Review: Black Christmas
Directed by: Bob Clark
Written by: Roy Moore
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon
Released: 1874 / Genre: Horror / Country: Canada / IMDB
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Canada, 1974 director Bob Clark, unbeknown to him at the time, waters the seeds planted by Hitchcock’s Psycho, and to a certain degree Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, to which would fruit to bare a new sub-genre in horror cinema. Four years before the supposed fire starter, and most famous film to grace the genre Halloween, Black Christmas began the refining of conventions in laying the groundwork for Carpenter’s film to bloom. True, Halloween was the catalyst to a whole heap of movies which followed in the very late seventies and eighties, but it was Clark’s film that shone at the roots in terms of the generic aesthetics which became so prevalent.
Soon after Carpenter’s student years, he and Bob Clark would have a conversation, that ultimately spawned 1978′s Halloween, in which Carpenter told Clark how much he enjoyed his earlier horror film. According to Clark, Carpenter asked him if he would be willing to make a sequel to Black Christmas, to which Clark replied with an unequivocal no’. However, Clark did divulge to Carpenter how he thought a sequel to Black Christmas would go, plot wise. If it were made, he told him, it would be titled Halloween, and would be based on a serial killer who was caught but then escaped from a mental institution to stalk victims on Halloween night. Clearly, Carpenter took this food for thought on board and with the help of Debra Hill, turned the idea into reality. So in essence, Black Christmas could very well be thought of as the unofficial prequel to Halloween.
The story is quite simple. At a sorority house, the girls are getting ready to go home for Christmas but begin receiving phone calls from a strange caller who won’t give his name. The next day, many girls leave, but one who should have met her father doesn’t turn up, which causes great concern for her safety. When another girl goes missing, the police begin searching the area and find a body nearby. Meanwhile, with only three students left in the sorority house, the phone calls continue, getting more and more menacing each time, but unknown to the remaining members of the house, the caller, and perhaps the killer, is closer to them than their nightmares could ever imagine.
Bob Clark’s career needed a boost, and as he showed with his later comedy Porky’s, he wasn’t someone who would shy away from breaking norms and subverting audience expectation who would have expected the events of the shower scene, and that hole in the wall that overlooked the girls shower room!? Violent, shocking, and horrific stories were becoming regular pieces of American cinema, and Clark sensing this, grasped the opportunity to direct his first horror picture. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs in 1971, Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left in 1972, and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist in 1973 were proof that the obscure, dangerous films put your name on the map, for better and for worse. His film hardly made the splashes the three prior films made for themselves, but it put his foot in the water, and it was in his small, but significant ripples that would elevate his film beyond just cult status.
Clark begins his film looking through the eyes of the killer, as he examines the house from the outside, and scales the wall to find a way in. The subjective, voyeuristic nature of the point-of-view camera work beautifully places the audience inside the killer’s mind, as we stalk the house and become the voyeurs too. Clark mixes objective and subjective aesthetics to create scenes of intensity and suspense, not seen on film before, and rarely matched since. Unlike Tobe Hooper’s documentary style voyeurism in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which the audience is dared to keep their eyes on the screen, Clark throws the audience no room for a breath of oxygen as he cuts from an objective shot into a point-of-view shot of what the killer sees, as if we are forced to partake in the action of killing itself, and not just in the selfish act of watching someone else’s life being taken. Clark compounds this with brilliant use of sound, deafening the listener with ear haunting rasps and screeches, as if he wants to hurt your senses.
Indeed, the director wants to unsettle the audience rather than give individual viewers incessant shocks, only for viewers to forget about them once they’ve left the theatre, or once they’ve turned off the television. What violence occurs in Black Christmas is largely implied, rather than explicit, and adds to the overall sense of physical emotion in the audience, because the horror’ unsettles you on a personal level with your imagination creating the terror’ implied. One wonderfully created scene has one of the girls being killed juxtaposed with carol singers singing at the door. The Christmas song plays over the violent, loud, blood bath, with images of happy children singing their hearts out combined with jerky, dark glimpses of a knife entering flesh, and a blood soaked hand becoming more and more lifeless with every blow.
Clark uses the phone as an extension of the killer, an extension of the evil, to great effect. Mixing different voices with jagged, undecipherable language, the director is able to create a monster, existing above human capacity through alienating the solid form of a human being into the detached, multi-faceted voice of grotesque, unseen evil. Elsewhere, he owes a debt of gratitude to Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu, and Fritz Lang’s brilliantly unnerving, sombre tale M from 1931. The killer moves within the shadows, his/her form largely subliminal, and what we do see of him/her is that of disembodied evil hands holding a weapon, or an erratic eye, peering through a crack in the door. It also becomes apparent that the film doesn’t just share the voyeuristic nature of the photography with its counterpart The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, incidentally released the same year, it also shares similar themes regarding the real life serial murderer Ed Gein. In Clark’s film, like Hooper’s, the killer has a penchant for ornamental corpses, and here, he/she likes to leave them in the attic in hello death’ posers, culminating in a viscerally, haunting final image that ends the film.
It wouldn’t be surprising if this film were cited as playing a major part in so-called feminist horror films made afterward, like Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave, but of course Zarchi’s film could be looked at in a completely opposing way. Nevertheless, unlike the genre’s films to come where the clean, young virgins survive, and the dirty, man-eater’s meet horrible deaths, Black Christmas’ main female cast are largely the only ones for which we have any sympathy. Barb, played superbly by Margot Kidder, rises above any authority put before her. She doesn’t allow, at least visually, the caller to frighten her and in fact tells him/her where to go, and later when talking to the police she plays a little game when asked what her phone number is, telling the inept male cop that the number is Fellatio 20880, to which the cop unknowingly writes down. She has a rather unfeminine personality, she drinks too much, and swears in most of her sentences yet we get the feeling there’s some inner turmoil perhaps down to jealousy of some of the other younger girls and the beautiful, quiet but authoritative Jess, played by Olivia Hussey. Hussey caries the film with her quiet, pondering and wistful looks, grounding the almost unreal events, in real life reality, and in her character Jess, rebels against her boyfriend after she tells him she’s getting an abortion of which he is adamantly against, but she sticks to her guns. And the father of one of the girls who goes missing expresses dismay at the fact she might have been experimenting with drugs, drink and sex saying, I didn’t send my daughter here to be drinkingand picking up boys’. The women in the film rebel against the constraints put upon them, and for the most part these restraints are embodied in the male characters, most of which are either inept or out of touch with present day reality.
As for the rest of the performances, well, for the most part they are very good. Keir Dullea, as the insecure, neurotic boyfriend broods around breaking things, shouting and acting like he has the credentials to be the killer, while John Saxon, as usual, is the ultimate professional giving his chief lieutenant a strong backbone, and Doug McGrath offers some comic relief as the inept cop.
Black Christmas is a fantastically, effective horror film, easing its way under your skin and it stands as a major contributor in the creation of a new sub-genre in horror culture. Halloween has a more refined characteristic and is arguably the better film, but Black Christmas inspired it in so many ways you have to give the plaudits to Clark’s film.
Review by Daniel Stephens – See all reviews