveal the director’s interest in French arthouse cinema.
Blood Beat has the makings of any low-budget, regional slasher from the 1980s, but the curio evolves into something remarkably unique. With a reincarnated samurai on the loose and an aroused conduit under his intoxicating spell, a psychotropic war is waged between good and evil. Inverted color effects, a pulsating, synthy soundtrack, and an Evil Dead-like zeal are just some of the reasons why viewers can’t shake this movie from their memories. The climax is a drug-fueled frenzy of nonsense and hallucinogenic sequences. Fabrice-Ange Zaphiratos may have retired from directing shortly after making this hidden gem, but he brought his ambitious vision to life in the most imaginable way possible. Certainly not everyone can say the same about their own aspirations.
Blood Beat is available for purchase through Vinegar Syndrome and can be streamed on Prime Video. Share your thoughts on the movie and other guilty pleasures with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!