Saturday, October 5, 2013

Because I'm Not Ignorant: BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

Black Christmas
Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon
Rated: R

Agnes, It's Billy, don't tell what we did!

What are we doing here?  Going back 4 years?  Yes.  This film should be given some respects.  While I think Halloween is the film responsible for "getting it down" or "nailing it" or whatnot, Black Christmas could indeed count as the first real slasher film.  It does and doesn't fit the whole mold.  But at the same time, this really is a fantastic little thriller, that if you haven't seen it, I think you should go back and give it a shot.  The film features some inventive kills and humor that actually gets you laughing out loud pretty good.

While Black Christmas may be able to claim "first", most people never saw it.  Halloween was the little film that picked up steam and scared the world.  Black Christmas was a Canadian film that got a smaller release, came and went.  It wasn't until after the slasher boom of the early 1980s and also the rise of VHS that people were able to go back and see it.  It then gained a lot more popularity and cult status and people were able to be surprised something like this existed prior to 1978.

And then came the late Bob Clark's little tale.  He would attend screenings and meet fans and such and share a story seems to be him mistaken or is a fabrication maybe due to some jealousy over Halloween being a bigger success than his film and receiving tons of accreditation for creating the slasher genre.  Clark touted that after Black Christmas came out he met a young man by the name of John Carpenter that was a huge fan of the film.  He claims the man said that Clark should make a sequel to it.  And if he did he proposed that this time the killer struck on Halloween and the movie should be called as such.  Cue hammy mug toward the audience.  I do believe Carpenter drew some inspiration from Black Christmas with Halloween, the first scene in the film says as much.  However, Carpenter didn't come up with the basis for the film.  It was producer Irwin Yablans that came up with the general premise of a man with a knife stalking and killing babysitters.  It was titled The Babysitter Murders going into preproduction.  And then later on, it was Yablans again that came and gave the title Halloween.  So, I really don't know if you can really take too much to home with Clark's tale.
Clark shouldn't have gloated like that.  He made damn fine slasher film.  The film boasts very rich character work and logical motivations, complete with legitimate red herrings.  It borrows the whole "caller in the house" urban legend and does the concept miles better than the latter When A Stranger Calls would (although the opening scene in that movie is dynamite).  The cast here is colorful and fun.  This is my favorite all time performance of Margot Kidder.  She's an absolute riot as the nasty loudmouth drunk Barb.  And she's not in the "I can't wait til that bitch gets it" type role either, you actually enjoy her presence because of the humor she brings.  The only cast member that I think is weak is our "final" girl, played by every middle school youth boys' first set of boobs seen in school, Olivia Hussey (it seemed in my generation we all had to sit through her in Romeo & Juliet in which she went topless and it was a big deal to us middle school guys).  Hussey just doesn't come across as likeable.  I like the character and I really think the abortion dilemma subplot is fantastic, she's just not coming across as sympathetic or moreso likeable.  
The film surprisingly finds itself a fine amount of humor that actually works.  There are as many laughs, if not more, as tense moments in the film.  If more people had seen this movie and it been a hit, I really could see this thing being one of the more quotable films of all time.  Like I said before, Margot Kidder steals this movie.  If you were ever on the fence with her, or don't care for her (yet still sat through 4 Superman films), check this film out and maybe you'll see why I've always kinda liked her.  The police even get to have some fun here.  And the killer is so raunchy at times, its comes off as both creepy as hell and also a little bit funny sometimes.
The film isn't directed near as well as Halloween, but that doesn't mean it's any sort of slouch.  The bag over the head kill has become pretty iconic.  There's also the POV shots with breathing, where Halloween ribs most.  I really like the almost "clean grindhouse" aesthetic the film has.  There's a level of comfort I get when I see films that look like this.  The script is also pretty smart too.  The police aren't dummies (well, one gets a gag pulled on him, but when it comes to his job its different).  They also put out a missing persons search almost immediately.  The red herrings are present without being super obvious that that's what the script is trying to set up.  And then it has a wonderfully creepy ambiguous ending to boot.
Black Christmas is in my all time favorite slasher films.  Its largely bloodless, but plays in suspense and mystery.  One of its larger triumphs is that it tells jokes that are actually funny.  It also has deep, rounded characters, that even the most one note stereotype seems wealthy in details.  If you like Halloween or really the golden age slasher films, go back and check this one out.  Because its better than a lot of those.  And yes, I'll agree, it was first in what it was doing.  But it wasn't the best ;)

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