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Blogvent Day 4 – Black Christmas (1974,Canada)

04/12/2011

Director: Bob Clark    Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Keir Dullea

Day four and I find myself back firmly on Christmas ground, this time though the festive cheer has been replaced with festive fear (sorry) in the 1974 proto-slasher horror Black Christmas. Horror is an obvious choice for a Christmas movie – what else after all offers such a diametrically opposed sentiment to the saccharine trappings of Christmas?

Jess (Hussey, six years on from her turn as Juliet in the Zeffirelli Rome & Juliet) is a college girl with a dilemma, finding herself unintentionally pregnant to her college boyfriend. Matters only seem to get worse when her Sorority sister Clare disappears without trace and the obscene phone calls they’ve been receiving at the house escalate. Things go from bad to worse when, in the space of forty eight hours, a little girl is found murdered in the park and more sinister happenings go down in the house leaving it up to Lieutenant Fuller (Saxon) to piece together what the hell is happening and put a stop to it.

To my mind it’s a surprisingly unknown film, considering it predates the so-called progenitor of stalker horror Halloween by four years and is so effective. For whatever reason, it seems to have escaped the notice of the average horror fan (although I suppose it made sufficient impact to spawn a 2006 remake which I have not seen but will be amazed if it is actually any good) which is a shame considering it is so damn good, a film I would rate alongside the likes of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre in terms of sheer, atmospheric chills.

I imagine that the 2006 version is a nipple flashing, gore soaked example of contemporary horror that has precisely no sense of dread, pretty much in the vein of every other nonsensical noughties horror reboots. The 1974 version is the exact opposite. Relying on offscreen violence, minimal gore and impressive sound design that reminds me of that other great seventies horror opus The Exorcist, Black Christmas manages to create an atmosphere that is sinister and chilling and oozes with grim tension. Just what you want at Christmas! The mostly empty Sorority house, with most of the girls away for the holidays, provides the perfect “haunted house” style setting to help ratchet up the tension whilst being normal and everyday enough to give the sense that the misfortunes that are befalling its inhabitants could happen to anyone, anywhere.

The performances are great, Hussey shining in a role a million miles away from Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, low on rhyming couplets but high on hysteria. Margot Kidder’s boozehound Barb is riotous and irreverent and serves as a comic foil to some of the more sinister elements of the film. Of course first prize has to go to John Saxon typecast, perhaps, as a bullish and determined detective but nonetheless excellent. How could any fiendish serial killer stand up in the face of those eyebrows? Sure, he might not be displaying his martial arts talents that were on show in the previous year’s Enter The Dragon, but his earnest approach to the police Lieutenant in Black Christmas is convincing and feels pretty authentic.

When it comes to atmospherics, much of the film’s tension rests on the obscene telephone calls the girls have been receiving and these have been brilliantly realised. A cacophony of screeching voices they hint at the reasons for the terrible crimes that are being committed but we are never given an explicit explanation as to why these things are going on. The phone calls are spectacularly foul mouthed, all the more impressive given the age of the film and have a genuinely unhinged feel to them. This is no mere heavy breathing down the telephone or “what are  you wearing?” level of perviness, it’s more deep seated emotional damage level stuff that leaves you in little doubt that bad things are going to happen.

Watching a film like this makes me weep for the state of the horror genre in the twenty first century. Somewhere along the line we’ve abandoned (although not entirely, there are still those who fly the flag for the genre) the concept of creepy atmospherics and psychological horror and replaced it with bigger body counts, increased gore and extra boobies. I suppose it takes less effort than attempting to craft a proper film. Black Christmas, like some archeological relic of an era long past, is the filmic equivalent of a Black Sabbath album. It’s creepy because of its tone, not because of its volume, rather than relying on simple shocks and blood it depends on creepy point-of-view camera angles, distorted soundtracks and unsettling scores, deep shadows and unseen horrors to give you the creeps and it works. Spectacularly well. So well the formula has been repeated (and diluted) many times since.

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