August 9, 2011

Black Christmas (1974)

"A sorority house is terrorized by a stranger who makes frightening phone calls and then murders the sorority sisters during Christmas break."

What can I possibly say about the late Bob Clark's Canadian horror classic which you haven't already heard before? Well, you haven't read my review of it yet for one thing so here it is.

Just to be seasonal, since this is the middle of Summer, I decided to actually watch "Black Christmas" all the way through for the first time ever. I've watched it in instalments many times before but either I fell asleep or just got bored with it and switched it off only to return to it far too late to notice any problems with the pacing or flow of the story.

This time I forced myself to examine every detail of the film as much as my attention span would allow. I've always considered "Black Christmas" to be overrated but I never really assessed by how much or how little until tonight. I'm sure that you've all watched this film too by now (and some of you are a lot more familiar with it than me) so due to necessity I'm going to give a few spoilers.

I also apologise in advance for any grammatical errors with my tenses as sometimes it's hard to keep continuity when my brain has been working too hard its own good. I may come back and edit this at some time in the future but, for now, I really want to get this film out of the way so that I can move on to something more interesting. In case you hadn't realised, I find slasher films to be a very boring part of the horror genre and think that once you seen one, you've seen them all. I much prefer supernatural stories.

There are several things about "Black Christmas" which I don't like and most of them are to do with the overuse of comic relief throughout. The worst of these offenders is, of course, Marian Waldman as Mrs. Mac. Woe betide you if you say that Mrs. Mac is one of your favourite characters because I couldn't stand her.

Mrs. Mac has to be one of the most annoying and pointless characters ever to be included in a horror movie. Let's be real here, Mrs. Mac is in charge of a sorority house and would obviously have her own room (or apartment) within that house so why was there any need for her to hide booze all over the place? I thought that was really stupid and Marian Waldman's constant overacting every time she discovered another bottle was really grating. Yes, I got it, she's supposed to be an alcoholic but was this honestly the best way of showing that character trait? It's a good thing that Mrs. Mac got killed off after 40 minutes or she would have single-handedly ruined the entire film for me.

Once Mrs. Mac was gone, there were other attempts at comic relief involving the realisation about the bogus phone number which created great amusement among the cops, and the two would-be protectors of the sorority house who caused Phyl (Andrea Martin) to exclaim, amid too much laughing, that she would rather face the killer. The latter is ironic, for sure, but was any of it even necessary?

Every scene with the dopey Sgt. Nash (Doug McGrath) started to get old too. The buckshot scene with the other cop was completely ludicrous and out of place in the reception area of a police station although it was nice to see John Saxon, as Lt. Fuller, smile for once. He actually does a lot of smiling in "Black Christmas" which surprised me as I've always mistakenly believed him to be a rather dour looking actor.

Stuff like this bothers me when I watch a serious horror movie and, while I can accept the humour of Margot Kidder's character, Barb, with all her quirks, the contrived comedy almost ruined the tone of "Black Christmas" as it lurched into silliness for the sake of silliness.

What I can't accept is the complete disregard for logic when it comes to police procedure in horror movies. Would a search party be gathered together so quickly and sent out at night? That really struck me as odd.

I'm not really going to get into the whole phone number tracing thing as I have no idea if that's how it was done back in the day or not but it seemed very inefficient. Maybe you can tell me if that was really how numbers were traced or if it was just artistic licence.

One thing which I'm more sure of is that the ending jumped the shark. How stupid can the cops possibly be that they don't search the attic? Things may have been different in Toronto back in the '70s but have you ever heard of the police not searching every nook and cranny when there have been multiple homicides? Also to sedate and leave the only survivor, Jess, in the house instead of taking her to hospital just doesn't ring true either even with a patrolman on guard outside.

Of course, there are a lot of good points to balance the bad in "Black Christmas" and most of them are to do with Olivia Hussey's performance. It's not just her looks as Margot Kidder easily rivalled her back in the day and I couldn't take my eyes off either of them, but Olivia Hussey played her role absolutely straight and really made the film worth watching.

I don't want to come across like a lusting fanboy but everything about Olivia Hussey was flawless. Every expression and reaction was entirely believable and it's no wonder that she went on to much greater roles (and, unfortunately, quite a few worse ones). The only thing which bothered me was her accent which I couldn't place. I didn't realise that she was of Argentinian and English descent until I looked up her details. At first I thought she was possibly supposed to be of French descent with this being a Canadian film but later I realised that she was being very English especially when she screamed, "Arnswer me!" with that extra "r" that I've always hated to hear back when I was in the old country.

I was slightly perplexed about why so much time was spent on the relationship between Jess and Peter (Keir Dullea) but obviously it was all designed to lead up to the red herring of Peter being the killer. I think maybe too much time was spent on this but it's certainly not as much wasteful padding as in "He Knows You're Alone" (1980) which was a later clone of much the same story.

Where I think the story excelled most was in the backstory of "Billy" which was only revealed through the phone calls themselves. I always thought that the killer was anonymous (in spite of the lengths that the appalling remake went to as it attempted to fill these details in) but I really listened this time enough to realise that the disturbed maniac was reliving his previous sexual offences with what must have been his sister Agnes. It was clever stuff indeed since it's just as easy to not listen to all the garbled screaming and write it off.

So was "Black Christmas" overrated? Maybe. For what it is (or was), "Black Christmas" deserves the title of "classic" due to several innovative and original touches. I think this was the first time that a killer's point of view shots were used in a horror movie and, of course, the phone calls coming from inside the house were used again in "When a Stranger Calls" (1979).

While still a very entertaining film, "Black Christmas" had a lot of flaws. The atmosphere was good and claustrophobic, the sorority house itself seemed cosy, and the other locations were dressed well enough to be realistic. I'm not entirely sure about the police station but, as I've never actually been inside one in my life, it was just as I would imagine it to be only with less doughnuts and coffee machines.

I'm leaving "Black Christmas" in The Vault for now although I was tempted to move into the "Just Average" section. The downbeat ending with the potential for Jess to still not survive the night actually worked for me in spite of how it was set up although it could just as easily be frustrating for anyone who likes to see everything tied up neatly.

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