The October Project, Day 5: Black Christmas (1974)

My Christmas movie list is deliberately asinine–GremlinsDie HardLethal Weapon, and Scrooged, basically (though, to be honest, I rarely make it to many, if any, of them every year). I thought about adding this last year, but failed at all of them (I think), and it joined the thankfully now-stagnant pile of unwatched stuff.

However, for this October Project, I got a few nods on giving this one a watch and decided to go for it.

The Phi Kappa Sigma house is winding things down for Christmas, with Clare (Lynne Griffin), Barb (Margot Kidder–yes, Lois Lane), Jess (Olivia Hussey–yes, Juliet), Phyl (SCTV’s Andrea Martin), and Housemother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) have a party and deal with some obscene phone calls (and Barb and Mrs. Mac’s relentless drinking) that starts to shift gears pretty quickly toward the terrifying as Clare disappears (so far as the characters know–the audience knows “disappear” is unpleasantly inaccurate, in some ways), and the dealings of the incompetent Sgt. Nash (Douglas McGrath) and the competent Lt. Fuller (genre veteran John Saxon) attempt to do their part.

In many ways justifiably, John Carpenter’s Halloween receives a lot of credit for spawning the “slasher” subgenre, but it’s easy to see that many of its sensibilities can be derived from a pairing in 1974: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Bob Clark’s, well, Black Christmas. While Hooper’s is actually, in many ways, a far cry from slashers, it did run through the foolish teenager group (mostly literally…), but Black Christmas deals more in the focused and relentless killer. That said, this one is somewhat more related to Italian gialli–perhaps coincidentally, admittedly–with its point-of-view shots from the killer.

And, while it’d be wrong to just completely ignore the performances here (what a weird range! Andrea Martin is momentarily unrecognizable, and stays far away from anything approximating Edith Prickley), considering Hussey’s pleasantly rounded Jess (who is more normal human than fumbling victim or unrealistic badass, wobbling comfortably between fear and inadvisable confidence), Saxon’s concerned but well-humoured Fuller, and Margot’s nicely believable drunk, Clark’s direction steals the show. There’s nothing more unnerving than the way he shoots the scenes related to the murders. Plenty of them come through with POV shots for the murderer, but most of them are uncomfortably detached from what’s occurring, with the slowest pans and zooms reserved for those scenes. They don’t linger or hover, they just seem to accept many of the deaths or sneaky movements of the killer as part of the scenery. It’s contrasted with the jump cuts, rapid zooms and pans (well, brisk, if not rapid) that mark the regular dialogue and character interactions, which are often steeped in humour from one character or another.

It really was quite the pleasant surprise to discover that, beyond being formative, Clark’s film is actually very unique and well-crafted, understanding (interviews with Olivia confirming) what makes horror terrifying, and how to pace and space things in a deliberate fashion.

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