12 Days of X-Mas: Black Christmas
It's that time of the year; winter chill in the air, snowy nights, holiday tunes coming from every radio and media device, egg nog, the scent of pine needle everywhere, rambunctious shoppers, and decorated houses all around! That being said, it's time to talk about the best Christmas movie director Bob Clark made.
In 1974, Clark (A Christmas Story, Porky's, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, and ghost-director for at least half of Popcorn) helped get the slasher genre a pulse with Black Christmas, the genre didn't get a "heartbeat" until a few years later when in 1978, John Carpenter changed the genre forever with Halloween. With that said, Black Christmas might be the biggest influence on the phenomenal Halloween, which was, in fact, originally conceived (supposedly) as a sequel to Black Christmas. Although Italian director, Mario Bava, had previously created what some see as the first slasher movie, Bay of Blood, (not to mention Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho) it was Black Christmas that was to become recognised as the first blip on the radar for one of the most lucrative sub-genres of horror cinema. Clark, still at this point something of an amateur director, took a simple yet naturally frightening concept and turned it into one of the most unsettling and nerve-wracking one-hundred minutes in cinematic history. Only a select few films are atmospheric enough to truly equate to the eeriness and feelings of apprehension that are to be induced by Black Christmas.
My first viewing of this came in the early to mid 90's via VHS. It was Christmas time and I was drawn in by the box cover art and the desire to mix up my standby rentals of basket case, Friday the 13th Part 3, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge. I remember the strong festive vibes and intense nail biting moments I had whilst covered in blankets with mountains of snow piling up outside from the oncoming blizzard. For the next week, I was creeped out every time the phone rang!
The story concerns a group of sorority sisters led by the brash Margot Kidder, and the level headed Olivia Hussey, that are preparing for their Christmas celebrations at their Sorority House. They have been receiving bizarre and threatening calls from what sounds like a group of insane people, although no one takes them seriously at first, believing that they're just a typical prank from a few of the local town boys. However fears are ignited when one of the students, Claire (Lynne Griffin), doesn't arrive to meet her father on time and is reported missing. Later a child is found butchered in the park, whilst all the while the Looney continues his demented ringing and terrorising the young women. Before long Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) realises that there may be a link in the occurrences and asks Jess (Olivia Hussey) to remain close to her phone so that he can trace the line when the lunatic next rings. But will there be anyone left alive when that happens?
Although this movie is neither graphic, gratuitous nor particularly unpleasant by today's standards, it remains one of the most disturbing and chilling 'slasher' movies ever made. Perhaps as mysteriously alluring as the exploits of Michael Myers and certainly far more alarming than any of the endless Friday the 13th films could ever hope to be. The killer creates the fear himself, but not in the typical methods that have become somewhat old-hat in more recent efforts. This assassin doesn't wear a mask and probably doesn't possess any super-human attributes, But his enigmatic ranting and crazy excessive skips between multiple personalities that are portrayed superbly over phone calls, which are all but too short; effortlessly allow him to become one of the creepiest wackos ever set to celluloid. Never has a telephone been implemented as a tool for creating fear so efficiently, there's something really unsettling as this figure of multiple personalities argues potently with himself. He changes his pitch from that of a high female to a deep and aggressive male and then back again, in a manner of pure and unadulterated insanity that really sticks in your throat. He perhaps reaches his most bloodcurdling moment when he drops all the wacky personas to adopt a civil yet curt voice and mutter once; `I'm going to kill you'. Proving to be the one and only direct threat that he makes in the whole movie.
Where as Michael Myers' success was brought about by the mystery that surrounded the little that we knew of the true motivations of his character, a similar method has been used here. We never actually see who's terrorising these girls and we are never given a reason for his dementia. He often refers to himself as 'Billy' or 'Agatha' in his one sided conversations, but we never learn of the events that made him spiral into such mindlessness. In a movie like Scream (aka The Outing - not Wes Craven's) this just feels like lazy and incompetent filmmaking, however Bob Clark puts it across in a manner that makes you want to learn and know more and he teases you with revealing that you never will. Helped excessively by some great cinematography and neatly planned lighting effects that often evade the more recent slasher movies, Clark's talents as a director certainly reached their peak with Black Christmas, proving himself as a great filmmaker who would have his inspiration cemented over the years that followed. He produced fairly original ways to keep the killer obscured from view, while not forgetting the fundamental silhouette and shadow play. If you try and predict the plot twists, it's only because they have been carbonated so many times since this came out that they now feel second nature to any horror fan. It's good to remember that this was one of the first to use these elements and you must also note how perfectly this holds up against the less than impressive attempts that have proceeded it.
The simplicity of the production is what makes it so endearing. There are no overtly bloody death sequences or unlikely, comic-book style events; the viewer is presented with an unnerving tale which could easily have a strong basis in reality. Inventive camerawork and POV shots as well as a superlative use of lighting are the elements that combine to achieve the desired result. The often pseudo-claustrophobic environment of the sorority house, from where the vast majority of events occur, offers the perfect, vulnerable and unguarded location susceptible to intrusion and thus attributes to the continual foreboding atmosphere. Clark was not afraid to take time building both the story and characterisation as well as introduce the viewer to the aspects that he would use to build the suspense. This is prepared before plunging the viewer into a seemingly uncontrolled nightmare that one experiences along with the protagonists. Another aspect that firmly stands out is the mysterious way that everything is presented; even at the very end, very little has truly been explained yet everything seems like it should have an obvious explanation. Even in its undoubted simplicity, Black Christmas has complicated facets that require thought from the viewer to entirely comprehend the film. In some ways, the concealing of several key points puts the viewer's knowledge of events on a par with the actual characters.
Black Christmas is also complimented wonderfully by strong acting performances from Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, and the great John Saxon. Despite the tiny budget, this is a highly polished horror film that drew its inspiration from the classic urban legend of "the babysitter and the man upstairs" that it genuinely belongs among the elite of the genre. This is where it all started and those familiar with later slasher films post-Halloween should be able to spot several of the now-clichés that first materialized in Black Christmas.
The new Collector's Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory is one of their best releases yet, Check it out if you find yourself looking for something a with a little more bite than most holiday flicks!