Black Christmas

To help us get into a festive  spirit, the Countess and I watched this charming holiday movie the other night. In all earnestness, I was looking to switch it up a little (we’ve been living pretty strictly on a diet of old comedies lately) and I was intrigued by a reference to this film in Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value. While I’m generally scornful of slasher movies, a genre Black Christmas apparently helped spawn, there were reasons to think I might like this film, or at least find it interesting, and those instincts proved correct.

One is that the film was directed by Bob Clark, who helmed the nearly flawless A Christmas Story, as well as Porky’s (which I detested when I last saw it upon its release–I need to see it again) and several other highly diverse projects, including Arthur Miller’s American Clock, which I rather liked, to my surprise. He is a solid, inventive director.

The other reason I thought the film was worth giving a chance was that it was made in 1974 and released in 1975, which means that it pre-dates the slasher genre and might conceivably now possess some period charm and historical interest.

I was right on both scores. Granted, the plot may not sound  promising, but one must remember that it is the first of its kind. A psycho in an attic murders the inhabitants of a college sorority house during Christmas break — that’s pretty much the extent of it. Thanks to sloppy policework, the house continues to pile up with hidden bodies. (You have to will yourself to suspend disbelief to make it work). But the film is populated with actual characters (as opposed to straw-men to be sacrificed), and is cast with actors rather than non-entities, making it a much richer and affecting experience than later slasher films. The troubled lead couple are played by Olivia Hussey (then best known for playing Julet in Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet) and Keir Dullea (Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Andrea Martin (later of SCTV) plays a mousy, bespectacled girl with a Jewfro (whose boyfriend looks like Gene Shalit). Perhaps the most memorable turn is by Margot Kidder, who chews the scenery as a potty-mouthed pistol whose role is one of the key elements of the film.

Here is where the historical interest kicks in. Clark really pushes the envelope on language and behavior with Kidder’s character (he later indicated in interviews that he considered it one of the film’s main points.) She boozes it up, throws herself at men, and utters many a shocking word, many unprecedented in a mainstream movie at the time. (She even pranks a police officer who doesn’t know what the word “fellatio” means). This seems to establish one of the many later tropes of the slasher film, the relationship between sin and punishment. This theme in the movie seemed to me a cultural ripple from the huge phenomenon a year before: The Exorcist. (An even more overt nod to the latter film is the obscene phone calls made by the killer. Highly stylized,  multi-tracked, recorded by several actors, using multiple, hair-raising voices and noises — it sounds a great deal like the demonic utterances of the possessed girl Regan in the Friedkin film.) And naturally the “phone call from inside the house” motif would come to be much imitated as well.

Directorially, this movie strikes me as much superior to the now better-known, even revered Halloween, which was not only greatly influenced by Black Christmas but seems almost entirely lifted from it. Clark and Carpenter had been in the planning stages of a collaboration prior to Halloween. And Clark had planned a sequel to Black Christmas, to have been called…wait for it…Halloween. It’s kind of cheesy that Carpenter is praised for things like his Halloween’s voyeuristic opening sequence from the p.o.v. of the killer when the whole thing was essentially borrowed from the opening sequence of Clark’s movie, which incidentally looks much better. And another much-borrowed innovation of Clark’s: the tricky twist. The killer remains unidentified and uncaught at the end of the film.

The film’s final shot is as memorable as the opening one. The house now dark and empty, Christmas lights still blinking, a couple of undiscovered corpses still in the attic. No music on the soundtrack, just the sound of a distant dog barking. Merry Christmas!

(By the way Black Christmas was remade a few years ago. Look for a review here — in thirty years!)

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