starring Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon
screenplay by Roy Moore
directed by Bob Clark
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. At the beginning of Bob Clark's other yuletide favourite, the influential horror classic Black Christmas, college student Clare Harrison (Lynne Griffin) is getting ready to go home for the holidays. The sorority she belongs to receives an obscene phone call; when her "sister" Barbie (Margot Kidder) humours the pervert, sensible Clare--at the risk of making them sound one-dimensional, these characters are deftly drawn with a minimum of brushstrokes--suggests they not antagonize him. She then goes upstairs to pack, investigates a noise coming from her closet, and is asphyxiated with a plastic bag. A dread-bound dissolve from some hideous nativity scene in the attic in which Clare serves as a mummified Madonna takes us to a spot on campus the following day, where Clare's father (James Edmond), a prudish but decent man, is waiting to pick up his daughter. Not knowing what we know but indeed perplexed when Clare fails to materialize at the appointed time and place, he absently scans his surroundings, only to be struck hard by a snowball like a cosmic pie to the face. The fates clearly have it out for this family.
Still fairly unique to Black Christmas in the context of the genre is that its opening murder doesn't occur in a vacuum: It has a significant half-life that casts a wake-like pall over the rest of the narrative. It says a lot about the film's conscientiousness--hardly a word one normally applies to a slasher flick--that Mr. Harrison is acknowledged at the finale, struggling to stand up on knees reduced to jelly by confirmation that his little girl is dead; there's a reason the French chose to call this Tragic Christmas. (A Toronto-lensed production from a Montreal-based writer, Black Christmas certainly buttresses Canuck critic Geoff Pevere's belief that American films are about actions and Canadian films are about consequences.) Barbie, Phyllis (Edith Prickley herself, Andrea Martin), and Jessica (Olivia Hussey) are casually ushered through the five stages of grief, each of them going into a state of denial upon receiving the news of Clare's disappearance. Headstrong Barbie pickles herself in an effort to drown out thoughts of the worst-case scenario; Phyllis puts up a stoic if fragile front; and Jessica sublimates any and all anxiety into her unwanted pregnancy, a problem that has taken on a doomy urgency.
Catharsis for these girls comes not from the sweet release of death, but from those sobering moments when they finally allow themselves to cry.* Moreover, virtually disqualifying Black Christmas from accusations of misogyny, the violence against the female protagonists isn't the picture's raison d'être--Barbie and Phyllis are even dispatched in their sleep (the latter offscreen), like it's a formality. Indeed, it's a crudely feminist work in that these women appreciate life and, presuming our "final girl" Jessica's career aspirations are representative of the house, yearn to live it to the fullest. The filmmaking is remarkably non-objective, to the exclusion of any sort of male perspective on the events at hand: The men in the film are quite simply either with Jessica and co. or against them--that is to say, objects of ridicule and/or scorn. (It's palatable and doesn't feel pandering because our heroic trio holds no particular grudge against the opposite sex.) Villain "Billy" is rather pointedly unseen, a tabula rasa of madly discordant voices and misogynistic epithets onto whom we project a variety of patriarchal forces as he systematically dismantles a sorority, i.e., sisterhood itself. That Billy's scenes are shot with a subjective camera gives them a looking-glass quality that never fails to shame this viewer for having subjected any number of women to my gaze.
Clark used to insist that he was not an avid moviegoer, but any good artist has his antennae up, and I'm fascinated by how, if you're a film buff, the apparently-unconscious associations with cinematic trends help to ratchet up the tension in Black Christmas. There is for instance a post-Poseidon Adventure Shelley Winters archetype in the person of Marian Waldman's dipsomaniac den mother Mrs. Mac (meaning she walks around with a target on her forehead), while Keir Dullea, as Jessica's boyfriend, courts skepticism from the start on account of his trajectorily similar role in Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing. The years may have dulled the immediacy of these references, yet they haven't prevented the film from aging gracefully. That's because while Clark's successful, seductive, and I guess unpremeditated iteration of the giallo formula (whodunit structure, operatic set-pieces, abundance of shots from the killer's P.O.V.) as established by Mario Bava and his peers sparked a genre unto itself in America, the more pioneering copycats, lacking Clark's flair for interpersonal dynamics, so grotesquely oversimplified Black Christmas as to discard its most distinguishing feature: its empathy. In so doing, they made schadenfreude--the cheapest of cheap thrills, facilitated largely through vapid characterizations--the slasher movie's stock in trade.
