Saturday, October 9, 2010

Black Christmas (1974)

I'm going to say this upfront: Black Christmas is one of the best horror movies ever made.  If you want to catch a disturbing horror movie, stop reading and check this out --- make sure it's the 1974 version and not the 2006 remake, though.  Black Christmas is generally regarded as the first slasher film; as such, many of the film's plot elements are echoed throughout the dozens of subsequent additions to the genre.  This is the original, though, coming out four years before Halloween, and it has stood the test of time quite well.  What makes this film most remarkable, perhaps, is the lack of violence, gore and nudity; the film still earned an "R" rating for being too disturbing.  Do you know what that means?  It means that this is a horror movie that you probably haven't seen that isn't gross, but is still somewhat scary --- how rare is that?

As Christmas break begins for a small college, the Iota Kappa Sigma (I only mention the specific house because I like IKE) sorority house is having a (pretty tame) party.  It's more of a get-together than a shin-dig, if that gives you an idea of the debauchery involved.  As the party proceeds inside, the camera cuts to a hand-held, Point of View (POV) shot as a mysterious individual unsteadily approaches the house.  After looking in a few windows, the stranger notices an ivy trellis on the side of the building and climbs up it, into the attic.  Soon after, the sorority girls get an obscene phone call --- one of many, it seems, from someone they have dubbed "the moaner."  Being the resident drunken smart-ass, Barb (Margot Kidder), takes the phone from Jess (Olivia Hussey) and eggs the caller on.  After a string of bizarre noises and vulgar suggestions (more on that later), the call ends with "I'm going to kill you."  One of the girls, Clare, then decides to pack for her trip out of town in the morning; the killer is waiting, again unseen, in her closet and he suffocates her with a plastic dry cleaning sheet.  Her absence is discovered the next morning and, by evening, the police believe it to be a sinister disappearance.  Local do-gooders and police begin a search for a suspicious person or a body.  Little do they realize that Clare didn't go far at all; her body is in a rocking chair in the sorority house attic, looking out the window with the plastic sheet still wrapped tight around her head.  I think I can leave the plot at that, for the most part.  You get the idea, right?  The killer is in the house and he continues to make obscene calls and murder the Kappa Sigma gals until the climax.  I don't mean to shortchange the filmmakers, but it's been over thirty-five years and we can draw our own picture.  The great thing about this movie is the little curve balls it throws at you; in many ways, the plot is a typical slasher plot, but it still manages to surprise, and I would hate to spoil that.

Let's get back to those prank phone calls.  You're probably a little skeptic about them, because how scary can phone calls scripted in the mid-70s be to your jaded 2010 tastes?  Don't freak out --- I'm not a mind reader.  I know what you're thinking because I was once in your position.  And then I heard these calls.  Wow.  Even if you ignore the porn movie-friendly vocabulary in these scenes (which is surprisingly shocking to hear in a "real" movie) and pretend that nothing offensive was said, these calls are disturbing on a very base level.  The caller's voice changes frequently, from a sinister growl, to a girlish moan, to a snarling that resembles what I assume it sounds like for an animal to choke on its own blood.  And the call where he squeaks "please stop me" in the middle of the howling...?  Fuggedaboutit.  This movie could have been titled "Holy Crap, Listen to These Phone Calls," and I still would have been taken aback by their ferocity.  Maybe I'm oversensitive to phone harassment (I'm not, but please don't test me), but these calls genuinely creeped me out.

The film was directed by Bob Clark, who is better known as the director of perennial Midwestern holiday favorite, A Christmas Story.  I loved his direction here.  It is so common for slasher movies to misuse the POV camera shot, but Black Christmas handled it perfectly.  It was shaky, unstable (like the character), and it actually moved like it was the eyes of the killer.  I liked the choice to make the film more of an atmospheric horror film than a gory one; I like me some gore, but genuine chills should be appreciated wherever they are found.  The score helped the mood with its low, slow, and unrecognizable discordant notes adding to the dread seen on camera.  Clark's direction is also largely responsible for those obscene calls, so he gets an extra kudos from me.  Another thing that makes this horror film uniquely awesome is the ambiguous ending.  I don't want to spoil anything, and it's not a weird twist, but it is still effective.  Clark even managed to get some pretty solid performances out of the actors.  Margot Kidder is the most recognizable member of the cast, and she plays the drunken loudmouth so well that she reminded me of an old friend.  Olivia Hussey wasn't quite as good, but she does well as a sympathetic Final Girl in the Slasher Movie.  John Saxon shows up as the local sheriff who is smarter than the rest of his crew, but that doesn't mean he's on top of the situation.

This movie can be appreciated for its historic qualities, but I think it stands up to the best of what has come since.  This is probably the first movie to feature a killer inside the victim's house.  It is one of the first films to throw around vulgar euphemisms like they were candy.  It is also credited for the holiday theme for horror movies (Valentine's Day, April Fool's, Halloween, etc.).  There are more, but the important thing to take away from this movie is not what it did first, but what it did well.  And it kind of freaked me out.  Is this another Oscar-baiting horror film, like Silence of the Lambs?  No, but it is definitely one of the best at what it does.

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