Attack of the Tedious Samurai


The 1980s were a wild time. Sure, people say that, and they mean it about all kinds of things (which, in most cases that don’t involve absolutely piles of cocaine) that categorically weren’t actually wild. But when it comes to the cinema of the era you have to give credit to the creators: shit could get pretty weird. There was this strange blend of influences, from the music to the cinematography to the stories themselves, that created films that feel like they only could have occurred in the 1980s. You couldn’t make a Breakin’ or a Thrashin’, a Flashdance, Footloose, or Cocktail in another decade and have it be anything like the movies we got (or even a success, such as the failed Footloose remake from 2011). It was a very specific decade with very specific ideas.

Browsing around online I stumbled across Bloodbeat, a film with a concept so 1980s that I assumed it had to have been made twenty years later as a kind of joking throwback. A girl goes to meet her fiances’ parents and turns into a murderous samurai. Like, really? It sounds like the follow up movie to Turbo Kid, a film so gloriously stupid that you expect someone to make it, throw on a cheesy synth soundtrack, add some fake film grain, and say, “this film was made in the 1980s and lost for thirty years… until now!” Except, nope, this was actually a product of the 1980s and that somehow makes it far less interesting.

The fact that it’s also a total snooze doesn’t help either. I’m not sure it was ever going to be good but it at least could have been better if, well, everything about the film were different.

The film focuses on Sarah (Claudia Peyton) as she goes with her boyfriend Ted (James Fitzgibbons, and note that some write ups say the characters are just dating, others say they’re engaged) to rural Wisconsin for the holidays to meet his family: mother Cathy (Helen Benton), Cathy’s boyfriend Gary (Terry Brown), and sister Dolly (Dana Day). Ted’s family are good, country folk who spend their days huntin’ and hollerin’, with even Dolly getting in on the action, being a proficient bow hunter. The only one of the group who doesn’t hunt is the mom, Cathy, and she spends her time in her studio, making art that (apparently) is able to pay all her bills.

Cathy, though, is also vaguely psychic, and she has a bad feeling about Sarah when the two first met. This vibe is reciprocated by Sarah who, without even realizing it, also has a bit of this power herself. She gets a weird feeling around Cathy, and she starts having weird dreams at the farmhouse about a dark and evil samurai. And then people start dying, often getting stabbed by a mysterious assailant. Sarah sees it in her dreams, and then Cathy starts to feel it as well. Apparently this Samurai is something that has been haunting Cathy all her life, but she was somehow able to control it. Now that Sarah is around the Samurai has an outlet, an escape, and it’s going to take it no matter the cost.

On the surface I would absolutely enjoy a film about someone who transforms into a murderous samurai. I can just imagine it, possessed by a demon, stalking the night, while synths play in the background. A rainy street, neons above, someone turns, there’s a flash of a blade. The samurai is there, blood on its mask, already contemplating its next kill. That sounds so perfectly 1980s I’m actually shocked a film like that doesn’t yet exist. It needs to. Bloodbeat is not that film, and it doesn’t even try to reach that level of cheese. It’s just a bad movie from start to finish, never really sure exactly what it wants to be.

For starters, the film is never really sure what it wants to be. Is it a character study of a family living in rural America, with the strains becoming apparent around the holidays? Is it a slasher film about a confused girl killing and killing again? Is it a psychic movie about a painter battling her inner demons. Clocking in at a slight 86 minutes, the film could have been any one of those things and probably been quite decent. Instead, though, it blends all those ideas together and pursues none of them coherently, leading to a film that’s more a collection of random scenes and ideas than an actual narrative movie. Things happen, people die, but none of it really makes logical sense from one scene to the next.

The linking idea is the killer samurai, who may be a ghost, or a psychic manifestation, or a ghost. The film is never clear, and I don’t think it wants to be. It wants this killer ghost samurai to be able to do anything that the film requires but it doesn’t want to have coherent logic about its powers and limitations. By the time we reach the finale where (spoilers for a forty-year-old film) Sarah is possessed by the samurai, puts on the armor, and becomes the samurai, we don’t even really know why any of this is happening. We have to assume for ourselves that Cathy has been haunted by the samurai creature, but that’s just a guess. Or maybe she’s dreamed about it, too, and then forgot it. It could be anything, or nothing. That lack of clarity makes the film obnoxious to watch.

Also annoying is that we never really understand how the psychic powers work. Cathy seems normal for the entire first act (aside from not liking Sarah) and it’s Sarah who seems weird as she swears she can “feel Cathy following them”. But then suddenly Cathy busts out magic powers to fight off the samurai demon the first time it comes to their house. This felt like quite the sudden shift is style. Yes, the dreams of the samurai demon were weird, but it’s a big leap from that to suddenly having psionic powers and being able to fend off Asian demons with them. Really, a step too far.

At the same time: why a samurai? The demon could have been anything, or even just something in the mind. If they wanted something creepy that Sarah could put on, it could have been any kind of costume. It feels like there was a specific reason for the demon to take the form of a samurai and, like everything else in the film, that reasoning isn’t explained. The end of the film has some montage of World War II news clips and it’s implied somehow Cathy has a past related to the war, and Japan, and… something? It’s incoherent, though, and, like everything else, comes out of nowhere and amounts to nothing.

Looking into the film, the movie was written and directed by Fabrice-Ange Zaphiratos and the director was under the influence of drugs (presumably at least LSD) while writing and directing the film. It does have the sense of a drug trip, something expressive and illusionary. It’s pretty clear that what we see on the film isn’t all supposed to be taken literally even while the very mundane and down to earth deaths are happening. It wants to be a psycho-sexual dream state but also a slasher flick with grounded results. It doesn’t do either, but at times it almost reaches the level of inspiration it wants. Almost.

And then it runs on for too long and becomes quite the chore to sit through. The last act, especially, just goes on and on when it really should have wrapped up at least fifteen minutes quicker.

You get the vibe that Zaphiratos was inspired by the Italian Giallo works, like those of Dario Argento, but that Zaphiratos didn’t really have a grasp on how to pull together that right mix of unsettling imagery and disgusting horror. The film takes stabs (sometimes literally) at being a weirdo European horror (even as it was filmed in Wisconsin) but it never finds the right tone or style to really sell its story. That is when it has a story and it isn’t just getting by on mood alone. It’s a film you want to like because it’s weird and out there and almost has the right idea, but it never comes together, never rises up to be the film it could have become. Bloodbeat is a bad film that dresses up like a good film, but bad is bad no matter how much weirdo art gloss you try to put on it.

Had this film been made twenty years later it would have been a weird, parodic throwback and everyone would have known what kind of oddball film they were making. Instead we got this movie in the early 1980s, and it’s too earnest, and too shoddy, to be anything other than a spectacular failure. And even “spectacular” might be overselling it.