Black Christmas
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Eerie imagery from Black Christmas.

Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder in Black Christmas.

Olivia Hussey in Black Christmas.
During the 1970s the movie industry turned to urban legends for inspiration. One of the most popular went something like this: A young lady, usually a babysitter with a house full of sleeping children, receives a series of disturbing phone calls from an unidentified person. She contacts the operator, who asks her to keep the caller on the line long enough to trace the call. After several attempts, she finally succeeds in engaging the mysterious caller for a sufficient amount of time. The operator calls her back with instructions to calmly walk out the front door. The stranger is calling from another line inside the house. As the babysitter worries about leaving the children upstairs, a stranger descends the stairs carrying a bloody knife. The babysitter runs out of the house screaming and into the arms of the police. It’s a story we are all familiar with, having spooked each other with it around campfires and at sleepovers, and of course, from the many movies created around the premise. Black Christmas may have the claim of being the first film to use a variation of the legend, but it certainly wasn’t the last or the most memorable. Some claim it is the first body-count/slasher flick, having preceded Halloween by five years, but that just is not the case. Italian filmmakers such as Mario Bava and American schlockmeister Herschell Gordon Lewis had been making that sort of film for about ten years by 1974.

The college town of Bedford just before Christmas break seems sleepy enough. Jess (Olivia Hussey - Romeo and Juliet), a sorority girl, discovers she’s pregnant. Her extremely high strung boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea -- 2001: A Space Odyssey), is an avant guarde pianist who wants to quit the conservatory, settle down, and raise a family. Jess doesn’t want to marry Peter. She wants an abortion. Peter strongly objects to the abortion, becoming unglued and threatening. To make matters worse, Jess’ sorority house is the target of an unidentified caller, "the moaner," whose phone schtick has recently metamorphosed from obscene to just plain weird and disturbed. Escalating the stress level even more, one of her sorority sisters, Clare (Lynne Griffin), has gone missing, as has a 13-year-old girl from town. As the police get drawn into investigating Clare’s disappearance and the phone calls, all evidence points to Peter as the culprit. Has the stress of his conservatory studies and Jess’ decision in favor of abortion pushed him over the edge into the realms of insanity and homicide? Are the bizarre phone calls tied into the disappearances of the two girls? Fans of stalker films, and those familiar with director Bob Clark’s other works, know the answers to those questions won’t be so clear cut.

Bob (formerly known as Benjamin) Clark came to the attention of horror fans with the 1972 independent film Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, which was co-written and co-produced with Alan Ormsby. That film was a weird and wicked zombie fest revolving around a film company that unwittingly raises the dead by performing a mock-satanic ritual on an island cemetery. A good deal of the fun in that movie came from its vicious humor, which skewered hippies, independent film companies, desperate struggling actors, the auteur theory, and the burgeoning occult movement. The film’s look, its dark humor, and the "foolish mortals get theirs" ending are reminiscent of E.C. Comics. Despite its low budget special effects and amateur acting Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things transcended its roots, providing an engaging and entertaining depiction of moral (and bodily) decay. Over the years, the film has garnered a cult following.

While not as subversive as Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, Black Christmas proves to be something of a minor horror classic. Some truly creepy elements are present in the film. Immediately after the opening credits and a short exposition in the sorority house, the camera takes the viewpoint of a disturbed individual, presumably male. Offscreen we hear heavy breathing and warped sing-songy music. The camera lurches at an angle through the shadows, peering through windows, before choosing to scale a trellis and enter through a darkened upstairs window. This subjective view recurs whenever the stalker is on the prowl, creeping through the shadowy upstairs hall of the dorm and crawling through the dusty attic.

Almost as important as the subjective camera viewpoint and equally effective are the disturbing phone calls. The caller’s voice swings wildly between registers, gurgling and screaming as he recounts a mysterious story involving two characters named Billy and Agnes. The significance of the story is never explained, although it hints at murder and serves to demonstrate the schizophrenia of the mysterious caller. It also provides a chilling moment of recognition when Jess stumbles upon the bodies of two of her housemates. As Jess backs away in horror from Barb’s room, an all-too-familiar voice croons "Agnes" from behind the door. Through the door crack, she sees an eerie, maniacal eye, illuminated by a bright shaft of light. The eye looks unnatural, almost inhuman, like the eye of a wooden puppet. Combined with the unnerving voice, the illuminated eye remains the most memorable image in the movie.

