Monday, February 15, 2010

Black Christmas (1974)

by Chad "I Am Not Dreaming of a White Christmas" Eagleton

Bob Clark’s name may not mean anything to you. But you know his work. There was a time when HBO or SkinaMax aired the shit out of Porky’s. And unless your parents were too cheap for premium channels or, like me, you grew up in the sticks before cheap cable, there’s no way you made it through December without seeing at least five minutes of A Christmas Story.

But Clark’s real impact lies in another Christmas tale. Black Christmas set the stage for the slasher films to follow. If you haven’t seen it (though please, please skip the unnecessary remake), you’ll still recognize the set-up.

A sorority house Christmas party. A stranger climbs through the attic window. A phone call all heavy breathing quickly turns creepy and menacing.

One of the girls goes upstairs to pack as the party hits full swing. No one hears her murder. And later, when they began searching for her, none of them knows that she’s rotting in the attic. The attic where the Killer, who refers to himself as “Billy,” makes his lair.

That’s right…he’s in the house and, like everything of any real worth, this premise will get ripped off by cheap imitators.

The set-up, however, doesn’t make the film. Clark’s directing is so well done, unless you’re someone who pays close attention to credits, you probably won’t associate this film with Porky’s or A Christmas Story. Four years later, Carpenter would use widescreen in Halloween for the horror of The Shape—giving every corner, nook, cranny and shadow menace. Clark takes a different route, shooting Christmas in tight close-ups. Even the shots leading out into a hallway, or up the stairs, are at these angles that make everything seem narrow and cramped. The film is claustrophobic. As the minutes tick away, the girls’ home becomes a coffin.

Christmas walks the line that, unless we’re dealing with the outright supernatural, barely separates horror from thriller. Billy doesn’t wear a mask. Clark manages to conceal his identity in a series of trick shots that somehow doesn’t feel like cheating and adds to the creepiness. The question of Billy’s identity serves as a plot point and furthers the suspense. While searching for the missing girl, their numbers dwindling, all eyes turn suspiciously to the male characters.

The cast is classic. There’s the lovely Olivia Hussey, whom you’ll recognize from that version of Romeo & Juliet you watched in English class and actually paid attention to because you had heard there were bare boobs. Margot Kidder looks pretty damn hot in this one. Far better than she ever did later as Superman’s love interest. You might remember Andrea Martin from SCTV, while Lynne Griffin acted in a different classic—Strange Brew. For the male roles, you have Dave “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” Bowman and John Saxon, who seemed to be in everything ever made for at least a decade.

Unless you haven’t taken your Ritalin, the pacing is good. Quick enough to keep boredom at bay, but slow enough to build suspense. Fans of the plotless gore porn Hollywood now calls horror will probably be bored since cheap buckets of blood don’t try to hide the lack of script or make up for the lack of real horror. Like I said, the women are attractive, but if you’re socially retarded and seek out these torture-fests as replacement for real-life conversations with women, you should probably skip it.

But none of that is the real strength of this film. Its resonance comes from a very simple idea that’s been forgotten. The true horror in watching someone murdered on screen only comes through attachment. All too often in the latter films of the slasher genre, the victims are cardboard and ripped to pieces just as easily. Without a sense of identity, without the sense that this girl who just got ran through with a fireplace poker has a name, a personality, and loved ones there is no attachment from the audience. Without attachment, there is no sense of reality. The whole purpose of this brand of horror is then undercut and reduced to the punch of sixth graders playing, “What’s grosser than gross?” Even the first victim, killed at the very beginning of the film, achieves a life beyond a scream and a gurgle. Her father won’t stop searching for her. Her sorority sisters can’t just let her go.

In a lesson Rob Zombie would do well to learn, Olivia Hussey’s character is even given an entire subplot involving an unintended pregnancy. All the girls of Black Christmas are actual characters and not just big breasted bimbos jiggling toward the next novelty death. You’ll have a scene of suspense, or just a scene to deliver a plot point, also giving characterization.

Every year someone mentions how the spirit of Christmas has been ruined. They don’t know how right they are.