December 21, 2009

Black Christmas (1974)

FILMMAKER BOB CLARK IS PROBABLY most well-known as the director of the holiday classic A Christmas Story (1983). But a decade earlier, he also directed another yuletide favorite among film buffs: the seminal slasher Black Christmas.

Plot:
As a college sorority house empties for Christmas break, the remaining sisters must suffer the disturbing rants of an obscene caller. Meanwhile, a madman breaks into the attic of the house and starts picking off the sisters one by one. In addition, sorority sister Jess (Romeo & Juliet’s Olivia Hussey) must deal with her pregnancy by boyfriend Peter (2001’s Keir Dullea) and considers an abortion (which Peter opposes).

Critique:
Before dying in a car crash in 2007, Clark arguably created classics in three different genres: holiday (A Christmas Story), teen sex comedy (Porky’s), and with Black Christmas, horror.

Clark relies largely on sound (or lack of it) to ratchet up the film’s tension:
  • The obscene calls: a nightmarish medley of giggling, hissing, screaming, and wailing – with mentions of “Billy” and “Agnes” and what sounds like different voices of a man, woman, and child
  • Beyond church bells and Christmas carolers, Clark uses virtually no musical score except for a dull, rippling echo at key points in the film
  • The silence in many scenes, where lesser filmmakers would shove in an overdramatic score, is completely unnerving

Of course, what’s seen is just as terrifying:
  • It’s one of the first slasher films to use generous point-of-view of the killer (four years before Halloween)
  • The recurring scene of first victim Claire (Lynne Griffin), suffocated by a dry cleaning bag and propped in a rocking chair in the attic as the killer’s first trophy
  • An unsettling killing inside the sorority house, interspersed with child carolers singing right outside the front door
  • A glimpse of the killer near the end that I won’t spoil here (though it’s now kind of synonymous with the film)

The sorority house is its own character, with long hallways, ornate wood railings, and stairways and hallways with sharp turns or dimly lit ends – preventing the viewer from seeing what (or who) might be around the corner or hiding in the darkness.

Black Christmas also includes a twist near the end that’s become a clichéd horror punchline, but one that originated here and still gives a shiver when revealed. And the final tracking shot, silent except for the ticking of a grandfather clock, is as scary as anything that came earlier in the film.
 

If you’re a horror fan, you owe it to yourself to see Black Christmas. It’s a great slasher film that’s largely forgotten or underappreciated outside of fans of the genre. It also has one of the greatest taglines ever: “If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl…it’s on too tight!” Well, it did make my skin crawl – then it crawled under my crawling skin and has stayed there ever since.

Tidbits:
  • Hussey’s sorority sisters include Margot Kidder (Superman II) as the resident boozehound, plus SCTV’s Andrea Martin.
  • Hussey would revisit horror several years later, playing Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho IV (1990).
  • Regarding the jarring “echo” sound mentioned earlier: Composer Carl Zittrer created the score by tying forks, combs, and knives to the strings of his piano so the sound would warp as he struck the keys. He distorted the sound further by putting pressure on the reels of his audio tape machine to make it turn slower. (Source: IMDb)
 
Rating:

Will your kids want to watch it?
Very little blood is actually spilled in Black Christmas, but there so many other elements to scare (and scar) young viewers: The creepy and highly obscene phone calls, the long shots of empty and foreboding hallways, the images of the victims…it’s a formula that’s highly likely to ruin what is probably your kids’ most beloved holiday. In short, keep it away from children, but teens (and maybe tweens, your call) should find it to be enjoyably terrifying.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If you can convince her to watch it, Black Christmas may be an opportunity for her to snuggle closer to you during the holiday season. Did I say “snuggle?” I meant, “cling tightly in fear.”

"Y'know, I wouldn't have to scream like a maniac
if you'd put the phone to your ear..."



Buy Black Christmas at Half.com (DVD) >>
Rent Black Christmas from Netflix >>

6 comments:

Geof said...

Eric, this movie is one of my favorites to watch around the holidays as a horror fan. You definitely hit all the high points. The calls totally deliver the creep out factor and I like that you included the suffocation screen cap.

BTW - Stay far away from the remake!!

Jeff Allard said...

Awesome analysis of one of the best horror movies ever! It may be thrity five years old (!) but BC is still terrifying. Happy Holidays, FF!

rob! said...

Any 70s movie with Margot Kidder is worth watching, at least once.

Has any filmmaker had a more diverse filmography than Bob Clark?

wiec? said...

way to get in the spirit FF!

the tidbit about the spoons in the piano etc. were waaaay great. Have a Merry merry and a Happy New happy!

Raymond said...

Your review alone scared me away from watching this movie. JK! Happy Holidays!

movie forums said...

It's best if you watch this film alone in a quiet house at night during the Christmas season. I did that the second time I watched it. I tell you the truth, I had a hard time walking downstairs to go to the bathroom I was so scared.

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