29 November 2011

Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas Still a Frightfesting Good Time
By Kristin Battestella

We watched this original 1974 holiday horror classic this past Halloween as part of our yearly October horror fests. Regardless of the calendar, however, this wintry slasher heavyweight still offers plenty of fright to any festivity.

College roommates Jess (Olivia Hussey), Barb (Margot Kidder), and Phyllis (Andrea Martin) are remaining at their sorority house with Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman) as Christmas is fast approaching.  Amid the drinking, carolers and parties for the kids, the girls receive repeated prank phone calls from someone named Billy. When sorority sister Clare (Lynne Griffin, Wind at My Back) is reported missing by her father (James Edmond), Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) and Sergeant Nash (Doug McGrath) investigate the disappearance in connection to the increasingly obscene phone calls. Unfortunately, the police’s suspicions are automatically directed at the girls’ boyfriends Peter (Keir Dullea) and Chris (Art Hindle) as the body count rises.

Well here’s a melancholy holiday viewing for you! Director Bob Clark (A Christmas Story, Porky’s) very smartly uses perspective camera work, shadowed and claustrophobic scenes, sharp angles, and foreboding tracking shots to build scares and sustain the suspense and peril through the well paced picture.  Some contemporary movie makers do use these tricks, but anymore the smoke and mirror effects are more about the sake of using them or for the shock of the effects themselves- and as a result, the scary just isn’t there.  Writer Roy Moore (She Cried Murder) creates drama and character development for another often-underutilized horror layer, too.  Yes, we’re in a sorority house, but its not naked silicone pillow fights or heavy sex scenes as we define sorority naughty today.  Unexpected real life issues and then taboo topics such as abortion, marriage, unplanned pregnancy, and alcoholism are weaved in nicely.  Most of the gore in Black Christmas actually happens off camera or is all talk in nasty phone calls, leaving a lot of the juice, kinky, and disturbed speculations up to the audience. Of course, some of the mystery elements and police investigations will have you screaming at the television, but I like the notion that folks in seventies horror films were unaware of the budding rules of the genre and at worst, act damn stupidly.  Even with these hiccups, this is a finely told, steady thriller that will keep you guessing until the end and then some.

While it doesn’t seem as though she is that prolific an actress, we all seem to know who Olivia Hussey is thanks to Romeo and Juliet- or if you’re really a horrorphile, Psycho IV.  Of course, she is lovely as always here. Even if Jess is a little snotty to start, she’s a likeable and easy to get behind heroine thanks to her honest portrayal of relationship issues- not to mention these crazy holidays and killings happening all at once!  Today, there will be some who might think the boozing Barb is merely Margot Kidder (Superman, The Amityville Horror) just playing herself, but no no no. Kidder looks damn good, sexy, and effortless, and Barb adds both seriousness to Black Christmas with her drinking and levity thanks to her fun and wisecracks.  Likewise, Marian Waldman (Deranged) is a riot as the liquor stashing, cranky old lady who’s supposed to be in charge of this crazy house. Of the boy toys, I have to say Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Art Hindle (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) are nothing that special. Like the wasted Andrea Martin (SCTV), they serve more as assisting foil or red herrings as needed, and one very hokey hockey scene doesn’t even make the cut for me.   It’s not that they weren’t developed or done poorly; just the male plots are dropped aside for the scream queen action.

Thankfully, John Saxon, now of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame, is excellent as the caring cop hoping to provide support and safety for the ladies.  On the job, he technically isn’t helped too much by Doug McGrath’s (Pale Rider) idiot sergeant. However, McGrath provides several critical scenes of incredible wit and total detective foolhardy. It’s not all out Dewey from Scream or full on Scary Movie Doofy spoof, but again, the holiday humor and real world stupidity add more grim entertainment to Black Christmas.  We shouldn’t laugh at the seasonal ignorance, sexual implications, or failed law enforcement, but it is real and freshly handled here in a demented and humorous way. He doesn’t seem to have done much else, but James Edmond as Mr. Harrison is also delightfully well played.  He’s a bit of a prude, a stuffy relic compared to the sorority girls, but we don’t often see the fear and tragedy consequences in horror films.  It’s a nice touch of sympathy that the audience can completely understand, a solid to hold on to as the slasher hysteria rises.

But my gosh does that wallpaper look so bad!  While the seventies long, straight hair and breezy, peasantry costumes look almost medieval revival lovely, the men in huge fur coats and white folks trying on Afros are, however, just…no.   Fortunately, the Christmas d├ęcor, I have to say, is near awesome. The big, great old wreaths, that tacky white seventies tree, those big old colored bulbs- an underlying sprinkling of holiday music and carols are also present in unexpected, even disturbing ways. This nostalgia of the sights and sounds of an older Christmas celebration adds heaps of atmosphere.  Not only are there no cell phones, computers, gadgets or crafty but useless holiday themed deaths, but there is also no shop shop shop and bland Xmas obsession. Black Christmas is old fashioned and traditional, even homely to us like grandma’s apple pie. So when the murder and mayhem elements do kick in, it furthers the twistedness of it all. Many folks find the holiday season as the most depressing time of year- all the visual and oratory cheer should have us thinking happy thoughts, right? No, this is a horror movie, without a doubt.  Black Christmas can be watched anytime of year, for sure. It just happens that there are extra scares and spices because this horror movie takes place at Christmas.

You would think more horror films would take place during the holidays. Not perils with winter and snowscapes- we get plenty of those, especially recently it seems- but with the idleness of the season breeding scares or the violation of December sanctities causing terror.  Only one other example immediate comes to mind, and that is the also exceptional “….And All Through the House” segment of the 1972 anthology film Tales from the Crypt.  Perhaps only adults or wiser youths can appreciate the mix of retro holidays and scares, but there’s actually little to deter Black Christmas from any audience.  There are a few vulgarities and drinking innuendos, but today’s tweens and up are probably already aware of all that. Again, the audience suggestion and what you take from the film is paramount here.  The blu-ray is also quite delightful, with features and restored magic.  However, there are no subtitles, which could go a long way in helping hear the exact naughty in Billy’s phone calls. But alas, that might also be the point in not having captions, too.

Even with some plot confusions or character inconsistencies, and doubtless Black Christmas’ conclusion will also anger some viewers, this vintage slasher is unlike any subsequent slice and dice drivelry thanks to its telephone twists and Christmas charisma.  Ring in the season with Black Christmas or get nostalgic any time of year.

(You’ll also notice I didn’t mention the 2006 remake.  Pfft!)

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