Despite these capable moments of suspense, several factors hinder Black Christmas from becoming a major horror film classic. The pacing of the film belongs to an older school of filmmaking, a leftover from the days when horror movies aspired to literary pretensions. Character development proceeds gradually, and suspense builds slowly. Viewers raised on years of cardboard characterization and fast-paced slash-‘em-up horror films might have trouble staying engaged, much less experiencing any real fear from the slow build-up of suspense. Secondly, the screenplay, written by Roy Moore, suffers from scenes that seem extraneous, chiefly the sequences involving the search for the 13-year-old girl. The characters of Barb (Margot Kidder -- Sisters, Superman) and the dorm mother, Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), seem woefully out of place. Their drunken antics, served up as dubious comic relief, detract from the mostly somber tone of the film. The humor they evoke appears mean-spirited at worst, or just misapplied at best. Ultimately, the characters come off as escapees from the "Portrait of a…(insert the deviant behavior of your choice here)" TV movies that were popular in the ‘70s or as early drafts of characters who would later appear in Clark’s teen comedy Porky's.

These points are minor details, as forgiving fans of the genre would be quick to note. One unforgivable flaw concerns the film’s "trick" ending. After the police find Jess still alive in the basement -- with the body of the presumed murderer by her side -- they call in a physician, who sedates her. Then Mr. Harrison (James Edmond), the father of the missing Clare, whose body still has not been found, collapses, presumably due to the stress of not finding his daughter. The doctor and an entourage of police rush him to the hospital, leaving Jess alone and defenseless in the house. The camera tracks down the hall and to the entrance of the attic. A familiar voice giggles and mumbles unintelligible words. Is this a reminder of the horror that has just occurred or a precursor to something more? As the camera enters the attic, we see Clare’s body in a rocking chair and another victim hanging from a meat hook. We hear the same lullaby from an earlier scene as a shadowy figure descends the attic stairs. Then the camera cuts to a long aerial shot outside the house. A policeman stands guarding the door outside. The phone begins to ring ominously. The cycle has started all over again, and the viewer is left feeling very frustrated. While trick endings are expected in the genre, this ending defies all credibility. It strains credulity for the police to leave a victim sedated at a crime scene, especially a crime scene that has not been thoroughly searched. Furthermore, why just rush one person in shock (Mr. Harrison) to the hospital when you have two, especially since Jess’ attending physician, who should know better, leaves with the police and Mr. Harrison. Finally, while the final phone call might have seemed a good idea in the brainstorming session, leaving the killer free at the end of the movie inevitably changes the tone of the picture and raises more questions about the overall vision of the film. Now the viewer is left wondering whether the killer was just a psychopath who wasn’t caught or an evil spirit that lives on in the house. Either way, the ending just doesn’t work and feels like cheating. This move affects the integrity of the entire film, unnecessarily clouding the waters for this, until now, rather straightforward slasher film.

A word needs to be said regarding the transfer. The film was shot in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. When it was projected in theaters, the film would have been masked to give it the appearance of a widescreen movie. Masking is the fairly common practice of covering portions of the picture, usually the top and bottom of the frame, to match the average movie theater’s aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Nowadays, filmmakers take this practice into account when shooting the film, sometimes setting up the composition of the scene so that it can be run at several different aspect ratios with minimal loss of vital information. However, the risk run at restoring an older film to the original ratio it was shot in could be the exposure of extraneous information that wasn’t meant to be seen, such as microphone booms, blocking marks, shadows of the crew members, etc. After watching the DVD closely for signs of any of this information, I’m happy to report that the transfer is a success. If anything the full-screen transfer seems cramped, claustrophobic. This could be an intentional composition by cinematographer Reg Morris, to create a closed-in, cabin-fever atmosphere. It certainly works within the aesthetic framework of the film.

Bob Clark went on to direct another holiday movie, the much-beloved black humor classic A Christmas Story. In addition he directed films of varying genres, such as Murder By Decree (a chilling Sherlock Holmes-meets-Jack-the-Ripper scenario), the phenomenally successful teen comedies Porky's and Porky's II, the country-music travesty Rhinestone (starring Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone), and the much-maligned Baby Geniuses. Given a better script and some judicious editing, Black Christmas could have been a classic of holiday horror. As is, the film, while not quite the top of his form, demonstrated Clark’s reliable skill at helming solid, dependable thrillers.

 


Black Christmas is now available on DVD from Eclectic DVD in a new "25th Anniversary" edition that has been digitally remastered. Suggested retail price: $24.95. Black Christmas is also available on VHS. Suggested retail price: $14.95. For more information, check out the Eclectic DVD Web site.