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Entries in Black Christmas [1974] (1)

Friday
Oct302009

Black Christmas (1974)

Different Seasons

The Chateau Grrr Crypticon celebrity dinner is just over a week away. In honor of future plate-mate Margot Kidder, I present the following video review…

Bob Clark directed Black Christmas, Porky’s and A Christmas Story.

I love that.

Before watching Black Christmas, I had no idea how groundbreaking the movie was for the stalk-and-slash genre, or how greatly it would influence two of the most subversive and successful comedies of all time. This is an odd film, and if you look at it through the right lens, it is a brilliant (if flawed) piece of entertainment.

Cinephiles will have the most fun watching the picture simply because of all the random people who show up in it; they certainly won’t be captivated by the plot, which centers on a sorority house beset by eerie prank phone calls and a couple of murders. Olivia Hussey stars as Jess, one of the sisters, who learns that she’s carrying her boyfriend Peter’s baby; a post-2001 Keir Dullea who, at the time of filming, was almost forty years old plays Peter (an early-twenties graduate student—talk about acting). Among the other housemates are comedienne Andrea Martin and future Lois Lane, Margot Kidder—whose part consists solely of drinking heavily, near-propositioning a cop, and passing out.

About the time of the sinister phone calls, one of the girls goes missing; she doesn’t disappear so much as get suffocated by a faceless killer and stuffed in the sorority house attic. The thirty-plus minutes leading up to the murder are rather excruciating, as they focus mainly on the mundane lives of the characters; the screenplay by Roy Moore could have used a lot more cattiness—or at least some additional sub-plots to keep the interest up. Fortunately, once the police are called in to investigate the disappearance and the calls, Black Christmas really picks up steam.

It helps that John Saxon plays the main cop, Lieutenant Fuller, as essentially a pre-drunkard version of his Donald Thompson character from A Nightmare on Elm Street. He works with Jess to run a trace on the phone calls (Side Note: this movie taught me where the term “running a trace” comes from: when Jess gets a call, we cut between her, Lieutenant Fuller, and a phone specialist in a giant room, running down long rows of towers trying to locate the signal; today he could probably just download an iPhone app and be done with it). The police in Black Christmas range from serious-minded investigators (Fuller) to well-intentioned idiots who spend their time doubling over in laughter at fellatio gags or going into hysterics while trying to convince a girl to calmly leave her house. Part of the movie’s magic is the way horror and comedy flow in and out of scenes with head-scratching regularity.

As I said before, Bob Clark pioneered the modern slasher movie, but Black Christmas is a very rough template. Conventions are sketched out here that would be filled in years later by the likes of John Carpenter (Halloween), Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th), and to a lesser extent, Wes Craven (Elm Street). For example, a good stalk-and-slash movie either doesn’t waste the audience’s time getting to know a bunch of characters who have only been written in order to be creatively killed off; or the characters are so integral to the story that they are given interesting things to say or do. The sorority girls in Black Christmas are interchangeable, but are given way too much screen time between kills to bore us to death. Also, the killer in this movie is obviously Peter (Spoiler!); not only does he have the most distinctive silhouette of any of the characters, he is also the murderer by elimination (see Roger Ebert’s Law of the Economy of Characters). Subsequent slasher films know to conceal the killer’s identity via mask or twist ending; in a way, Clark does this in his film, except the twist makes absolutely no goddamned sense (I won’t further spoil the ending, except to say that it must be seen to be believed). For students of horror, this film provides great insight into how different directors can take a handful of ideas that don’t quite work and turn them into genre-defining paradigms.

Beyond that, this truly weird movie contains shots and story ideas that Bob Clark would use in his later career. The film begins and ends with an exterior of the sorority house; the end is particularly eerie as we hear a phone ringing off the hook; this shot recalls A Christmas Story, which closes on the Parker home with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” blaring on the soundtrack. They are identical endings to very distinct holiday pictures. Also, the scene in the police station where the police can’t control their laughter at a blowjob joke appears to have been cut-and-pasted right into the principal’s office scene in Porky’s that followed the Peeping Tom shower prank.

If you’re not familiar with the films and conventions I’ve mentioned here, I don’t know what kind of enjoyment you’ll get out of Black Christmas; I can only appreciate it on the level of a hundred-minute in-joke (because I can’t un-watch the movies I’ve seen). To the casual modern viewer, this might come off as a slow, goofy relic from the Seventies. But I guess that’s like worrying over whether Twilight Fans will appreciate Chuck Klosterman: you’ll either get it or you won’t. Regardless, this film needs to be seen.

Note: If you’re thinking about skipping the original and settling for the remake, don’t. I saw 2006’s Black Christmas (the day after Christmas, in an empty theatre, with my friend, Brian) without having seen the original and I can’t remember anything about it except for a scene involving meat cookies. There are many more memorable scenes in the original, though it takes half the movie to get to them.