Monday, November 26, 2012

Black Christmas (1974)

... aka: Noël tragique
... aka: Silent Night, Evil Night
... aka: Stop Me
... aka: Stranger in the House

Directed by:
Bob Clark

Depending on whether you believe "slasher," as a film categorization, applies only to post-HALLOWEEN films or not (many do), Black Christmas can either be seen as one of the most important slasher films of all time, or one of the most important proto-slashers (non-slashers that clearly influenced the later subgenre, i.e. Mario Bava's BAY OF BLOOD). Regardless of how you want to class it, it's well deserving of its reputation as a very good, highly influential film. The premise set down by writer Roy Moore is a rather simplistic one. Young women in a sorority house around Christmastime are harassed by an obscene phone caller who seems to be speaking in multiple voices and makes scary pig noises / crying sounds. Over the course of the next few days (while most of their house mates are gone on break), the caller gets inside, hides out in the attic and periodically sneaks downstairs to pick them off one by one. Just like with Carpenter's aforementioned genre-defining classic (which Christmas predates by four years), it's really the execution that makes the difference, not the plot.

Olivia Hussey (who was well-known for playing the female half of Franco Zefferelli's ROMEO AND JULIET [1968] at the time) gets star billing as nice sorority sister Jess. However, bucking the moralistic trend of later slasher flicks, this nice girl happens to be sexually active and plans on getting an abortion because she wants to sever ties with the potential father; intense and possibly unhinged music student Peter (Keir Dullea). The attempt to set up Peter as a possible suspect (the obscene caller makes abortion references and a silhouette of the killer has a similar hairstyle) is one aspect of Christmas that doesn't really work all that well. Since it's more of a mood piece than a traditional mystery, it's not even really important who the killer is; something the ambiguous ending just further accentuates. That also means we don't really care much about the multiple scenes set at the police station (where genre legend John Saxon oversees a rather inept investigation), as well as the parallel crime of a high school girl raped and murdered which may or may not be the work of the sorority house killer. Both of which just seem to distract attention away from where it should be.

There's a surprising amount of comedy here, which is effectively used to lighten the mood. Hussey and Dullea are adequate in their roles (though the way Hussey answers the phone [HELLO!! PARDON!! WHO!?!] has always driven me up the wall!), but the two most memorable characters are the ones used to provide much of the humor; ones played by Marian Waldman and Margot Kidder. Waldman's character Mrs. Mac is a drunken, vulgar house mother who hides bottles of booze throughout the sorority house in the strangest of places, including in a hollowed-out bible and in the back of a toilet! Kidder gives perhaps the film's best performance as a nasty, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking bitch who gives little kids alcohol and decides to tell a grieving father (James Edmond) whose daughter may be dead a story about going to the zoo to watch animals hump. Andrea Martin (then known for her comedic skills as part of SCTV but playing it completely straight here), Art Hindle (who later appeared in such highly-regarded genre films as the excellent remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and Cronenberg's THE BROOD), Lynne Griffin (from the slasher CURTAINS) and Nick Mancuso (who provided some of the telephone voices) round out a solid cast.

Director Bob Clark manages to provide several wonderfully-timed jump scares (particularly one where the killer's hand emerges from off-screen to grab Hussey by the hair), but much of the scare factor here actually comes in the form of eerie individual shots. Cinematographer Reginald H. Morris hardly ever seems to get credit for his work and for providing some of this film's very best moments. One of the key images here is one of the victims; mouth gaped open in shock from under plastic, sitting in a rocking chair in the attic and positioned in front of a window. The image is iconic not so much in what it technically is, but the way it looks because of how it's lit and photographed (using several different viewpoints from both inside and outside the home). Some of the film's creepiest moments are ones where only the killer's eye can be seen; before he makes use of a glass unicorn on a sleeping Kidder and peering from behind the door at Hussey right after she's discovered the bodies of several of her friends. These shots were obviously inspired by a similar shot in the suspense classic THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945) and they're used very well here. Cameraman Albert J. Dunk also did a great job with the killer POV shots, utilizing an over-the-shoulder harness to capture a jerky, creepy effect.

Some may feel my rating should be a notch higher, but this does miss the mark on true excellence by just a hair for me personally. Too many extraneous scenes - and too many unnecessary detours along the way - bog it down a little bit. They also don't help matters when it comes to re-watch value. Once you've seen the film a time or two and know where it's going you'll probably realize it. Still, the creepy moments retain every bit of their potentcy all of these years later and that's something to really be commended.

First released to U.S. theaters under the title Silent Night, Evil Night, the film underperformed at the box office until the title was changed back to Black Christmas. Bette Davis, Gilda Radner and Malcolm McDowell were all offered roles but each turned them down. Edmond O'Brien had to drop out of the role Saxon ended up playing due to illness.

The 2006 "remake" of Christmas (directed by Glen Morgan) didn't even bother trying to be suspenseful, atmospheric or scary and just went straight for gore and camp. It's already forgotten.



crow said...

I plan to watch this yet again this December as I will Silent Deadly Night 1&2 and You Better Watch Out/Christmas Evil. I'm a big, big fan of this one. I gave it my highest rating because of many of the scenes you screen cap for your review. I think many have a hard time grading it high because of the humor. This is a dark-humored film. I appreciate that. The remake, well the less said about that the better, but I think I might review it for my blog if so inclined. I have Silent Night, Bloody Night in this "Haunted Houses" set (not sure why, but I remember watching it that year I bought it and the movie surprised me) I picked up cheap several years ago. I am surprised you watched it in November instead of just waiting a few weeks later.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

I may be a little too hard on this one when it comes to the rating. I'm actually thinking about revamping my entire ratings system since I rarely ever rate anything above 3 stars how I have it set up now.

Figured I'd get a jump start on these Christmas horrors a few weeks early! I also plan on watching the first three Silent Night, Deadly Nights, as well as Christmas Evil (which I really liked last time) and a few others. Just recently watched a rare one called 'Family Reunion' (1989) that's set on Xmas Eve, as well.

crow said...

Christmas Evil arrived in the mail from netflix just this morning, cap. It has become my favorite of the 80s horror. I had watched David Hess' Christmas horror a couple years ago, but it was a rather disappointing affair. He held back which surprised me. I should probably give it a reassessment, though.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Christmas Evil is one of my favorites as well. I remember back in the day on IMDb it seemed like nearly everyone hated it and I always defended it. Part of the problem was that people expected an Xmas slasher like Silent Night, Deadly Night because of the marketing and instead got a black comedy / psychological horror that was low on violence. Either way, I think its one of the best holiday horrors. I hope to watch it myself this month!

Anonymous said...

Oh Black Christmas remake, everyone hates you but me...

Anyways, nice review.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Thanks. I may try to re-watch the BC remake here soon and give it a second shot now that I know what I'm in for.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...