Sunday, March 6, 2011

Black Christmas (1974)


          Somewhat interesting as a footnote in the history of horror films because it bridges the suspenseful storytelling of Hitchcock thrillers and the gruesome excesses of slasher flicks, Black Christmas is a low-budget Canadian flick about a psychopath stalking the residents of a sorority house. Oddly, however, the film isn’t as lurid as the premise might suggest, because there’s very little gore and almost zero sexual content; instead, director Bob Clark focuses on colorful character details. Clark, whose strange career included everything from the juvenile T&A of Porky’s (1982) to the nostalgic sweetness of A Christmas Story (1983), demonstrates his ability to let actors form distinctive characters, but also displays his inability to maintain consistent tone. The movie begins with a POV shot of a heavy-breathing nutjob slipping into the attic of the sorority house, then trudges through lengthy soap-opera scenes involving the residents, interspersed with gruesome murder vignettes in which the killer exits the attic to kill the girls one at a time. The killer also places obscene phone calls to the house, most of which are answered by supposedly sophisticated coed Jess (Olivia Hussey).
          The story is predicated on everyone overlooking the obvious, so while the idea of a killer hiding several floors above his victims is creepy, the conceit strains credibility to a ridiculous degree. Furthermore, the premise strangles suspense: Since the “big secret” is revealed in the first scene, all viewers can do is wait for characters to stop being stupid, which they never do. Still, interesting things happen along the way. Hussey, the classically pretty female lead of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968), is stiff and unconvincing, so Margot Kidder steals the show as a drunk, foul-mouthed coed named Barb, displaying the sexy vivacity that later won her the role of Lois Lane in Superman (1978). B-movie stalwart John Saxon lends solid comic and dramatic support as a cop investigating the strange goings-on at the sorority house, and Marian Waldman scores cheap laughs with a Shelley Winters-type performance as the sorority’s lush housemother.
          Black Christmas isn’t scary, but it goes to unexpected places and it conjures genuine menace whenever Clark employs long traveling shots exploring spaces where horrible things are about to happen. As for the Christmas angle, that’s a minor element of the story hyped for marketing purposes; other than carolers, decorations, and snow, the holiday setting doesn’t have any significance.

Black Christmas: FUNKY

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