There's something to be said for the fatal ennui depicted in the Friday the 13th saga, but it's lazy, in a way. Cynical, too. The victims here aren't sociopaths the equal of their killer. I've recommended the picture to a number of people since I first saw it, and the typical feedback I get is astonishment that it's legitimately scary despite its datedness from within and without. (Frankly, those mostly-sartorial Seventies signifiers are now a treasured source of comic relief.) What they're doing is recognizing the humanity of their avatars, an enduring novelty in the exploitation realm that is as much a source of the film's raw power as Clark's energetic direction and suspense savvy. Generally heralded as the first of its kind, Black Christmas may actually be one of a kind.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Via Somerville House, Critical Mass brings Black Christmas to Blu-ray in a straight port of their 2006 Special Edition DVD, excepting of course the 1080p upgrade to the transfer itself. This utterly filmlike presentation has been unfairly maligned by bratty, ignorant videophiles demanding status quo HD. Bright colours were restored to the image along with a striking clarity and, yes, grain--beautiful, '70s, low-budget, high-speed, made-in-Canada grain. The one issue I had was with the occasionally soupy black levels, and on closer inspection I'm apt to blame them on the latitude of the original film stock as opposed to any shortcomings in the master. I was meanwhile pleasantly surprised by the Dolby Digital 5.1 listening option, an enveloping remix marred less by its lossy encode than by an indecisive use of the subwoofer that made me glad the original mono audio was preserved on another track.
Unfortunately, the extras--supervised by "überfan" Dan Duffin, webmaster of itsmebilly.com--leave something to be desired. Narrated by John Saxon, "The 12 Days of Black Christmas" (20 mins.) boasts an impressive roster of interviewees, including an unrecognizable Griffin and camera operator Bert Dunk, but it ultimately skims the surface of the film's backstory, production, and legacy. There's a much better making-of sitting around for the taking, the Black Christmas episode of the documentary program "On Screen!", that will now probably be lost to the sands of time. (Maybe it was a licensing issue, as seems to be the case with the commentaries recorded for Eclectic's 25th Anniversary DVD.)
Marginally more substantial, a "Midnight Q&A" (20 mins.) taped at a screening of the film held sometime before the appalling remake came out finds the late Clark, a characteristically pinched Saxon, and composer Carl Zittrer more or less recapitulating the film's WIKIPEDIA entry thanks to the standard line of questioning from audience members. I do think that Clark hits on the appeal of Black Christmas, however, when he says he was committed to portraying college kids as they really are. Of the extended interviews with Hussey (17 mins.), Kidder (23 mins.), and actor Art Hindle (24 mins.), only the Kidder segment is indispensible--although I've spent days wondering whether the demure Hussey meant to phrase her motive for doing the film in quite the unsympathetic way she did. (She explains she'd just had a baby, see, and was eager to abandon it for a month or two...) Kidder is hilarious and frank, owning up to an affair with Brian DePalma and criticizing Canada's tendency to frown on ambition--an attitude she generously attributes to the Sixties despite it being alive and well in the country today. I hope she writes her memoirs. The one thing I will say for Hindle, a veteran of Clark's oeuvre, is that he knows the streets of Toronto like the back of his hand. Dude's a walking GPS. English and French-dub versions of Black Christmas' eerie but spoiler-laden trailer join newly-unearthed temp soundtracks for the "trellis climb" and "final pan" in rounding out the platter. Originally published: December 5, 2008.
*This applies to us as well: I can't think of a Christmas movie that better accommodates a good junking of seasonal melancholy, at least until the shattering, neuroses-inducing denouement. return