Black Christmas (1974)

Open the pod door, Billy

This is one of the rare occasions where I will review a slasher movie. Why is Black Christmas allowed curl up by the yuletide fire of Castle Midnight while other slasher films are left to toil in the workhouses, begging for more gruel? Black Christmas is special, in addition to a recommendation by Trev, it has a bond with the holiday that goes beyond its title and premise. Black Christmas was directed by Bob Clark, the director responsible for A Christmas Story, which is perhaps the most iconic yuletide film for my generation and possibly the generation that followed. This was a shocking bit of trivia of which I was unaware until very recently. It’s a bit like finding out that Mr. Rodgers is a vampire who prowls the neighborhood at night drinking the blood of the innocent, which would be insanely cool if it were true.  There is no hint of Black Christmas in A Christmas Story, just as Fred Rodgers shows no signs of vampirism.  I do admit that Mr Rodger’s  relationship to King Friday the 13th does give me pause.

It may surprise you that I hadn’t seen Black Christmas until last week. I know! How could a horror fan, such as I, have not seen it until now? Easily – I don’t care for slasher movies, tending to skip them in general and Black Christmas in particular because it reeked of holiday exploitation. Further, my brain, addled by age and cough syrup-based recreational drinking, somehow mixed Black Christmas up with Silent Night, Deadly Night, which came out when I was in high school, and was just another weak sauce 1980’s slasher movie that I avoided like stale English fruit cake. Why the sudden change of heart? I was lobbied by my old mate Trev to have a look at Black Christmas. I trust his judgment. We like a lot of the same movies and this one is a holiday tradition at his homestead. It was either review Black Christmas or Puppetmaster vs Demonic Toys for my fourth holiday film this month. The choice was obvious. Now, let’s have a closer look at Black Christmas.

Semester is over and the ladies of Pi Something Something sorority are winding things down with a Christmas party before the last of the sisters leave for the holiday break. The house is decorated with lights and the sounds of good cheer can be heard outside, covering the creaking of wood as a stranger climbs the lattice,  finds an unlocked window and enters the attic. He’s breathing hard and mumbling to himself. Once in the attic he opens a hatch and lowers himself to the residential floor below.

We then meet the cast of sorority sisters: Jess played by Olivia Hussey, who more or less inaugurates the stock slasher character of the strong willed survivor girl. Margot Kidder who really stretches herself as an actress playing Barb, an emotionally unstable, spoiled, foul mouthed young woman with anger issues and a borderline substance abuse problem. There is also Phyl (Andrea Martin) the brainy girl, Clare (Lynne Griffin) the good girl and finally, for comic relief, Mrs. MacSomething, the alcoholic housemother, who is played by Marian Waldman.

Now that we have our killer and our victims all together in the metaphorical pot, let the simmering begin! Shortly after the prowler slips into the attic, the sorority sisters receive a call from “The Moaner.” I know the voice on the other end belongs to the intruder, you know it and  Mrs. MacSomething’s cat knows it. What I’m not sure about is how long this has been going on prior to the opening of the movie. Apparently not long enough for the girls to become bored with “The Moaner” as they rapidly gather around the phone like girls at a slumber party.   Jess holds the phone so they can all hear the string of odd noises and obscenities being uttered.  The girls are mortified.  Continuing the slumber party analogy, there is always one girl with a little too much chutzpah for her own good who takes the phone, in this case it’s Margot Kidder, who eggs on “The Moaner” calling him a creep and inviting him to stick his tongue in a light socket after he makes a few lewd suggestions of his own.   Nice.

Next we add a few auxiliary characters: Jess’s boyfriend, the sensitive and high-strung Dave Bowman . . . Wait! That’s not right. I can’t remember his name in this movie, let’s just call him Red Herring (Keir Dullea). There is Clare’s father, the prissy and Frank Oz-ish, Mr. Harrison (James Edmond), the Dumb Cop (Doug McGrath) and the smarter cop (John Saxon).

The whole thing plays out almost just the way we’d expect mostly because Black Christmas was badly remade about a million times in the 1980’s,  I’ve seen a few of those bad remakes and probably so have you.   Halloween wasn’t even yet a glimmer in John Carpenter’s eye; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre came out at roughly the same time. Peeping Tom was locked in a vault somewhere where nobody was going to see it.  For an audience in 1974 this was still new and fresh stuff.

What struck me about Black Christmas is how much it is like John Carpenter’s Halloween, both visually and in tone. Halloween, like Black Christmas, brings the horror without the gore, features scenes shot from the killer’s point of view and a modern, bland, suburban setting.   Halloween’s Michael Myers is less human and more gimmicky than the prowler in Black Christmas, who in contrast to Michael we never see clearly, has no supernatural powers or even a mask.   Another thing going going for Halloween is that it’s set on a more commercially appropriate holiday than Christmas for a slasher story. I’m not spitting in Carpenter’s face, after all, Halloween takes the slasher genre from Black Christmas and drags it to the next level rather than ripping it off.

I doubt that Black Christmas will become part of my regular annual line up. The closest thing to a slasher film that I watch with any regularity is Psycho, which I pop in the player every couple of years. Black Christmas is definitely a cut above other mad slasher movies. The prowler’s mad ramblings alone are worth the price of admission.

Agnes, Don’t tell them what we watched.  What your mother and I must know is . . . where did you put the movie, Billy?

Olivia Hussey
Keir Dullea
Margot Kidder
John Saxon
Marian Waldman
Andrea Martin

Bob Clark

Roy Moore

Three out of five Vincents

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