Thursday, December 22, 2016

Black Christmas (1974)

Few horror films are as synonymous with the seasons they depict -- My Bloody Valentine (Valentine's Day), Halloween (duh), Jaws (summer) -- as Bob Clark's 1974 shocker Black Christmas.  It's an interesting little film that, along with Peeping Tom and Psycho laid the template for what we know as the modern Slasher film [or, at least the 70s and 80s version - ED].  Its got a fairly simple premise:  a sorority house is being stalked by an obscene phone-caller and, soon, the girls start turning up dead...and there's a neat twist, too.  Clark throws in enough twists and turns to make the story interesting and, most importantly, frightening.

There's a certain sense of nostalgia I always get when I sit down and watch Black Christmas and, oddly enough, it has to do with the awesome 70s Christmas lights on display throughout the film.  Anytime these lights -- on the house outside or on the tree inside -- are on-screen, Reg Morris' cinematography has a soft focus, which creates a strange halo on those lights.  Somewhere in my home video library is a Christmas tape from when I was an infant, so we're talking probably '83.  In that clip, my family is at my aunt and uncle's house and, sure enough, their tree and its lights look exactly like what is seen in Black Christmas -- strange halos and all!  Maybe it's just the product of early 80s home video recording equipment, but dammit, it helps to fully immerse me in the world that Clark and writer Roy Moore create!

Another unique aspect of Black Christmas is that the audience never fully sees the killer (spoiler?), instead only seeing shadow-drenched shots of him with maybe an eye or a mouth exposed.  When we're not even seeing the killer, we ARE the killer as Morris' camera allows us to see through his eyes...the blackest eyes...wait, that's a reference for a little bit later on.  But yeah, along with Peeping Tom, this film is one of the earliest examples of placing the audience into the killer's POV!  It's an unnerving effect that, literally from the start of the film, has us all wondering "What the hell is going on here?"
Perhaps most bizarre of all the tidbits and background for Black Christmas is that director Bob Clark is also responsible for that other famous Christmas movie . . . A Christmas Story.  For my money, it just proves how diverse he was as an auteur in that he can terrorize Christmas audiences with one film and yet also bring so much joy with the other!  This film came early in Clark's career and still showed echoes of his earlier works like Dead of Night (aka: Deathdream) and Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, but there were hints of where he would eventually go with some of the more comedic elements that were present in Porky's and A Christmas Story; the "fellatio" scene in the police station is straight out of Porky's with Nash's naivety and the hilarious reactions from Lt. Fuller and the laughing detective!  The scene even features Coach Warren from Porky's himself, Doug McGrath!

Doug McGrath as the clueless Nash

John Saxon as Lt. Fuller
As the girls being terrorized by the film's obscene caller, Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder really standout.  Hussey plays Jess with an air of concern and general fright over the calls, while Kidder's Barb borders on the obnoxious with her sarcastic and standoffish reactions to the threats.  Of course, Barb's archetype would later be seen again and again in the genre throughout the 80s and 90s as characters would continue to talk shit to their tormentors.  SCTV's Andrea Martin is also a standout -- although much more subdued than what audiences familiar with her comedic work might expect -- as Phyllis (or Phyl as Jess repeatedly refers to her).  Phyllis is played as sort of the mediator between Jess' panic and Barb's alcohol-induced insults (to the caller and her fellow house sisters), though she herself is also visibly shaken by the events unfolding.

If only Barb had a super man to protect her...

This ain't no party line, ya hoser!

Lynne Griffin as Claire and Andrea Martin as Phyl
Perhaps serving as the film's sort of McGuffin, there's also Lynne Griffin as Claire, who turns up missing in the first reel and sets the plot into motion.  For the sake of spoilers [shame on you for reading this if you haven't already seen the film! - ED], Claire is the first victim and Griffin spends the majority of the film tucked away in the attic, sitting in a rocking chair with a plastic bag over her head.  She plays dead incredibly well actually!  As Claire's worried father Mr. Harrison, James Edmund shows up looking like a dead ringer for Frank Oz.  Edmund's performance perfectly conveys the feelings and emotions that a parent must go through when they fear something has happened to their child.  In fact, Mr. Harrison is probably the film's most tragic character; he comes into the world of the college campus in search of his daughter, immediately getting pelted by a snowball, then is introduced to the free-thinking sorority life, becomes a victim of the obscene phone-calls by default of being in the house as they happen, joins a search party for another missing girl in the area (he's ultimately disappointed when it's not Claire) and then never actually receives the closure of knowing what exactly happened to his beautiful daughter . . . while she's literally right over his head for most of the picture!  It's tragic stuff, folks!

