Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Black Christmas

1974
Dir. Bob Clark

Bob Clark’s seminal seasonal slasher fest is often unfairly overlooked by audiences and critics of the genre. Clark essentially concocted the blueprint for the American slasher movie with Black Christmas, predating the cinematic carnage courtesy of the onslaught of slasher films post John Carpenter’s Halloween (1979) a whole five years later. In directing Black Christmas, Clark should be given credit for much of the visual grammer and codification of the slasher film.

The residents of a sorority house are preparing for the Christmas holidays. Many of the other students have already dispersed leaving behind a small group overlooked by the affable and partial-to-a-wee-drink house mother, Mrs Mac (Marion Waldman). After a number of extremely unsettling obscene phone calls, someone breaks into the house and hides in the attic, killing off the girls one by one.
The tale unfolds at a shuffling-through-the-snow pace, ensuring the tension builds steadily to a genuinely shocking and chillingly bleak climax.

While the characters of Black Christmas are certainly more fleshed out than most slasher film characters, they are still recognisable ‘types’ that would become all too familiar in later films: the shy, bookish one, the prim one, the boozy-floozy (Margot Kidder), the threatening boyfriend, the sensible ‘final girl’ (Olivia Hussey) and the now-familiar incompetent police officers, including genre favourite John Saxon, who would later portray another frustrated cop in A Nightmare on Elm Street, (1984). This interesting mix of strangely believable characters, particularly the irreverent Barb who drinks, smokes and curses her way through the film (we like her very much) and credible, solid performances, help to enhance proceedings. Even though the characters wander off on their own, oblivious to the grisly events occurring around them, because of the believable performances, this sort of behaviour is more tolerable.



While all these traits seem worn thin by now, it is worth noting that this was the film that would introduce the characteristics and conventions that were eventually bled dry in the slew of slashers that followed. Arguably just a low budget exploitation movie, Black Christmas still remains a carefully constructed piece of shock cinema; low-key chills interspersed with slices of shocking brutality (notably the death of Kidder involving an ornamental crystal unicorn) add up to an engrossing and unforgetable climax.

With Black Christmas, Clark followed on the heels and paid homage to the work of Mario Bava, particularly Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Bay of Blood (1971) and the films of Dario Argento. The lurid giallo flicks of these two directors deeply inspired the American slasher boom in the early eighties: moody body-count films revelling in morbid atmospherics and breathtakingly orchestrated violence.
Much of the camera work in Black Christmas reflects the similar aesthetics of Bava and Argento.
Clark cannily cuts between the killer’s point of view, the victim’s and that of the audience, resulting in a frenzied, panic-stricken flurry. Shots of the killer’s omniscient eye spying out of the murky depths of the house permeate the film, heightening the tension and anxiety. Slow camera tracking and partially obscured shots ensure the viewer is kept firmly on the edge of their seat; the stalker could potentially lunge out from anywhere, and at times we’re not sure if we are seeing things from his eyes, or simply through the detached lens of Clark’s prowling camera.

The setting is also perfect for inducing an unshakable uneasy feeling - a big, comfortable house that one would expect to be perfectly safe in, lit up for Christmas and swathed in snow. While picturesque and inviting, it is eventually rendered an eerie and sinister place within its cosily lit halls and around every dark corner lurks a potential threat.



The first murder is one of the most unnerving and savage. As Clare (Lynne Griffin) finishes packing to go home for Christmas, the killer strikes without mercy right inside her bedroom, while her house mates get festive downstairs. Another tense and troubling moment occurs when Barb awakens in her bed to find the killer standing over her; her screams masked by a group of carol singers standing outside the house…
While much on offer is visually arresting, there is also a nerve-jangling soundtrack. Much of the score consists of haunting Christmas carols; twisted into haunting and creepy renditions due to the heightened tension and unsettling atmosphere. The noises that seep through the receiver during the obscene phone call scenes are deeply disturbing; a mixture of maniacal, inhuman cackling and guttural, primal grunts and moans.

The pièce de résistance comes towards the end of the film, when it’s fiendish urban legend inspired twist occurs, and the girls realise with horror where exactly the obscene calls are coming from…

If you aren’t in the mood for the usual Christmas holiday TV schedule, and you fancy something a little spine-tingling and unnerving, Black Christmas will provide a full-blooded alternative. Just make sure you check under your bed afterwards before you get into it… And avoid the vacant 2006 remake.

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