Not only is Black Christmas a perfect antidote to seasonal merriment with almost no Christmas cheer, it is also, probably, THE proto slasher movie. So if you watch this, you get a film history lesson thrown in for good measure. How’s that for a Christmas gift?
Okay so no one is ever going to deny that John Carpenter’s Halloween is the mother of all Slasher movies (when did it stop being Stalk n’ Slash by the way?) but all the ingredients are here. Set in a snowy Canadian town, girls in a college sorority are being harassed by some pervert over the phone. Being 1974 there is no call back or caller ID so the girls just have to lump it. In fact being 1974 I was surprised at just how filthy the caller got. Apparently many words had to be removed for the UK release back in the day, which is surprising considering lots British people will call you a cunt as a term of endearment.
Soon the girls are being horribly murdered one-by-one. The first girl gets suffocated with a plastic bag, put up in the attic of the sorority house in a rocking chair and is never found, even with the smell. She’s sat up, looking out the window at the front of the house and I think the police must visit about five times, they even leave a squad car there. Still no one thinks to look up. That’s thinking in two dimensions for you. I have to admit I saw the 2006 remake before seeing the original. In that everyone is suffocated with the old plastic bag trick so I assumed that that would be the case here, but it’s only the first victim. Why the remakers decided that was the only way to go is beyond me, although everyone in that one also had their eyeballs gouged out, which is nice.
There are a number of big differences between this film and the Slasher movies that followed. The first is that it is a bit of a ‘who-done-it’ like any old murder mystery from times past. A number of potential suspects are lined up (including Keir Dullea, the astronaut from 2001: A Space Odyssey), something later films in the genre would dispense with. They were more interested in what the killers were doing, rather than who was doing it and why. This aspect really slows down the first half of the movie as it creates too much preamble to the main event.
At least while we are here the characters are mostly a likable and well-acted bunch (something that can’t be said for many later Slashers. I mean, good god, have you seen The Burning? Chop ‘em all up Cropsy, my man). Best known of this bunch is the great and underrated Margot Kidder. She plays the foul mouthed and heavy drinker of the house. And of course, with that raspy Canadian accent she’s fantastic whether she’s telling the stalker to go fuck himself or drinking beer and smoking fags down the local Cop Shop.
One thing that is a classic staple of the genre is that the victims are incredibly stupid. We all do daft things in life let’s face it, me more than most. But if I got a call from the police saying “just put down the phone and run for your life out of the house as there’s a killer in there with you” I cannot see myself picking up a fire poker and looking for my friends. I’d be throwing anyone in the way behind me, putting them between me and the nut-job. Not so the final-girl here, she goes off looking for her buddies, which is very loyal and I’d like her as a mate… She just might not want me.
The killer here is pretty good too. He is an absolute foul-mouthed loon on the phone and in the flesh you hardly see him which makes it all the more scary. There he is creeping around the dark corridors, only glimpses of a shape in a doorway, a silhouette through frosted windows, trying to break in, an eye through the crack in the door, that kind of thing. The use of shadow and light is tremendous and gives a real sense of menace to the partially seen killer. Check it out:
Okay so that might be kind of tame in the modern age, but back in the heady days of ‘74 it must have freaked the bejesus out of audiences. It beautifully captures that fear we all have of someone horrible inside our own home, watching us, watching and waiting…
Okay I’m not saying this is perfect, not by a long stretch. Some of the dialogue and acting leaves a lot to be desired. When the Sorority house mother says she will probably have left for the Holidays by the time they get back, it’s a very weak forewarning of her imminent death (by conveniently located iron hook) and also an excuse for the girls not to bother looking for her. Actually no one even realises anyone is dead until the last few minutes. Call yourselves college educated? There are a few subplots about missing teenagers and unwanted pregnancies we could live without too, and the fellatio joke isn’t half as funny as the detective seems to think it is.
It’s a shame that director Bob Clark moved away from horror after this (he went onto sex comedies with the Porkies series, and, er, talking baby comedies with the Baby Geniuses* movies) because this is a real Christmas treat. Even more so if you hate Christmas or hate yourself: as it’s a film from the seventies, a time when most movies seemed to have either a downbeat or ambiguous ending, this has the extra bonus of giving you both. Yeah, Merry Christmas people.
* I mean, really: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyJuSjpoMfg