Black Christmas (Review)

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BLACK CHRISTMAS

THE SETUP

This is a review for the 1974 Horror/Slasher film “Black Christmas”, Written by Roy Moore, Directed by Bob Clark. Black Christmas is about a group of sorority sisters, led by Jess (Olivia Hussey), who amidst preparing for the holiday festivities, begin receiving threatening phone calls from a mysterious stalker. The other sorority sisters are Margot Kidder, playing “Barb”, Andrea Martin as “Phyl”, Lynne Griffin as “Clare” and Marian Waldman plays “Mrs Mac”, the director. The film also stars Keir Dullea, John Saxon (A Nightmare On Elm St.) and Art Hindle (The Brood). These days it’s all too rare I end up seeing an original film before its inevitable remake, however, Black Christmas was an exception to the rule. I’ve had both the 1974 film, as well as Glen Morgan’s 2006 remake, for a while now, so I thought I’d do things the right way and watch Clark’s original film first and boy am I glad I did. This isn’t a review for the 2006 film but what I will say is everything that was right about this film was completely wrong with its remake. Keep in mind, anyone that knows me knows I’m pro remake so it’s got nothing to do with just being a modern adaption. Picture seeing a local band cover songs from your favourite artists but they leave out the hooks that made the song so great in the first place. That would be Black Christmas (2006) any who…. on with the review shall we?

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THE GOOD

Black Christmas is one of those low-budget (relatively speaking), genre specific films that no one would have seen making an impact long-term, especially not back in 74′. It was a time when people had no idea where the genre would end up. This is a film that was way ahead of its time, in both technical presentation and its bold approach to the stalker plight. Before the early 70’s the only thing you had in the way of horror, or more precisely “slashers”, were your murder mystery films known as “Giallo’s”. The term was coined for European pictures that centered around a who dunnit narrative. Filmmakers like Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace), Dario Argento (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage) and Lucio Fulci (The Black Cat) shaped the genre and dedicated their body of work to the specific style. All through the 50’s and 60’s it was really only Hitchcock primarily associated with horror. It wasn’t until John Carpenter’s 1978 film, “Halloween” that audiences were truly introduced to the world of a “slasher”, or so they thought. Black Christmas, along with Tobe Hooper’s, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, were both released in the same year but it’s only now people realize the impact they had on shaping modern horror. This would have to be the earliest Christmas themed horror film (as far as I recall) and what a great premise it was.

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The opening sequence of Clark’s film is one of the best in the genre (compare it to say, Scream). The opening frames are a lingering wide shot of a sorority house lit up like the fourth of July. Following that, two scenes inter cut between a group of girls inside the house and someone beginning to approach the front windows and peer in, eventually settling on the side of the house as they scale the barrier to gain entry. Clark’s film might very well be the first to have utilized the POV (point of view) technique. It’s a fantastic method that most people thought was first established in Carpenter’s, Halloween which was clearly not the case. Unfortunately it’s seen as a bit of a gimmick these days but make no mistake about it, Carpenter’s opening scene with Michael Myers was heavily influenced (whether intended or not) by Black Christmas. You’re constantly wondering where the killer is, much like you do with Myers in Halloween, Is he in the house? Has he left already? A lot of the shot choices plod in order to build the tension, which the film does nicely. The aerial shots, up and down through the hatch to the attic, are among some of the best shots in the film. The most iconic scene being one eye peaking through the gap of a door, really creepy stuff. The audio levels are nice and clear and the mix of rumbling bass and clattery sound effects, drive the suspense during all the stalking sequences.

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The leading performances from actresses Olivia Hussey and Andrea Martin were really good. If you go back and watch a lot of these older films, particularly ones from the 70’s and 80’s, the standard of acting is quite inconsistent, that’s not the case in Clark’s film. John Saxon and Marian Waldman don’t feature quite as heavily but their time on-screen is still important, although Saxon more so. Mrs Mac was a bit of a dag, like an Aunt you might have that occasionally gets inappropriate at a family dinner. She was an entertaining character and Marian played her well. As for John Saxon, this was a decade before his role in Wes Craven’s, “A Nightmare On Elm St.” but he’s very well suited to play a police officer. His dialogue was well delivered and the scene in the station with Sargent Nash (played by Doug McGrath) was quite funny. The two are discussing the address and zip code notes Nash has taken down for the sorority house. Although the comedy is a little odd in its timing, you still need it to give the audience a release. The body count isn’t huge but there’s the inclusion of an early kill and a tension filled final showdown between the intruder and Jess. There’s enough here for fans to enjoy and I thought the second action sequence was definitely the highlight, particularly in the way it was cut and edited together.

