Saturday, March 8, 2008

Film #10: Black Christmas (1974)

I’ve always contended that John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween stole this movie’s place as the progenitor of the slasher genre. The 1974 Canadian shocker Black Christmas is classier, scarier, and nicer to look at than any other slasher film out there (with Carpenter's movie coming in a close second). The story is familiar: an escaped killer sneaks into the attic of a sorority house during Christmas and begins to pick the girls off one by one. You’ll see things you’ve seen before, but produced with utmost care: lengthy shots from the killer’s point-of-view, sinister obscene phone calls (the film’s most frightening moments), and much slasher violence, including an Argento-esque murder with a glass unicorn. It even has an unsettling, Halloween-like ending--but this came out three years before (as Silent Night, Evil Night, its alternate title, Clark's film was banned from airing on NBC in the mid-70s during Ted Bundy’s reign of terror, thereby upping the film’s cult status.

The excellent cast includes Olivia Hussey (very good as the most sheepish of the sorority sisters--love that sweater with the hands on it), Keir Dullea (Hussey's slightly batshit boyfriend), John Saxon (as a cop--what else?), SCTV's Andrea Martin (Hussey's nerdy best friend), and a scene-stealing Margot Kidder as the sorority's queen foul-mouth. Director Bob Clark (who died along with his son in a tragic 2006 car accident) would later become more famous for pioneering the teen sex comedy with the Porky’s franchise and making A Christmas Story a holiday perennial (there's occasionally some humor--often misplaced, I think--in Black Christmas as well). But Clark should be considered, also, a major figure in the horror movie history, having done notable work with Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Deranged (the riveting Roberts Blossom starred in this Ed Gein-inspired story, on which Clark was an uncredited producer working for Dead Things writer Alan Ormsby), the terrific Dead of Night/Deathdream, about a zombie Vietnam vet returning stateside to wreak payback on his family and the military, and his high-powered Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack The Ripper movie Murder By Decree. All these movies are very much worth seeing. But Black Christmas remains his most thrilling contribution to the genre.

I wanna conclude with one short, vivid memory I have of Black Christmas. Upon its 1975 release in Atlanta, when I was 9 years old, I saw an ad for the film in the newspaper. At its bottom, inside a little square, was an invitation to call a phone number so's you could hear a special Black Christmas greeting. I remember calling the number nervously. But the phone on the other line would just ring and ring. I must have hung up and called that number twenty times, but no one ever answered. Being a kid hankering for instant gratification, I remember being quite frustrated by this. But now, when I think about the movie, too (the ending, in particular)--I find the marketing stunt to be creepily brilliant. By the way, I own a Silent Night Evil Night movie poster that, unusually, came with a black-and-white paste-on piece that, if applied, would change it into a poster with the Black Christmas logo on it--very rare and extra-cool.

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