Terrifying Tuesday: Black Christmas (1974)

black_christmasWith only two days until Christmas to go, I just couldn’t hold this picture back any longer. I had originally planned to roll this out on Friday for the last leg of Feature Presentation and to tie in with that wacky Canadian holiday, Boxing Day, but with the holidays almost in full swing and lots of stuff to do this week, I decided to go ahead and do this one before Christmas so I can take Friday off to rest and revel in the many many movies I hope Santa brings me.

Tonight I bring you the third feature from Bob Clark. He had begun his career in 1972 with the dreadful Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and then redeemed himself with the stunning Deathdream the year after. 1974 saw him make perhaps his most influential work in the horror genre. It was a film which became a big hit in Canada and Europe, but didn’t really catch on here until later. Perhaps because it was retitledSilent Night, Evil Night because Warner Brothers thought people would think it was blaxploitation if they released it as….

Black Christmas (1974) starring Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Olivia Hussey, and Andrea Martin. Directed by Bob Clark.

a-new-black-christmas-black_christmas-16It’s Christmas time in the sorority house, and there’s a swinging party going on. Everyone is having a great time until they get another call from “The Moaner”. The call seems like a typical dirty phone call, but it soon takes a dark turn as the caller begins to screech wildly and threatens to kill Barb (Kidder). The girls don’t think much of it, and the house good girl Claire goes upstairs to pack. Unfortunately for her a killer is laying in wait and smothers her to death with a dry cleaning bag. He drags her corpse into the house’s attic and dumps it in a rocking chair with her lifeless eyes looking out the window.

houseWith the girls coming and going to holiday activities, it isn’t noticed that Claire is missing until her father shows up to pick her up. Barb, Phillis (Martin) and Jess (Hussey) hunt around for her, but they come up empty. They try to report her missing to the police, but they are not taken seriously. Soon more of the girls begin to lose their lives and Detective Fuller (Saxon) is called in on the case. Fuller devises a scheme to trace “The Moaner’s” phone call if Jess can keep him on the line long enough, but when the calls come from closer then they expected will any of the girls live to see Christmas morning?

Film Facts

a-old-black-christmas-5903preston-sturges
–The point of view shots were accomplished by a shoulder mounted camera rig. It was the first of it’s kind and devised especially for this film.

–The film was filled with roles that almost went to someone else. The role of Phillis was offered to Gilda Radner, Jess’ boyfriend Philip was offered to Malcolm McDowell, and the house mother Mrs. Mac was offered to Betty Davis.

–Andrea Martin returned in the 2006 remake in the role of the house mother.

–Composer Carl Zittrer said in an interview that he created the bizarre music score for the film by tying forks, combs, and knives to the strings of his piano so the sound would warp as he struck the keys. Zittrer also said he would distort the sound further by recording audio tape while putting pressure on the reels of the machine to make it turn slower. He was also instrumental in getting John Saxon involved in the film.

The Bug Speaks

This is a flick that really hit the spot. It was exactly what I was looking for in a Christmas horror flick. It was well acted, atmospheric, well paced, brilliantly shot, and an all around good time. Perhaps Christmas was more incidental than in some of the other flicks that I’ve watched for the season. After all there seems to be no reason it couldn’t have been Black Easter or Black Arbor Day. So while Christmas holds no special meaning in the film, it is chilling to consider these murders happening over the festive season.

black_lung_christmasThere’s a lot to love about the actors in this flick. Margot Kidder seems a bit like you might imagine her Lois Lane character would have been in college. She’s a foul mouthed, chain smoking, alcoholic, and there’s never a time in the flick that you think she could be anything but. Olivia Hussey perhaps best known for her role in the perennial high school mainstay Romeo and Juliet is very lovely as our heroine. It was a bit surprising to me to see her become the main character as I had assumed Kidder would become the survivor archetype. John Saxon is solid as always. There’s just not a flick out there that couldn’t do with some more of The Saxon in it.  SCTV alum Andrea Martin is thoroughly convincing as the nerdy girl, but I was equally surprised that she didn’t have a single humorous line in the whole flick.
The real star of the film is the look. The direction from Clark and cinematography from Albert J. Dunk and Reg Morris set the groundwork for films like Halloween and Friday the 13th to follow. The point of view shots are masterfully done, and the fact that you are never given more than a fleeting glimpse at the killer makes the whole eerie motif just that much stronger. Surely these guys had been influenced by late ’60’s Italian cinema, but they took from that and gave the world something entirely new in the birth of the classic slasher.

black-christmas-eyeIt is arguable that there is no better slasher than the mysterious man in Black Christmas. Unlike Freddy, Jason, or Michael we never learn his motivations, never see his face, never hear him utter a pithy quip before dispatching his victims. Instead we are left to wonder who this psychotic bastard is and what he wants with these girls. In an era where films have no idea how to “show don’t tell” this is a master class in how to set up an audience to be as frightened as your characters.

Now Bob Clark would go on to direct Porky’s, Rhinestone, uhh Baby Geniuses, and of course The Christmas Story, but he would never venture into the realms of horror again.  In a way that’s unfortunate seeing as out of his 3 entries into the genre at least two are classic, groundbreaking films (and then there’s Children Shouldn’t). However seeing as he went on to direct perhaps the most enduring classic of Christmas cinema, I suppose he gets a pass. I’m just waiting on the day when a  network programs Black Christmas on a 24 hour loop on Christmas Day. This film truly does stand atop the heap of Yuletide Terrors and gets the highest marks from the Bug.