Saturday, October 8, 2011

Overlooked Gems #9: Black Christmas

Grade: 83 (A-)

Until the heyday of the so-called “torture porn” movement, the slasher was the least reputable of all horror subgenres. John Carpenter’s Halloween perfected the formula of a slasher film before less talented directors (read: hacks) took over the subgenre and it collapsed into stupidity and misogyny. But while Halloween is easily the strongest of the bunch, it is not, as some might believe, the first. Horror movie aficionados know that the first real slasher is Bob Clark’s 1974 film Black Christmas, an unsettling shocker slightly different from Clark’s other holiday film, the 1983 classic A Christmas Story.

A madman of unknown origins has broken into a sorority house and hidden in the attic. The girls go about their business, blissfully unaware. Jess (Olivia Hussey) has received some creepy phone calls featuring heavy breathing and jabbering, but there’s no reason to believe that it’s anything more than a particularly obscene prank. But when one of the girls doesn’t meet her father at an arranged time and place, some of them start to get nervous.  House cut-up and heavy drinker Barb (Margot Kidder) thinks it’s all a big joke, but who keeps making those calls? And why can’t the police find any trace of their friend? Things get worse after a young girl is found dead in the park, and Jess begins to believe her troubled boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) might have gone off the deep end after she told him she was getting an abortion. In true slasher conventions, the girls are picked off one by one until only one remains. But who will it be?

The film wastes no time to establish its mood as it begins with an ominous rendition of “Silent Night”. Sound plays a major role in Black Christmas: the score is largely composed of out-of-tune piano chords that give off a feeling of dread, almost as if the sorority house was a mausoleum. More notably, the killer is not, as with the case of many slashers, silent. Rather, he screeches and babbles wherever he goes, giving a nervy air to the proceedings. Clark isn’t a master filmmaker on the level of Carpenter, but he wisely keeps track of the major players throughout the film so it seems like anyone can die at any moment. His film is responsible for several of the clichés in future slasher movies, but here they feel fresh: the inept policemen, the final girl, and the use of the killer’s point of view. His handling of the characters is also strong: it is not, as in the case of later slasher films, a bunch of dim-witted teens waiting to fall over like dominoes. Part of what makes the characters more memorable is one of the nuttiest casts ever assembled for a horror film: Margot Kidder of Sisters and Superman fame as a heavy drinking provocateur; Olivia Hussey of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet as a nice girl with a troubled boyfriend; Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey as her neurotic boyfriend, an aspiring pianist; and B-movie legend John Saxon as the only cop in town who doesn’t seem grossly incompetent (a character type he would reprise in A Nightmare on Elm Street, one of the film’s more inventive and worthy successors). These people all seem to be from different worlds, but then, this is college.

Clark’s biggest misstep is a comic-relief character, Mrs. McHenry (Marian Waldman), a sorority housemother whose alcoholism and foul-mouthed tendencies are played up for laughs. The humor is too broad and the character too irritating to work as anything more than an annoyance. Clark does better with the police force, whose ineptitude makes for great moments of black comedy (they never seem to notice the first dead girl, head wrapped in plastic, propped up at the attic’s window in the film’s eeriest image). Above all else, though, Black Christmas is a terror, a highly disturbing film with no happy ending and no yuletide cheer.

Overlooked Gems October Schedule:

October 14: The Changeling
October 21: The Funhouse
October 28: Exorcist III: Legion

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