Friday, July 9, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Beat Down

Year: 1983
Director: Fabrice-Ange Zaphiratos
Cast: Helen Benton, Terry Brown, Dana Day 
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

There's a reason describing the plot is only a small portion of any review that I write (well, depending on how long-winded I'm feeling that day). While the plot is an incredibly important element of any narrative feature and informs everything from the underlying themes to the way those themes are supported by the filmmaking, the actual incidents involved are less important than the way they are created and presented. So, for example, when I describe 1983's Blood Beat as "a Christmas film about a telekinetic killer samurai who is powered by female orgasms," if your taste is even miles close to mine you might expect to have a raucous good time. I should get into the plot a little further than that, because I'm gonna remind you again: plot isn't everything.

Costuming MIGHT be everything, but that's a different question.

Blood Beat has a pretty small cast, so there's no need to dwell for too too long here anyway. In a small rural Wisconsin home, Cathy (Helen Benton) lives with her outdoorsman lover Gary (Terry Brown) who would like very much to become her second husband, though she refuses. Cathy engages in automatic painting, allowing her latent psychic powers to guide her hand into some monstrously creepy designs. When her kids Dolly (Dana Day) and Ted (James Fitzgibbons) come home for Christmas, Ted brings an unexpected houseguest: his new girlfriend Sarah (Claudia Payton). At first Cathy's constant staredowns of Sarah seem like the domain of a woman who is overprotective of her son, but we come to realize her psychic powers might be warning her of something when a killer dressed as a samurai plows through the neighbors with a big sword every time Sarah orgasms.

Plot isn't everything.

There are many ways that the filmmaking can step in the way of a good plot, but the primary way that Blood Beat demonstrates is one of the worst: it's boring as sin. For one thing, it refuses to put any named characters into any real danger until way too late in the game to stir any semblance of tension. It's one of those slashers where the bulk of the body count is provided by unnamed characters who show up for one scene to be stabbed with something sharp. Some of these films can be successful in a way. Take Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (hey, I said "in a way"). But that approach is only fun when the characters in these solo scenes are so unrelentingly zany that they push the film all the way across the line into surrealism.

Blood Beat also misguidedly assumes we'll be interested in half a dozen scenes of these people hunting deer, and every scene (hell, every shot) drags on longer than it needs to. The camera lingers lovingly over every inch of every prop and set, allowing every action to be captured in its full sweep, then holding for a beat to see if anything interesting happens afterward. It never does. And the dialogue that fills these endless stretches of waiting has the sour tenor of bad improv patter, actors merely amusing themselves with mindless chatter until the director screams "cut!"

I will give Blood Beat this: it really really tries to at least deliver "weird." The material here ranges from the slightly off-kilter (Cathy says of her own brother, "I know him really well") to completely unhinged bananapants (the five minute sequence of the entire house being rattled by telekinesis while Cathy stands in the living room with glowing hands shouting at a samurai). And while the death scenes are uniformly uninteresting (all the blood has the crusty dull look of Karo syrup allowed to dry too long), at least the effects in the telekinesis sequences are arresting. I will say, as someone with a photosensitivity for whom flashing lights and huge swaths of glowing neon across the screen poses a problem, these scenes were not for me. But generally they look as convincing as you were gonna get at this budget level in the 1980's.

Did I hedge that enough? They still look ridiculous, is what I'm saying.

Other things that determine a movie's success besides the plot? Music is a big one. Blood Beat at least makes some big swings, underscoring scenes with classical music that builds to a maniacal crescendo at every opportunity, or random snippets of monks chanting. But acting is perhaps the biggest. Acting is key to making the characters believable, and believable characters is the key to investing in this "plot" you all keep going on about. And the acting here is atrocious, never worse than when Cathy is screaming her goofy Power Rangers dialogue at the samurai with all the force of will of a wet tissue dissolving in a heap. Though this moment is given a run for its money when a man discovers the bloody corpse of his wife and seems no more than vaguely irritated by the situation.

I really really wanted Blood Beat to be a hidden gem. I wanted it to be the campy good time I was promised by certain podcast hosts who shall remain unnamed. But it wasn't. Instead it was a lesson that you should never review a film by simply repeating the log line and going, "right?!" That's how we end up in these situations, everybody! So yeah, that's a pass on Blood Beat, thanks anyway.

Killer: The Samurai
Final Girl: I guess Dolly (Dana Day)
Best Kill: Really none of them, but maybe the first kill involving the samurai sword, which promised a much more fun 80's bonanza than what we ultimately got.
Sign of the Times: Help me decide: 1) A nighttime dialogue scene between a hunter and his wife in an average rural home takes places while he's sitting on the world's wibbliest, wobbliest waterbed. 2) While Gary is being telekinetically pelted with all the items in the kitchen pantry, a can of Tab goes flying at his head.
Scariest Moment: The samurai kills a neighbor who has run into their front yard, so he immediately turns his sights on them afterward.
Weirdest Moment: This movie is about a telekinetic Christmas samurai spirit who is powered by the female orgasm and psychic paintings, you want me to pick just one?
Champion Dialogue: "Your music makes me wanna pee."
Body Count: 9
  1. Poacher is gutted offscreen.
  2. Pete has his throat slashed.
  3. Chris is run through with a sword.
  4. Hunter is shot in the back with an arrow.
  5. Wayne is stabbed with a sword.
  6. Beanie Camper is stabbed with a sword.
  7. Gary is stabbed with his own knife.
  8. Cathy is telekinesised to death.
  9. Sarah is telekinesised to death.
TL;DR: Blood Beat is a terrific camp fest on paper, but the execution is tedious as all get out.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1168

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