Thursday, December 15, 2011

Black Christmas (1974)

NetFlix 3.2/5
IMDB 7.2/10
My Rating: 9/10

During Christmas break, a sorority house is terrorized by an obscene phone caller who begins secretly murdering the resident girls.

Part of the Kentucky Fried Popcorn Christmas Review Series.

One of my all-time favorite horror movies.  This little seasonal gem is directed by Bob Clark, better known for 1983's A Christmas Story, that inescapable haunter of holiday television repeats.  Black Christmas's place in horror history is secured as the (arguable) first official "slasher" film - There were plenty of giallos before this, but they tended to feature motivated and more or less sane killers, whereas with Black Christmas, the slasher formula fell perfectly into place.  Insane killer, many screaming female victims, Final Girl.  I'm not really a big fan of slashers - I find most of them a bit boring, and don't look at the endless Friday 13th/Freddy sequels of the 80's with the same sort of nostalgia that a lot of folks have for those franchises.  Black Christmas, however, grabbed me (Though only on the second viewing, interestingly - This is a movie that gets better with repeat watching).  One of the fascinating things about it is to see it through the lens of Halloween, which typically gets the bigger accolades and public recognition.  A great deal of Halloween is taken almost directly from Black Christmas, from the opening sequence through the killer's eyes, to the bedroom body pile that ignites the climax, to the long, slow camera pans through the empty house that close the movie.  I previously called Halloween my favorite slasher film - Now Black Christmas ties it, and may well top it. 

The plot is as basic as you can get.  Over the Christmas holiday, a sorority house gradually empties out as most of the girls go home for Christmas.  The few who remain are frightened by a series of vulgar phone calls and one by one they begin to disappear as an unseen killer stalks them inside the supposed safety of the group home.  Our heroine, Olivia Hussey, struggles both with this escalating sense of dread and also with a borderline-abusive boyfriend enraged by her decision to have an abortion.  Inept police help only complicates matters, and ultimately Olivia is left alone to face this extremely twisted madman.

The movie is filled to the brim with entertaining characters - No stock victims here.  Every person in this has their own unique voice, though some speak louder than others.  Particularly entertaining is the den mother, Mrs. Mac:

Marian Waldman dives into this role with relish, giving us a sly, cantankerous, alcoholic old den mother whose life spent looking after girls who would, "hump the Leaning Tower of Pisa if they could get up there!" has left her endearingly cranky and brilliantly clever in hiding her bottles of whiskey.  Alternating between protective and scathing, she's a trip and she provides a lot of the film's humor, of which it has a surprising amount.  John Saxon shines as the one cop smart enough to realize there's real trouble, while Doug McGrath's Sergeant Nash is comedy gold as he grapples ineffectually with these modern college girls.  Olivia Hussey, our Final Girl, was beautiful and ethereal, but my own favorite character was definitely the loudmouthed Barb, played by a pre-Superman Margot Kidder.

Barb is the sort of brash, pushy, brassy girl that manages to offend everybody, yet she's also brave and surprisingly sympathetic (Subtly overheard phone calls and remarks suggest a very troubled home life).  It helps that she's drop-dead sexy in this, too.  In fact, she's the sort that would be one of the first victims in any other slasher film, but this is just one of the ways that Black Christmas breaks the not-yet-written slasher film rulebook.  Overshadowing all these people is the movie's looming central character, however, and it isn't the killer, it's the house itself.

The girls' sorority house is an echoing labyrinth of a building, dressed up in holiday cheer and yet dark and secretive... A sort of mini Hill House where doors are sensibly shut.  It wraps around the entire story and provides the backdrop for events, and somehow manages to be both a festive place for friends and warmth and also a place of private rooms and secret spaces.  The girls are together for Christmas, and we cozy up with them, and yet the killer is also in there somewhere and all the decorations don't make the place any less dangerous.  The killer himself is a cipher - There are clues scattered throughout the film that a dedicated viewer can piece together to understand him better (Pay attention to the characters in the phone calls, especially the parents, Billy, and Agnes), but ultimately he is death personified.  This isn't a Jason-like villain with a personality and modus operandi.  Billy the killer is simply a presence, a sort of incandescent rage bottled up in one body, that pops out and strikes like some deranged Jack-in-the-box.

Scary movies are made and broken by their scary moments, and this film has one of the best in the horror genre:
(Warning - Minor spoiler ahead)  Barb's phone conversation with Billy is the movie's best scene, in my opinion - It's Black Christmas's "Who was holding my hand?" (from The Haunting).  The killer has been phoning the girls repeatedly.  Each call is a barrage of cacophony - Insults, profanity, lewd sexual propositions, animal noises, baby sounds, barking, and more - and the sheer inhuman-ness of the caller is disturbing enough to start with... The idea that it's just one person making this range of sounds.  When the catty Barb gets involved, the exchange escalates as Barb returns tit for tat ("Could that really be just one person? ""No Claire, it's the Mormon Tabernacle Choir making their annual obscene phone call.").  When Barb finally goes too far, all pretense drops and the killer replies calmly, "I'm going to kill you" in a manner so offhand as one might say, "I'm going to get the mail."  It's a supremely creepy moment and one of the best that horror cinema has to offer.

Black Christmas is light on gore - The kills are more artistic and reminiscent of a Dario Argento movie than something that would make for a bloody Fangoria cover.  Its specialty is creepy discomfort, not gross-out splatter.  Part of this is due to the unseen killer, a feature that sets Black Christmas apart from nearly all other slasher films.  I've often wondered if Bob Clark has kicked himself over the years for lost income from toys and marketing, but this is one of my favorite aspects of the movie, the fact that we simply do not see the killer.  We see a hand here, an eye there, a silhouette in the background, but at no time do we get the "big reveal"...  Unlike Freddy and Myers and Jason, Billy is not a marketing commodity.  He's psychotic, not prepackaged, and he has none of the "Killer as superhero" trappings that would come to dominate slasher films in later years.  You might say that it isn't Billy who is the star, it's his work:

The lack of a marketable killer is just one of the ways that Black Christmas sets itself apart from the slasher wave that would follow  - Aside from the lack of grue, it also breaks the "rules" in many ways.  The smart & virginal girl doesn't become Final Girl... Instead, she's the first victim (Making Black Christmas more like real life, perhaps?).  Our heroine Jess (Olivia Hussey) is pregnant and planning an abortion, regardless of the protests of her slightly-crazy boyfriend.  This is a theme that would never fly in the Puritan-esque world of American slasher films, where girls are punished for being sexual and saved by being virtuous.  Jess is no-nonsense - She knows what she wants from life and intends to pursue it, damn the setbacks.  I've heard this described as a feminist film and it works well that way.  The ladies are all well-developed and independent of males, and they're far more believable than the usual bevy of bust-flashers.  Best is that not one character in this screams "Cannon Fodder"... You'll like them all and it makes it that much more harrowing when Billy strikes.

My favorite movies are ones I can rewatch.  The mark of a quality film, to me, is one that I like better the second or third time than I did the first, and that's certainly true here.  The first time I saw this, my reaction was largely, "Meh"...  I thought it was OK, but nothing all that great.  Circumstances convened to have me see it a second time, and I was blown away by how good it was, and it's only gotten better with each repeat viewing.  I was really lucky this holiday season to be able to see it in high def at the Sinister Cinema film screening, hosted by Budd Wilkins of Slant Magazine.  He and his wife Tina gave a great presentation and made the whole event a perfect little seasonal treat.

If by some chance you've never seen this obscure horror classic, curl up by the fire and watch it on Christmas Eve.  Twice.