12/23/08

Terrifying Tuesday: Black Christmas (1974)

With only two days until Christmas to go, I just couldn't hold this picture back any longer. I had originally planned to roll this out on Friday for the last leg of Feature Presentation and to tie in with that wacky Canadian holiday, Boxing Day, but with the holidays almost in full swing and lots of stuff to do this week, I decided to go ahead and do this one before Christmas so I can take Friday off to rest and revel in the many many movies I hope Santa brings me. 

Tonight I bring you the third feature from Bob Clark. He had begun his career in 1972 with the dreadful Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things and then redeemed himself with the stunning Deathdream the year after. 1974 saw him make perhaps his most influential work in the horror genre. It was a film which became a big hit in Canada and Europe, but didn't really catch on here until later. Perhaps because it was retitled Silent Night, Evil Night because Warner Brothers thought people would think it was blaxploitation if they released it as....

Black Christmas (1974) starring Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Olivia Hussey, and Andrea Martin. Directed by Bob Clark. 
It's Christmas time in the sorority house, and there's a swinging party going on. Everyone is having a great time until they get another call from "The Moaner". The call seems like a typical dirty phone call, but it soon takes a dark turn as the caller begins to screech wildly and threatens to kill Barb (Kidder). The girls don't think much of it, and the house good girl Claire goes upstairs to pack. Unfortunately for her a killer is laying in wait and smothers her to death with a dry cleaning bag. He drags her corpse into the house's attic and dumps it in a rocking chair with her lifeless eyes looking out the window. 


With the girls coming and going to holiday activities, it isn't noticed that Claire is missing until her father shows up to pick her up. Barb, Phillis (Martin) and Jess (Hussey) hunt around for her, but they come up empty. They try to report her missing to the police, but they are not taken seriously. Soon more of the girls begin to lose their lives and Detective Fuller (Saxon) is called in on the case. Fuller devises a scheme to trace "The Moaner's" phone call if Jess can keep him on the line long enough, but when the calls come from closer then they expected will any of the girls live to see Christmas morning?

Film Facts

--The point of view shots were accomplished by a shoulder mounted camera rig. It was the first of it's kind and devised especially for this film.

--The film was filled with roles that almost went to someone else. The role of Phillis was offered to Gilda Radner, Jess' boyfriend Philip was offered to Malcolm McDowell, and the house mother Mrs. Mac was offered to Betty Davis. 

--Andrea Martin returned in the 2006 remake in the role of the house mother.

--Composer Carl Zittrer said in an interview that he created the bizarre music score for the film by tying forks, combs, and knives to the strings of his piano so the sound would warp as he struck the keys. Zittrer also said he would distort the sound further by recording audio tape while putting pressure on the reels of the machine to make it turn slower. He was also instrumental in getting John Saxon involved in the film. 

The Bug Speaks

This is a flick that really hit the spot. It was exactly what I was looking for in a Christmas horror flick. It was well acted, atmospheric, well paced, brilliantly shot, and an all around good time. Perhaps Christmas was more incidental than in some of the other flicks that I've watched for the season. After all there seems to be no reason it couldn't have been Black Easter or Black Arbor Day. So while Christmas holds no special meaning in the film, it is chilling to consider these murders happening over the festive season.

There's a lot to love about the actors in this flick. Margot Kidder seems a bit like you might imagine her Lois Lane character would have been in college. She's a foul mouthed, chain smoking, alcoholic, and there's never a time in the flick that you think she could be anything but. Olivia Hussey perhaps best known for her role in the perennial high school mainstay Romeo and Juliet is very lovely as our heroine. It was a bit surprising to me to see her become the main character as I had assumed Kidder would become the survivor archetype. John Saxon is solid as always. There's just not a flick out there that couldn't do with some more of The Saxon in it.  SCTV alum Andrea Martin is thoroughly convincing as the nerdy girl, but I was equally surprised that she didn't have a single humorous line in the whole flick.

The real star of the film is the look. The direction from Clark and cinematography from Albert J. Dunk and Reg Morris set the groundwork for films like Halloween and Friday the 13th to follow. The point of view shots are masterfully done, and the fact that you are never given more than a fleeting glimpse at the killer makes the whole eerie motif just that much stronger. Surely these guys had been influenced by late '60's Italian cinema, but they took from that and gave the world something entirely new in the birth of the classic slasher. 

