Sunday, December 5, 2021

Holiday Horror Watch: Black Christmas (1974)

Watched:  12/5/2021
Format:  Peacock!  
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1970's
Director:  Bob Clark

I kind of start and stop my interest in slasher films with the Halloween films.  But ever since I found out Bob Clark, the guy who directed A Christmas Story, also directed one of the landmark Christmas-Horror films, I've wanted to see Black Christmas (1974).  Add in a pre-superstardom Margot Kidder, and it's a sell!  But the movie had been a little hard to find in the past - until recent shifts in how the streamers work seems to have fixed that.  

Anyway, it's now a whole lotta places, but I watched it on Peacock of all locations.  I know!  But if you watch like 2 minutes of commercials, uncut movie!  (edit:  I hit "publish" on this post, went to my email to read the Criterion Current email, and I guess Black Christmas is on the Criterion Channel now, too and an article about the weirdness of watching people get murdered on film.). 

Black Christmas is dark.  I don't want to beat around the bush on this one.  I am glad I didn't pick it for a watch party, because it's not... fun.  It's mostly just grim.  Surprisingly well made, effective, etc...  but sometimes I watch a movie and I'm kind of glad I don't need to worry about how Jamie was taking it in.* 

Our plot - as the fall semester ends and a sorority house wraps things up for the holidays, a murderous psycho (seen only in shadow, in glimpses and his own POV) finds an entrance to a sorority house by climbing the trellis to the attic window.  From there he is able to secretly descend into the house to make deeply obscene calls, listen to the girls and... pretty much immediately murder them one by one.

When it's discovered one of the girls has disappeared, a search begins around the college campus.  But the movie does make a point of how one bad desk sergeant can really screw things up.  

The movie, which had a $600K budget, has a weirdly all-star cast.  Olivia Hussey was coming off Romeo and Juliet, Keir Dullea - playing her boyfriend - had already been in 2001, Margot Kidder was a fresh face and she's frankly the best one in this movie.  And the great Andrea Martin plays a straight role as one of the sorority sisters.  John Saxon was the biggest names, playing a competent detective trying to work his own station and determine what happened to the missing girl.  

The obscene phone calls - based on the "the call is coming from inside the house" urban myth - are a fascinating bit of sound design.  It's not Ben Burtt, but the movie pulls no punches in the disgusting language, mixing voices and muddling the bits into an incomprehensible stream of profanity and vocal whines, screams and guttural noises.  As well as accusations that draw a picture of the killer getting closer.  

This film was before a killer needed a hook of a look - see: Michael Myers.  And we never see our guy, which as surprisingly effective tool.  Seeing him from a 3rd person perspective might demystify him, make him seem less wraith-like in the house.  Instead - when we aren't getting first person POV of what he sees, we get glimpses of an arm or a leg.  A shadow.  What he's left behind (including bodies).  

And the continual return to the body of the first murder victim is effective and unnerving.  Hey, English teachers, here's your example of dramatic irony!


And, of course, he's not caught.  Not in a "we shot Michael Myers five times and he walked away" way, but in that the cops get it wrong, leaving Hussey unconscious and vulnerable as they go about their business at film's end.  That's some true horror.

Look - I'm never going to forget when I was a kid growing up in Austin and a guy did, in fact, break into someone's house, spend the night in their attic and then attempted to murder the woman living there.  I fully buy the conceit that people can go for quite a while without knowing there's someone in their house.  

Of course, you can't not mention that this film came out before Halloween and is also about a psychopathic killer striking on a holiday.  Of course, Carpenter's innovation was showing the killer without ever really showing the killer - and playing with shadow like a madman.  While Clark's characters are *mostly* fully buyable - especially Kidder's drunken take - Halloween's Laurie Strode gives you someone to root for, and I'm not sure I wasn't kind of muttering that Olivia Hussey's character didn't make such idiotic choices in the film, she maybe didn't earn herself a trip to toe-tag city.  But - given what we know about people in crisis, maybe totally buyable?  YMMV.

There's minimal charm to show things taken away by the events of the film - an artifact of how quickly the first murder occurs.  But it's also just a very different film in a lot of ways.  It's never a "final girl" film - at least not for more than five minutes of the runtime.  The horror isn't just "whoops, killer in the closet"- it's as much the lack of awareness of our victims in the safety of their home and the exploitation of the weak points of trust and an environment where people generally do not worry about getting randomly murdered.  

I think this is a well-made movie!  I may watch it again!  But... it's not just horrific, it's depressing.  Which is a hell of a combo for a slasher pic.  

*Jamie is not a delicate flower, but I also know when we're watching something she'd just as soon not


Paul Toohey said...

There are some great features on the Blu-ray I have

There’s also pretty solid rumors Carpenter saw this and then borrowed heavily from it for Halloween.

The League said...

Yeah, sounds like the SHout Factory edition has literally all the stuff fans would want.

I have zero doubt that Halloween happened because Carpenter and team saw this movie.