Monday, December 24, 2007

Classic Slasher Commentary: Black Christmas

*Note: Once in awhile, I re-discover a long-forgotten slasher gem. Recently, after exchanging some emails with a fellow slasher fan and reviewer known as BQueen in Internet circles, I realized that I had overlooked an important entry in the slasher genre. So, in what will periodically be an annotation on one of these forgotten jewels, I give you the first installment of Classic Slasher Commentary.

Long before Michael Myers donned a William Shatner mask or Jason Voorhees slipped on his hockey mask, there was Billy from a little Canadian slasher film called Black Christmas. Yet despite the fact that this effective Yuletide slasherfest actually pre-dated John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years, it would be the latter film that was widely credited as ushering in the golden era of slasher films of the 1980’s. Now, with a special-edition DVD and a slick remake, it’s time to debunk that myth and give Black Christmas the credit it rightfully deserves as the first modern slasher.

Although Black Christmas was released in US theaters on December 20, 1974 amidst the type of public outcry from conservative groups that usually bodes well for box office success, the film tanked domestically; it wouldn’t be until subsequent late-night cable TV runs that American audiences would get their first nibble of this tasty holiday treat. Boasting a nifty tagline (If this film doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight.) and what would become the formulaic plot of the cavalcade of slashers that followed, Black Christmas told the simple and chilling tale of sorority sisters menaced by an obscene caller before being picked off one by one by an unseen assailant camped out in the attic of their sorority house during the holiday break. With menacing phone calls, missing coeds, and creepy shots of rocking chair corpses juxtaposed against strings of bright Christmas lights, snowy landscapes, and cozy fireplaces, Black Christmas uses the oft-contradictory feelings of holiday jocularity and melancholy to achieve a taut, suspenseful moviegoing experience that was well ahead of its time.

Director Bob Clark, whose eclectic career included the zombie chillers Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Deathdream, the raunchy teen makeout comedies Porky’s and Porky’s II: The Next Day, and the sentimental holiday classic A Christmas Story, doesn’t get nearly the credit of his successors in creating the prototype slasher film. Many of the slasher conventions that were later played out and credited to other films actually originated in Clark’s film. Cases in point include the goosebumps-inducing “The-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house” twist - erroneously credited as the genius of 1979’s When a Stranger Calls - and the POV shot at the beginning of the film as the killer spies on the party-going coeds and climbs a trellis outside the sorority house - touted as inventive when Carpenter used the same technique at the beginning of his Halloween.

What sets Black Christmas apart from the films that followed, however, is the depth of the narrative – both in terms of characterization and as reflected in many of the film’s technical aspects. The film is more than ditzy, oversexed sorority gals going off alone to meet a gory demise; in fact, the violence of Black Christmas is more implied than seen, aided greatly by a sparse piano-laden score by Carl Zittrer and the tension-filled camera work of cinematographer Reg Morris, who favors tight shots of the killer, usually fragments – an eye here, a silhouette there – establishing a throat-tightening sense of claustrophobia. That idea of Billy’s fractured mind is further explored in the increasingly menacing phone calls he makes to the girls, in which he speaks in several different voices – lending itself to the idea of multiple personalities while also teasing viewers with the slightest glimpse of back story. The aforementioned dichotomy of Christmas coziness contrasted sharply against the bleakness of the film’s violence also lends an unparalleled atmospheric tension to the film, as in the harrowing scenes where viewers are witness to alternating shots of the brutal stabbing death of one of the coeds and holiday carolers singing in angelic unison downstairs from where she is being killed.

Screenwriter Roy Moore’s script reflects the feminism movement of the time, with gender politics playing an integral part in the characterization of the female leads. Jess (Olivia Hussey) is facing an unwanted pregnancy and contemplating abortion, a radical concept in film considering that the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade court ruling preceded the film by a mere year. Further analysis of the religious subtext of the abortion subplot reveals that the film carries a heavy metaphorical implication for women who chose the then-new legal alternative of abortion. In his excellent analysis of the film, Classic-Horror reviewer Chris Justice points to the overt Christian symbolism sprinkled throughout the film, most notably the crucifix that Jess wears around her neck directly above her heart, reminding us of the mortal sin she is committing against the Christian faith. In this context, Justice points out that her unborn fetus is in many ways a fetal savior figure not being born, which is perhaps why this Christmas is black. Heavy stuff for a genre that would later boil down the morality angle to the much simpler sex + drugs = death formula. The other sorority sisters also reflect the feminist archetypes of the time - outspoken, sexually-liberated, intellectual, independent – with an above-average cast of fully developed characters including Barb (played with drunken glee by a pre-Superman Margot Kidder), the intellectual, prudish Phyllis (played by future SCTV funny lady Andrea Martin), and independent Clare (played by Lynne Griffin, who would later find herself on the other end of the knife in the underrated Curtains).

A few good men and a funny lady round out the cast of characters, with a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street John Saxton playing Lieutenant Fuller, Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) as Peter, Jess’ boyfriend who’s tortured over her abortion decision to the point of making red herring threats, Art Hindle (The Brood, Invasion of the Body Snatchers ’78, and TV’s Dallas) as Chris, Clare’s good guy boyfriend (check out the groovy fur coat he wears in several scenes!), and the late veteran Canadian stage actress Marian Waldman, who gives an uproarious performance as the girl’s boozy, kind-hearted house mother (In a clever nod to fans of the original film, Andrea Martin assumed this role in the upcoming remake.).

Time has been kind to Black Christmas, with more and more slasher fans joining the chorus of voices proclaiming Clark’s masterpiece the-little-slasher-that-could. It’s one of those films whose merits aren’t immediately apparent; one whose contribution to film history is acknowledged long after the film has had its run in movie houses. The film even has a fantastic Internet tribute site called It’s Me The Black Christmas Website, created by uberfan Dan Duffin, who also supervised over two hours of all-new bonus material on the Critical Mass special edition DVD. Duffin wrote and directed a new documentary for the disc entitled The 12 Days of Black Christmas that features great interviews with original cast members Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin, and others. The DVD is a must-have for Black Christmas fans, with a brand new crystalline Anamorphic HD digital transfer and 5.1 Sound, plus two new never-before-heard sound scenes.

So this year, before Santa descends upon the land with his bucketfuls of presents to bestow upon the nice and deny the naughty, why not consider spending Christmas Eve with Billy and the ill-fated denizens of the Pi Kappa Sig house over a glass of spiked eggnog? I can promise that you’ll never listen to Silent Night the same way again.

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