THE BAD

Although most of technical facets in Black Christmas are good, there’s a couple of scenes with focus issues from the lens. Parts of the stalker’s dialogue while he’s on the phone were a bit crass, I understand that’s kind of the point but we don’t really need countless C bombs to convey his seedy and fanatic state of mind. His sexual comments and the tone of his voice got the point across sufficiently. Characters are guilty of some unnecessary rhetorical dialogue throughout the film as well. Obviously it was in the script but when they’re constantly making sure the audience knows what they’re thinking at all times, it gets a little tedious. Some of the secondary actors/actresses performances were sub-par. Margot Kidder has an exaggerated drunken rambling that felt a bit forced, Art Hindle seemed disinterested and James Edmond’s character “Mr Harrison”, served no purpose being in the film. His presence didn’t add anything crucial to the story and he wasn’t there to be part of the body count either. Keir Dullea as “Peter”, fell in and out of character throughout the film and tried his best to make himself look guilty, so that wasn’t a great piece of writing. I also found it hard to believe the intruder could throw their voice so successfully and make it sound like multiple personalities. In regard to the persistent phone calls and looming threat to the sorority sisters, the police seemed quite blase’ about the whole thing, the girls too. They never scout the premises thoroughly, they fail to check the attic, the basement and even the bedrooms (which I find a bit of a stretch). A big risk for the stalker to take given the evidence was basically in plain sight.

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I thought some good ole’ fashioned holiday music might have fit nicely into the film but Clark never followed through. Having now seen several Christmas themed films in the genre, I think it’s fairly textbook but something I like to hear all the same. The execution of the kills, and or action sequences are pretty good but I would’ve liked to have seen a higher body count and more in the way of blood and gore. I suppose that’s often a gripe I have with modern horror movies as well, so I can’t be harsh specifically on Black Christmas but the payoff from the suspense isn’t quite there. I thought the identity of the mysterious stalker was pretty obvious, I picked it shortly into the second act which kind of spoilt things a bit. With that being said, there’s a couple of somewhat pointless red herrings that take away from the impact of the ending. Clark leaves plenty of things to the imagination and ambiguity plays its part to a degree, especially in the last revelation. All the evidence from what you see leads to one conclusion and one conclusion only, yet it’s not really what you end up with which was disappointing. I enjoyed and respected the original part of the ending, even with it being very predictable. The second twist definitely feels tacked on, as if these guys were hoping to tell another part of the story in a sequel when it works perfectly as just one film.

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Black Christmas feels like that forgotten slasher of the 70’s. It flew under the radar, given everything that came around that time or after was either made on a bigger budget or more commercially successful. Clark’s film has to be one of the first of its kind, especially with the holiday themed setting. It’s clear that some of the technical aspects in relation to building suspense, where way ahead of their time. The POV (point of view) camera work and tight unique shot choices make this a very effective slasher film. The audio is clear and the jangled sound effects  help maintain the tension during the action sequences. The performances by Hussey and Saxon are among the film’s strongest and the pacing is good too. Even though the kills aren’t graphic, they’re cut and edited nicely and this will probably go down as one of the earliest horror films to pull off such an iconic and original death (you only need look at the poster to see how it happens). I was hoping for a few more Christmas nods and better specifics in the dialogue. The police needed to take the situation seriously and follow protocol in order to be fully believed. The secondary performances are rather uneven and I felt the original revelation at the end was better than what the film ends up closing on. If you’re looking for a well made, old school slasher that beats the remake, Black Christmas is well worth a watch.

My rating for “Black Christmas” is 6.5/10

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