Wednesday, October 8, 2008

#84: Black Christmas


Black Christmas
Directed by Bob Clark
Written by Roy Moore
Released December 20, 1974

John Carpenter gets a lot of credit for birthing the modern day slasher film as we know it because of his seminal holiday horror classic, Halloween. Obviously, we can't forget Hitchcock's Psycho as the progenitor of the genre, but it wasn't until the late '70s that this style of film really started packing people into theaters before becoming a such a parody of its former self that it would virtually die off until Wes Craven infused it with a heavy dose of irony in his Scream films.

The grandaddy of the slasher film revival, however, came from a guy named Bob Clark, who would go on to direct another Christmas-themed film that would become a family favorite: A Christmas Story. Long before Ralphie would nearly shoot his eye out, Clark made Black Christmas. Aside from the Christmas theme, the two movies couldn't be more different.

Black Christmas contains two devices that would become major hallmarks for two other movies. First, there is extensive use of footage shot from the killer's point of view, which would be put to use in Halloween. Second, the film has the killer making threatening phone calls from inside the home that he has targeted, which would become the major plot point of When a Stranger Calls.

The house, in this case, is a sorority house filled with some of the oldest-looking college students to ever try and pass as teenagers, including a pre-Superman Margot Kidder and Saturday Night Live alum Andrea Martin. Inside, the girls are having a Christmas party before many of them go home for the winter break. The house mom sneaks sips of booze from multiple hiding places. The phone rings repeatedly, sometimes bringing the voice of a family member or boyfriend, and other times a frightening, menacing voice.

Soon, the bodies begin to pile up. It's almost disappointing that the DVD uses one of the film's scariest shots (one of the girls in a rocking chair with a plastic bag over her head) as its menu screen. The reveal weakens the effect of the shot in the movie itself. Still, the creepiness factor is high, especially because Clark keeps not only the identity of the killer but also many of the murder scenes out of the open, making the audience wonder if they're ever going to find out whose eyes they're looking through.

Compared to the films that would follow in its wake, Black Christmas is fairly slow moving (but does not feel overly long). It's strange that the phone calls -- and the killer's final line -- are the scariest element. Future slasher pictures would make big, bloody productions out of every kill, but in Black Christmas the murders are the least crucial element in creating the tension. There's even a great downbeat ending that involves a long retracting camera shot and the ringing of a phone.

Black Christmas still holds up as a horror film, but suffers a little because of the trappings of the genre that it helped create. If you can watch it and try to remember that this came before all those movies that made the slasher film tired and laughable (there's a particular scene where you'll find yourself thinking "Get out of the house, you idiot!), it is even more enjoyable.

For more on Black Christmas:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- It's Me, Billy
- Buy the Special Edition DVD.

The unsettling trailer:

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