Looking back on… Black Christmas

Black Christmas (1974)
Directed by: Bob Clark
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Lynne Griffin, Marian Waldman
Written by Leslie
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For many, Christmas brings around the tradition of watching warm, fuzzy films that nestle happily in the belly. I’m sure regular visitors to Sarah’s blog have cheerfully enjoyed reviews of wholesome features such as White Christmas, Elf and It’s a Wonderful Life. All memorable seasonal movies. My Christmas film treads a different path. For me, the film I re-watch at this time of year is bleak, stark and unsettling.

Despite sounding like a festive Blaxploitation picture, Black Christmas is actually the often forgotten blueprint for the slasher movies which became so commonplace in the 80’s. It’s important to note that Black Christmas’ director, Bob Clark, had spoken to John Carpenter about the idea of developing a sequel to his seasonal slasher at a particular autumnal celebration. We know this now to be the highly influential Halloween (1979), the film that launched a thousand imitators. Not only did Halloween set forth the slew of slasher movies in the 80’s (Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Sleepaway Camp), but it also became the starting point of the post-modern slasher era of the 90’s. The likes of Scream (1996) indulged in many key aspects well known from Carpenters seminal piece. However, it’s important to realise that it was Clark’s film really helped set the pieces in place. Halloween is a more polished piece. Looking back now, Black Christmas quite now looks quite creaky. Despite this, the film’s haggardness only serves to add to the unease.

It’s approaching the Christmas break, and the sorority girls of Pi Kappa Sigma are enjoying libations and preparing to head home to their families. Despite the squabbling between the girls, with much of it coming from Margot Kidder’s Barbara, and the bizarre string of obscene phone calls from an unseen character the girls have called “The Moaner”, spirits are relatively high. Though as the calls continue, it’s clear that the calls are placing one or two of the girls on edge.  

When one of the straight-laced girls; Clare (Lynne Griffin) disappears, the worried students decide to get the police involved to find out what’s going on. As the search for Clare wears on, it soon becomes clear, that there’s a psychopath on the loose. They’ve chosen the sorority house as their target. The calls have made the victims aware, and things begin to take a disturbing turn for the worst.

Black Christmas is a far more cynical film than you remember. Margot Kidder’s Barbara is obnoxiously bitchy lush, angry at her mother being absent over the holidays. The house mother Mrs Mac (Marian Waldman) is foul-mouthed boozer whose attitude towards the girls clearly shows that the years at the sorority haven’t been kind to her. Meanwhile, the main protagonist Jess (Olivia Hussey), is embroiled in a deep conflict with her maladjusted pianist boyfriend Peter (2001: A Space Odyssey’s Keir Dullea). She is pregnant and wishes to have an abortion, Peter greatly disapproves of.  Not only does such a discord ripen the tension throughout the movie, but it also provides an image of Christmas slightly more in tune to its audience. Most Christmas films enjoy only displaying the hallmark, and often synthetic view of the season. Black Christmas is more than happy to remind us of the apprehension and anxiety that often lies beneath the false smiles of the holiday.

While pockets of regret fill the cracks of the narrative, disturbing occurrences are the main thrust of the film. Nick Mancuso who is cast as the phone voice, litters the obscene calls with knowing references to Jess’ situation, melded with abstracted weirdness. Mercedes McCambridge is often noted for her experimental voice work in The Exorcist (1973), yet Mancuso’s work is at times just as bizarre and unsettling as that of the Demon Pazuzu. Here, the phone voice not only spews guttural vulgarities, it changes pitch and tone. Just like Pazuzu, we’re never sure of how many voices we may be hearing. It only becomes more troubling when we realise where the calls are located. 

From a visual standpoint, the likes of Peeping Tom (1960) and Black Christmas helped establish the now more commonplace “killers” point of view. In Black Christmas, the killer’s identity is unseen and we only really know of their whereabouts through these point of view shots. Lacking the steady glide utilised by Dean Cundey and his Steadicam in Halloween, the slightly jerky movements found here may not have the menacing grace of Michael Myers, yet still, hold an unnerving tension that is all their own. Carpenter masters the form with his seasonal slasher but it’s the likes of Clark who ignites the spark. To add to this, cinematographer Reginald H. Morris keeps the colours muted and ensures the film is drenched in an acceptable amount of shadow.

The film is not without its flaws. This town of busybodies and underworked policemen may be the perfect setting for a serial killer, but it’s also lousy with cops that give the dumbbells in The Last House on The Left (1971) a run for their money. Olivia Hussey’s wallflower protagonist displays vulnerability but is unassuming with placed in consideration with future scream queens. Also, the film’s third act, while still unsettling, suffers from the type of stupidity that became routinely mocked in the likes of Scream. Of course, this is before many of the actions of the victims became well-known clichés, but to look upon them now is cringe-worthy. This doesn’t stop Black Christmas for investing in its story and characters. Part of why the film still works is down to the fact that while these sorority girls aren’t the most in-depth, they still manage to hold definition.

Why Black Christmas? Why not Miracle on 34th Street or something just as fluffy? Because, much like Bob Clark, I quite enjoy the irony of something dark occurring during the festive season. Black Christmas captures the cynicism and griminess that so many try and pretend doesn’t exist during the season. The arranging of time spent with our so-called loved ones. The cattiness. The home truths. The film establishes all the things that a real Christmas throws at you. But it also delves into the primal.  The invasion of privacy and personal that this anti-Santa displays with his obscene phone calls and bloodlust are not only unsettling but something we sanitise and inform children is not a terrible thing in order to placiate them over the last month of the year. There’s something darkly alluring about this aspect. A willingness to stare into the void we like to keep from ourselves. Everyone else can be warm and fuzzy during Christmas, I’ll rather stand out with this.   

Rating: 8 out of 10

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