Part of why I enjoy doing this is to learn stuff at the same time as giving you, dear reader, a few interesting tidbits too. While I’d heard of “Black Christmas” before, it was pretty much exclusively as a proto-slasher, that occasionally some smug reviewer would say “well, actually Halloween wasn’t the first, blah blah blah”. I may be lazy, poor at checking details, and prone to crowbarring my own stupid theories into reviews, but I try very hard not to be smug, so with that in mind our Christmas season rolls around to this, and the discovery that it’s really nothing like your stereotypical slasher movie.
I think “Black Christmas” should join those select few movies which are great, and are set at Christmas without being about Christmas (“Die Hard”, all the Shane Black movies, if you’re feeling generous “Silent Night Deadly Night 2”). Our base of operations is a sorority house, with a few fairly big names of the future in early roles – Margot Kidder as sarcastic drunk Barb, and Olivia Hussey as Jess, the sensible heroine who provides this movie with a surprising amount of feminism. Keir Dullea, famous from “2001: A Space Odyssey”, shows up to play Jess’s douchebag boyfriend, and John Saxon’s a cop. Also, we nearly got Gilda Radner, but she got the “Saturday Night Live” job and had to pull out of this, so in the end we got Andrea Martin, who was also in 1973’s “Cannibal Girls”, which we really liked, before going on herself to a comedy career with “SCTV”.
So, it’s Christmas, and the sorority is getting quieter as most of the girls have gone home to their families, until the end of the final party of the year, when their friendly neighbourhood heavy breather gives them a call. The phone calls are a masterpiece of sound-work, full of inhuman moans and screams and snippets of speech that sound like they’re coming from all sorts of different people, and they quite legitimately frighten the life out of the sorority girls (apart from Barb, who’s too permanently soused to be bothered by much of anything). Barb loses her patience with the caller, after he starts talking about rather sexual matters, and when she starts mocking him back, he says “I’m going to kill you all” and hangs up. Whether he makes good on his promise is a conundrum I shall leave unanswered, because I cannot recommend this film highly enough and want you to watch it.
Everything is slow and deliberate, with the phone calls, the murders, and the attempts to trace the calls all being given ample space to breathe. Bob Clark directed, and looking back at his career he made some really good movies (early in his career, admittedly) – “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things”, “A Christmas Story”, “Dead Of Night”…and “Porky’s”. Some of the shots are wonderful, especially the final journey through the house, and Clark deserves credit for fighting with the studio over the ending, rejecting their ideas in favour of the much better ambiguous ending we were left with.
He also deserves credit for the portrayal of Jess. When her boyfriend says he’s dropping out of school and that they should get married, she says no because she has hopes and dreams of her own; also, she’s pregnant and decides to have an abortion. I can’t imagine a movie being made today where the heroine makes that decision and doesn’t get punished for it, so it feels weirdly modern, but a nice version of modern, not the right-wing hell we’re currently living through.
It’s also edited wonderfully. Dullea was only available for a week, and barely met any of the rest of the cast, but the way his scenes are placed throughout the movie makes him seem much more central than he was. The regular cuts back to the rocking chair, and what’s in the rocking chair, is some of the blackest humour imaginable – there’s some proper comedy too, like the scene at the kids’ Christmas party that the sorority organises. And even more credit, this time to the cinematographer Albert Dunk, who fashioned a harness so he could get some of those extremely creepy POV shots.
So, really, I’ve not got anything bad to say about this movie. It’s slow, but actually the pace works in its favour as the fabric of the movie (script, acting, sets) is so strong that you’re not waiting for the next set piece. The murders happen largely off screen, but again when the movie is good you don’t need those shocks to keep the audience interested. It’s a whodunit without an obvious answer, and even goes as far as killing a 13 year old girl (off screen, naturally). How many movies made in 2015 would introduce a kid only to kill her off? Horror is a pretty conservative business these days, and even though the effects are better they’re often far gorier, they still feel more sanitized.
So, all in all, this is a very creepy, very good movie. I’m even looking forward to watching the modern remake, and they’re always rotten, so that tells you how much goodwill the original has built up. This could be my favourite Christmas horror movie yet, and if you get the chance give it a go.
Rating: thumbs up