Saturday, December 26, 2015

Black Christmas (1974)

Bob Clark’s career has certainly gone on some interesting tangents. He started out back in the 70s with this movie, one of the first slasher horror films ever made. Later on he would make A Christmas Story and the Baby Geniuses films. So I guess he was just doing a test run with Black Christmas here. There sure are lots of different angles you can approach Christmas and youth from! This is the dark, depressing side of Christmas with characters talking about abortions.

Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, John Saxon

Co-written with Michelle.

The film is uniquely dark and morbid. It’s just a fucked up trip all the way through, opening up with some very seedy and unsettling camera shots showing the inside of this sorority house of a bunch of college girls. Apparently, someone is stalking them, or at least living in their attic. But back in the 70s, all frat and sorority houses came with a crazy homeless stalker living in the attic. It was just the times.

The characters are all very 70s, including fat white guys with huge afros and pornstar mustaches, girls wearing bell bottom jeans and guys with mullets. One of the most entertaining has to be this house mother lady who seems to know where every hidden bottle of alcohol is in the whole house. Throughout the film, she finds bottles of alcohol in places including inside a book and inside a toilet’s pipes. Hey, that’s called resourcefulness. It’s a necessary skill.

But for the most part, these characters are good and keep the movie interesting. They have distinct personalities and they aren’t just assholes for the sake of the plot lined up to die. The film has a very personal, close-up feeling because of that, and like other 70s horror films, it’s good to actually have a real story and characters, unlike some today. Bob Clark says in one of the special features things that he wanted to create a set of characters that acted like realistic college kids. I think he succeeded. Plus, it actually passes the Bechdel Test, which is kind of cool too.

But not all is safe, as there are greater dangers afoot than having to spend the holidays alone in a sorority house - like the guy in the closet who strangles one girl with a plastic bag. She gets killed and stuffed in the attic, where - spoilers - she’s never found for the rest of the fucking movie. Meanwhile, all the girls keep getting obscene phone calls downstairs from a creepy voice that sounds like the drain pipe from a sink getting attacked with a chainsaw.

"Quiet, they're telling me I won the lottery!"

The main character is Jess, a girl who constantly is having arguments with her boyfriend about wanting an abortion, but he’s an ass who just tells her they’re getting married and she’s not having an abortion. Yeah, fuck women’s rights, right? Wrong. Right. The boyfriend, Peter is shown to be increasingly unstable, but really, it’s all a red herring - he isn’t a danger to anyone except pianos:

To be fair though, that piano did kill his whole family.

I think the added stuff about the abortion and Jess and Peter’s crumbling, obviously dysfunctional relationship adds to the movie, too. Horror movies should never just be horror and nothing else. It’s the human, real life drama that accents the horror and gives it more dimensions.

I really do like the murky, grim tone of this whole movie. It’s very opaque and tense at its darker moments. There’s a sense of horror and foreboding about it, but in a quiet, normal way - there’s nothing supernatural or schlocky going on, just a real life missing girl case and real life problems. It adds a very grounded feel, and fans of later horror movies might be a bit surprised by how “normal” everything in this movie is. Most of the movie's conflict is about the town just searching for the missing girl from the opening - that provides the framework for the rest of the story.

We do get some comedy in there, too, like the idiot cop played by Doug McGrath. One of the sorority girls tells him the new phone number for the sorority house is “fellatio,” and he believes her. Because apparently back in the 70s, nobody knew what fellatio was except for a few privileged, all-knowing individuals. It was lost in a tomb in the Mediterranean for years and unearthed by explorers in the late 1980s, far after this movie was released. I haven't seen the remake, but I do hope it at least had the characters all knowing what fellatio meant.

Unlike this palooka...

To be fair, though, that cop did have it coming - the guy is a jackass who constantly dismisses the women’s worries and fears. His initial response upon hearing that the opening kill girl is missing is to say she’s “probably just off with a boyfriend.” That is one of the film’s underlying themes. The way this guy acts, along with Peter’s domineering attitude toward Jess, points out the ways women are often not taken seriously and marginalized in these tiny ways - it's a societal attitude. So then this becomes a horror movie with something to say.