Mr. Harrison doesn't have time for Mrs. Mac's shit!
While some of the lines that Kidder delivers as Barb could be comic relief, most of them play as a bit dated, but then there's Mrs. Mac (played by Marian Waldman of Deranged fame) who, honestly, reminds me of my Gram with her vulgar dialogue!  Mrs. Mac is another great character in Black Christmas, as she's blissfully unaware of what's happening around her (she believes that Claire went off with her boyfriend for the weekend) and is more interesting in tying one on and finding her dear cat Claude. 

On the male side, there's Art Hindle (of The Brood and Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as Claire's hockey playing -- they are in Canada after all -- boyfriend Chris.  Hindle is convincing as a hero type who immediately sets off to the police station when he finds out Claire is missing.  Although, Chris doesn't become the sort of "last survivor hero" type, as this trope hadn't quite been invented yet.  He's likable though.  Also along for the ride is brooding, struggling pianist Peter (2001's Keir Dullea), who is Jess' boyfriend.  Dullea plays Peter with the sort of short fuse and unpredictably possessive nature that has itself become a trope recycled again and again to show a possessive asshole lover.  But it works here, as Peter quickly breaks down when Jess won't talk to him about their baby she's carrying and her decision to get an abortion -- again, this is pretty heavy and timely stuff for 1974! 

Peter just wants to TALK Jess!
If there is a "hero" in the traditional sense though, it's definitely John Saxon as Lt. Ken Fuller (get your Mystery Science Theater 3000 jokes out of the way now because "Hey! Wasn't John Saxon in this movie?").  Saxon is fine as Fuller, a cop who's just trying to figure out what the hell is going on!  When a second girl (after Claire is first reported missing) turns up MIA, Fuller heads a massive search party and Saxon is quite believable and comforting in the search.  Fuller is ultimately cut from the same archetype cloth that Saxon would later revisit ten years later in A Nightmare on Elm Street as Lt. Donald Thompson.

Going back to the film's Prowler (some call him "Billy" as it's a name that he repeatedly says during some of his calls), the film really keeps the audience guessing as to his true identity!  At times both Chris and Peter may as well be in a police lineup, although the former quickly vindicates himself of any potential guilt.  As many times as I've seen the film, I'm not really sure WHO the Prowler is . . . though most signs point to an unhinged Peter finally cracking and offing Jess' friends as he terrorizes her throughout the picture.

As an aside, unfortunately (or fortunately, if you're into this sort of thing), the Prowler and "Billy" are further explored in Glen Morgan's 2006 remake (affectionately known as Black X-Mas . . . hey, keep Christ in our Christmas horror movies dammit!), fleshing out some sort of backstory based on "Billy" and "Agnes" (another name the caller repeatedly spews).  On one level, sure it's kinda cool to dig into it and effectively explain what was only implied in the original film . . . but, as is all too often with similar backstory-mining remakes, the question stands:  did what made the original so effective really need to be fleshed out and presented on a silver platter?  Andrea Martin returns as Ms. Mac, which is a cute enough nod to the original, as things are played campy and millennial Slasher, emphasizing gory set pieces over the restrained suspense of the first film.  Bob Clark even served as an Executive Producer, so the remake at least had his seal of approval.  Unfortunately, this remake would be Clark's last project before his tragic death (along with his son!) the following April. 

Andrea Martin and Lacey Chabert in Black Christmas (2006)
Today, with the advent of caller-ID, Black Christmas would probably fail to catch on with a younger audience.  However, its basic premise is still just as powerful as it must have been in 1974; I still say its main twist and final reveal as the camera slowly dollies away from the house is positively skin-crawlingly creepy and depressing!  

Hello?  Hello?!  Hell-ooooooo?
So, if you haven't seen Black Christmas yet, now is the perfect time to snuggle up under a warm blanket and give it a spin.  If you're a longtime fan, check it out again via Scream Factory's just released 2-disc Collector's Edition Blu-ray loaded with new bonus features and even two versions of the film! 

1 comment:

verclear said...

In that photo, James Edmund looks like a cross between Donald Sutherland and Malcolm McDowell. The remake would have worked fine if the killer had burner phones. Adaptation, man...that's what it's all about. First time I saw either film was just last week. Interesting that this film actually screened the same year as TCM, and wasn't really a gung-ho slasher film; that would come in 4 more years. Not a huge fan, but enjoyed it as a classic 70's set-piece...Bob Clarke was able to do what Rob Zombie has been trying to do for years...but I guess it helped that he was shooting in the same decade.