It is arguable that there is no better slasher than the mysterious man in Black

 Christmas. Unlike Freddy, Jason, or Michael we never learn his motivations, never see his face, never hear him utter a pithy quip before dispatching his victims. Instead we are left to wonder who this psychotic bastard is and what he wants with these girls. In an era where films have no idea how to "show don't tell" this is a master class in how to set up an audience to be as frightened as your characters. 

Now Bob Clark would go on to direct Porky's, Rhinestone, uhh Baby Geniuses, and of course The Christmas Story, but he would never venture into the realms of horror again.  In a way that's unfortunate seeing as out of his 3 entries into the genre at least two are classic, groundbreaking films (and then there's Children Shouldn't). However seeing as he went on to direct perhaps the most enduring classic of Christmas cinema, I suppose he gets a pass. I'm just waiting on the day when a  network programs Black Christmas on a 24 hour loop on Christmas Day. This film truly does stand atop the heap of Yuletide Terrors and gets the highest marks from the Bug. 
Bug Rating





Just a couple more things to mention today. The Bug got a nice Christmas present today in the form of a shout out from Vince over at the B-Movie Cast Podcast. Check out his new show where he covers some Hammer Horror and you'll hear a bit about The Bug. You can follow the link to download it right here or it is available on iTunes. Thanks Vince and Merry Christmas to you.

Also I'm going to have a couple of special posts coming up for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day featuring one long time favorite Mars/Christmas flick and a new one as well. So look for that. Then the Bug is taking the weekend off to catch a little rest before New Years so I'll be back on Monday with another installment of It Came From Video Tape. So I'll see you folks tomorrow for some more Christmas fun.

10 comments:

  1. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobDecember 23, 2008 at 8:23 AM

    a great reveiw of a great film, (although i still think the 2006 remake was ludicrously under-rated), but you forgot to say which bird you fancied most, olivia hussey or michelle trachtenberg, well merry christmas and a happy new year pal, from your old mate "the sneering (homo-phobic) snob"

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  2. Quick note about "Bob never going into Horror again"... Bob was actually developing the remake of"Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things"... but alas, his plans were cut short in April 2007.

    I'd love to see Black Xmas 24 hours as well... What a great idea! At least with a web, onDemand or appleTv view.

    I worked closely with Bob for over a decade and just finished a doc. on his life and works (ClarkWORLD-- 2009 release).
    excuse the plug but:
    clarkworld.blip.tv

    Love your column,
    ~DPA

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  3. Thanks for the comment S(HP)S and Merry Christmas to you too. Thanks for becoming part of the Lair this year. As far as to which bird I would fancy, I would have to go with Olivia Hussey. For one she's got a cute little accent and for two she was Juliette. Also 70's chicks are just hot.

    DPA thanks a lot for visiting my site. That is very interesting that Bob was planning a remake and it's a shame that it never came to fruition since his life was cut so short. I'm not a huge Dead Things fan, but it has it's moments. However BC and Deathdream both broke some incredible ground. I would love to see that Doc when you have it ready. Hit me up at the Lair's e-mail, and I hope you come back to see what kind of other stuff we have around here.

    Merry Christmas to both you guys and everyone out there.

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  4. I 100% agree with the 5 bugs on this one, I love it. I also however really dug Children shouldn't....,this was a nice read.

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  5. Great review. I've got to check out this film. Sadly, I've never seen it. Although, I just watched the remake which I thought was awful in just about every way. Anyway, hope you enjoy the holidays!

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  6. Funnily enough, I was watching this the same night as you. A balls out classic. How creepy are those phone calls? they were probably enough to make a macho motherfucker like John Saxon shit his pants.

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  7. Ha, I guess great minds think alike. Yeah the phone calls were creepy. You can't do stuff like that these day, dang you caller ID.

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  8. Excellent article, filled with lots of trivia I didn't know. I still don't feel this movie has been seen by enough horror fans; it truly deserves a place in the same breath as TEXAS CHAINSAW, HALLOWEEN, and EVIL DEAD.

    A plug: here's my article on the film: http://filmicability.blogspot.com/search/label/Black%20Christmas

    Again, great article!

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  9. Really well written and entertaining review of a great film. Bob Clark really set a benchmark with this film and its influence on Halloween and the slasher genre should not be underestimated.

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  10. This film was so ahead of its time and still so impressive today. I never tire of it. The best Christmas horror film ever made IMO.

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