There is one guy who listens though - John Saxon playing the chief, presumably before he gets transferred to Elm Street in a few years. Saxon is a genuinely good detective who wants to help, and he does. Unfortunately, to track the calls they have to listen to more of those fucking crazy phone calls in the first place. Which, frankly, isn’t the Christmas Carols they wanted - though some would argue it’s all the same either way. I can't tell you how many times I've had carolers come to my door and start shrieking like banshees about killing babies. Ahh the holidays...

The movie just gets more and more claustrophobic, making use of the house’s dark corners and the various characters disappearing in the house’s folds as if they were just magicked away. The violence is minimal and the movie is effective for that. It would kind of ruin the dark, grim, morally grey atmosphere to have a bunch of blood splattering all over. Which is why, I guess, they just showed the killer’s eye.

I guess it’s also rude to say “the killer’s eye.” What I meant is the eye of whatever stage hand or sound effect guy they cast in shadows for those shots. I’m fairly sure they weren’t actually killers. But then again, maybe the killer just actually looks like this:

Yes, literally just a black silhouette with one eye. It's a birth deformity. He gets a lot of strange looks. He's got a face only a mother could love...

The movie creeps toward its macabre end. Jess is cornered in the basement after finding out that the calls have been coming from inside the house. Peter shows up, who she now is almost convinced is the killer. Because he seems to be acting strange, she kills him. Which really is in the spirit of Christmas, even if only because he died wearing a Christmas sweater.

Then the movie ends rather ambiguously, with Jess asleep, exhausted from all she's had to deal with, and then the phone ringing at the end like it has been all movie, signaling that they probably never actually caught the killer and Peter was innocent. The killer, it seems, is still on the loose. At least until the police look in the attic and find him and his victims! So I guess it maybe isn't such a dark ending after all. It'll be fine.

Or maybe the police just never check the attic and the killer gets away. It's open to interpretation!

The film is just a classic. I love how murky, strange and understated it is. There's no cheese or over the top gore here, and the story is always mysterious and cool. The killer is never even fucking revealed, which could probably be frustrating. Personally, though, I'll just go with what lead actress Olivia Hussey said in an interview on my Special Edition DVD: "I think today, they show too much in films. I think a lot of times, like Hitchcock - you don't really see anything, but you have the idea that you've seen. The thought of some man standing behind a door, peering at you, is a lot more frightening than watching somebody. You see the bodies once it's happened, but you don't actually see it happening. To me, that's a lot more terrifying, the thought of something."

The way it takes such a wholesome time of year and perverts it is ghoulishly fun. There's quite a bit of humor in this, but it all meshes well with the story and doesn't feel intrusive, nor does it block out the horror. It's not a horror comedy, it's just a horror movie that doesn't feel the need to eschew other basic tenets of storytelling - humor is part of our daily lives, so it makes sense to include it in a movie to humanize it a bit. More modern horror movies could learn from this - add a bit of comedy or drama into it to humanize the characters and make the audience give a shit, because comedy and drama are the building blocks for everything else, the over-arching pillars. You can't just be horror. Black Christmas knew that and was scarier for it.

The film moves slow, and fans of more modern horror movies may not "get" this. But for those who love old, gritty 70s flicks, this should be right up your alley if you don't know it already. It's just a well told story and an essential horror movie.

And personally, it's my kind of Christmas movie. I've never really been one to rewatch all the normal, happy Christmas movies over and over again. I always liked the darker, stranger and more eccentric side of the holidays, the subversive and bizarre movies that come out and say hey, fuck it, it's Christmas and we're not afraid to go dark. The holidays are such a universal and shared experience in our culture, and there isn't one single way to enjoy Christmas. Oftentimes, for all the beauty and wonderment, there's a lot of frustration, annoyance, uncertainty and insecurity around the holidays as well, and movies like this do kind of show that, in a way. That's really what this movie symbolizes for me, the dark heart and the other side of the holidays. So go see it and enjoy a devilish Christmas good time.

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