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Black Christmas

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 29 November 2018 08:26

Director Bob Clark seems preoccupied with the yuletide as his two most beloved creations, this film and A Christmas Story, examine the holiday through vastly different prisms. A Christmas Story is delightful as it alternates between the saccharine undertones of nostalgia and spiky bits of humor, yet it’s an understandable piece of pop culture ephemera for the seasonal period. Black Christmas, by stark contrast, is equally delightful but something of an antidote/tonic to the never-ending sweetness of holiday-themed products. Black Christmas is appropriately titled as the emphasis is very much on darkness, in humor and subject matter, as the film is an early stage of the slasher genre.


Black Christmas is a lean, mean little killing machine, even if the actual body count is quite small in comparison to most of its brethren. It’s damn propulsive in its telling of its story. From the disorientating and disturbing POV of the killer in the opening scene to the ambiguous ending, Black Christmas spends as little time as possible on anything too distracting from its main thrust.


Don’t misunderstand me, while the black humor of the film is quite fetching as it provides momentary reprise from the ever escalating tension, there’s a few times when the jokes go on too long. A game Margot Kidder plays the sorority’s resident bad girl, she’s eternally smoking, drinking, and loudly vulgar, and she’s clearly game for the part. Kidder finds the absurdity and humor in a scene involving her saying “fellatio” repeatedly to a clearly idiotic police officer that doesn’t get the joke, but the joke just keeps going and going to the point where it becomes distracting. You feel like you’ve wandered into Porky’s, another Clark film, as opposed to a “serial killer on the loose in a near-empty sorority over Christmas” one.


It’s better when we circle back and really develop the characters and their setting. There’s the house mother that hides booze all around, the vamp, the neurotic, the chirpy virgin, and our final girl. While all of them occupy well-known horror film “types,” Clark allows them to develop into idiosyncratic personalities with unexpected depth. Not only that, but Clark allows his vamp to last until the very end whereas another filmmaker would kill her off first, make the virgin the final girl, and definitely kill off the one that wanted an abortion. For the record, our final girl here is the one that wants the abortion, and it’s a storyline that’s refreshingly honest, direct, and a lack of judgment about her wants and needs.


Doesn’t hurt that Clark has assembled a solid little ragtag group of actors, including Kidder, Keir Dullea, Andrea Martin, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, and Olivia Hussey as our final girl. She’s long way from the dewy Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s masterpiece, but she’s independent, smart, and level-headed. Hussey makes for a perfect horror heroine, yet it feels somehow appropriate that her final fate remains somewhat uncertain.


What do I mean? I mean much like another holiday-themed slasher classic, Halloween, Black Christmas ends not with a declarative statement but with a more terrifying, suggestive note of ambiguity. Our heroine is out cold, the police are all around the house, but the phone starts to ring again and the attic door is seen opening again, so maybe it wasn’t who we thought it was all along. What’s to become of her? We don’t know. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year to you and yours, indeed.

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A real slasher artefact

Posted : 7 years ago on 20 December 2011 02:49

"Filthy Billy, I know what you did nasty Billy!"

If you thought A Christmas Story was the only Christmas classic on director Bob Clark's résumé, think again. Almost a decade before delivering the saga of young Ralphie and his want for a BB gun, Clark directed 1974's Black Christmas; a Yuletide-themed horror flick which became one of the most influential slashers of the 1970s. Looking back on it in the 21st Century, Black Christmas seems to be irreparably crippled by countless genre clichés, but such a criticism is erroneous since this was in fact the film which mainstreamed a lot of what's now considered to be a cliché. It came before John Carpenter's Halloween, and thus popularised such conventions as: an isolated setting, a group of college-aged victims, a murderer methodically killing people off, and so on.

As Christmastime approaches, a group of sorority sisters decide to spend their holidays on campus. Soon, their sorority house becomes terrorised by a series of increasingly perverse, violent and obscene phone calls. As a psychologically disturbed stalker takes up residence in the house's attic, the sisters begin to go missing under mysterious circumstances. The police are reluctant to treat the disappearances as genuine missing persons cases, but then a young girl is found dead in a public park, sparking the cops into action.

Looking for a Yuletide movie to get you in the Christmas spirit? Stick with Miracle on 34th Street or It's a Wonderful Life. Bob Clark's horror opus is hardly even concerned with Christmas - it's a disturbing, frightening slasher through-and-through. On top of desecrating Christmas cheer, Black Christmas also defies religious conventions with its filthy language, dark humour, violence and the way it explores its teenage characters' intemperance, sexuality and even disobedience (the subject of abortion is dealt with). A lot of the film's dedicated fans claim that Black Christmas is better than John Carpenter's Halloween, but Clark's picture not as skilful from a script perspective - the midsection drags a bit, some of the characters are flat, and the dialogue is fairly unremarkable. In the long run such aspects don't really matter though, as Black Christmas succeeds when it comes to the slasher elements.

Working from Roy Moore's screenplay, Clark's directorial efforts are masterful. The director chose to rely on mystery and an intense atmosphere to sell the terror, rather than a more obvious approach of outright gore and nudity. In fact, Black Christmas is surprisingly restrained in terms of violence - the kill scenes do not often flaunt a great deal of blood and gore. Such restraint actually works, as it amplifies the horror. The movie is also notable for its many intense shots from the point of view of the unseen killer. Furthermore, Clark and cinematographer Reg Morris clearly had a firm grasp of the power of low-angle shots, and they understood the benefit of precise framing and lighting to generate a nail-biting, claustrophobic atmosphere. As a result, the quaint little sorority home becomes a true house of horrors, leading to several disturbingly memorable scenes and shots that will linger in your mind long after the end credits have expired. Black Christmas contains dark comedy elements, too. The humour is somewhat hit and miss, but there are a few good laughs to be had from time to time.

For what is essentially a B movie, the acting is unusually strong across the board. Leading the cast is Olivia Hussey as Jess. Unlike her contemporaries, Hussey can actually act and convey a sense of fear, not to mention she truly looks like the young college girl she's playing. Also strong is a pre-Superman Margot Kidder, who obviously had one hell of a time playing the outspoken, sharp-tongued Barb. Kidder was saddled with a majority of the script's one-liners and snappy banter, and she handled them wonderfully, spouting her lines with irresistible gusto.

Black Christmas is not exactly a masterpiece of the horror genre, but it does what it needed to do extremely well, and (for better or for worse) it helped give birth to the modern slasher genre as we know it. Slasher enthusiasts should definitely check this one out as it's a real artefact, though those outside of the target audience probably won't find much to their liking here.


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Black Christmas (1974)

Posted : 11 years, 5 months ago on 8 August 2007 05:31

I thought this movie, for whatever reason, would be better than it was. Even allowing for the year it was made, it wasn't terribly good. The acting was not great, and the story sucked. Not sure that I want to even bother with the remake after watching this one, which had drunken college girls allowing children to drink alcohol in it, among all the rest of the bad storyline.

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