Saturday, December 17, 2011

BLACK CHRISTMAS: KEEPING THE FEAR DURING THE CHEERIEST TIME OF THE YEAR

I'm definitely going out on a limb when I make this confession, but I didn't see the original Black Christmas until about three years ago.  In my defense, I was only eighteen years old...and not Canadian.  Black Christmas isn't exactly a film that is just sitting around suburban video rental stores screaming "WATCH ME!".  I was only able to finally experience the film that ignited the flame of the horror movie fanatic's obsession with slasher films when I was given a copy of the DVD as a gift.  As the holiday season begins to rear it's ugly, LED blinking head, Day of the Woman is going to shine a divine light on a film that often goes overlooked.

What first attracted me to the film was the simple, yet believable storyline.  In typical horror fashion, the story is centered around some drunk and horny college kids disobeying Mom & Dad.  Things are only a little strange when the kids start receiving calls from a deranged caller making graphic, sexually inappropriate statements.  Now, what we tend to forget is that this film took place in the 1970's, a time when caller ID and *67 didn't exist.  They were still using rotary phones for God's sake.  Bart Simpson would have had a field day back in the 70's.  Since there was no way for anyone to tell who was calling, it made it even more horrifying to discover the calls were coming from inside the house.  Caller ID or not, knowing someone is in the house and screwing with you...is scarier than one would think.

Maybe it was just the filming styles of the 1970's, but the coloring of the film really added to the irk of it all.  I mean that literally.  Horror films in the 1970's didn't have these bright and vibrant CGI colorings the way horror films do now.  It had a very bleak and depressing feel even when the scary moments weren't happening. Bob Clark used a hell of a lot of interesting camera angles including the "point of view" shot which allowed audiences to see the world from the view of the psychopath, and added an element of danger towards the unsuspecting victims.  This concept was relatively new for slasher films and gave a claustrophobic feel.  To put it simply, this film created some of the horror staples that are executed in all horror subgenres today.

The ballsiest move was perhaps having the film take place around the holiday season.  When we think of films like Halloween, we expect to be scared.  It's the night of monsters and ghouls, if we're not scared, we're not doing it right.  However, Christmas is intended to be the polar opposite.  We're supposed to be cheerful, and covered in snow, and opening presents, and getting drunk because our parents ridicule us over family dinners, and watching 24 hour marathons of Bob Clark's other film.  We're not supposed to be hacked off one by one.  Throwing the audience completely out of their comfort zone only added to horror the audience would sit through.  This "fish out of water" concept helped pave the way for other slasher staples.  Putting gruesome occurrences in seemingly happy environments (babysitting, summer camps, school dances etc. etc.) became the most demanded situations for slasher films, and Black Christmas is what started it all. 

The most obvious of the slasher staple, is the female power shot.  While Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street may have brought us the "final girls", Black Christmas is gushing with feminist overtones.  The film takes place in a sorority house and exposes the status struggle between sorority sisters.  Each of the characters represent a different type of woman in the 1970's and the film showcases these women that were often seen as rebellious during their time.  Olivia Hussey's portrayal of Jessica followed the VERY controversial topic of having an abortion.  Showing a woman making such a strong decision based on what was right for her body was almost unheard of at the time. The undertones of Jessica's abortion along with religious subtexts dealing with abortion vs. immaculate conception could take an entire novel's worth of analysis, but make sure the next time you watch the film, you look out for it.  Okay, okay.  Moving on.  Margot Kidder's Barbie, is the overtly sexual party girl that represented the women of the 1970's that were finally liberating themselves sexually and taking control of their sex life.  Women were actually enjoying sex and enjoying it for themselves, rather than for male satisfaction only.  Barbie was essentially one of the first "party girls" and she was one of the first female characters to be proud of her sexuality and paved the way for the horror archetype.  Clare, the "powerslut" to say the least, was the first one to admit about her sexual conquests and also the first one to bite the dust.  Thus ushering in the "sluts die first" rule that horror films have taken such a liking to.  To contrast, Andrea Martin's Phyllis was the innocent intellectual who inspired much of the characteristics of the modern "final girl".  Female archetypes in horror films are almost as prevalent as the racial archetypes and Black Christmas was one of the first films to blatantly expose them.  

This is definitely a must-see for any horror fan, and is (in my opinion) the grandmother of the slasher subgenre.  While it may get complaints for being a tad bit predictable (sans the twist ending), the film is only predictable because we've seen the format copied so many times before.  This film is the root of the basis for a good percentage of the modern horror films that we know and cherish today. Instead of sitting through 24 hours of Bob Clark's most famed Christmas film, take a trip down memory lane and dig deep into the foundations of what makes a quality horror film. 




...and if this isn't enough to convince you, John Saxon is in it. You're welcome.

9 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

That use of the "C" word in the obscene phone call must`ve been quite shocking to audiences in `74.

Michael Kamp said...

How does it hold up to the remake? I'd assume the original is better, but is it a "lot" better?

Alexandra said...

Nice write up. This is my all time favourite slasher and makes me proud to be Canadian. (see also: my spelling of "favourite")

Anonymous said...

The remake is OK but no-where near a good as the original, it certainly didn`t deserve to be trashed to the levels that is was on its release for Christmas of 2006. Like i said, even though it didn`t come close to the original i still thought it was a slightly under-rated movie, in fact over the last couple of years its become a bit of a Christmas favorite of mine, both movies are perfect to watch on Christmas eve obviously.

Anonymous said...

Another great thing about "Black Christmas" is that it gives you the best of both worlds (as it were), it is a very Christmassy movie but its also got a lot of loathsome and odious things going on in it, which helps you to stay in touch with reality rather than being totally immersed in the "Christmas magic" because when that happens the treacle and nostalgic bull-shit can become so murderously unbearable. Like i said, "Black Christmas" provides the veiwers with genuine "Christmas magic" but also keeps them in touch with reality as well, perfection.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Merry Christmas little darlin`.

a famous historian said...

Yes, great film - arguably the first true slasher (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was released first but is really a countryside-revenge film). Very feminist with respect to the gendering of violence and the abortion issue.

Anonymous said...

I liked black Christmas as well. But the plastic bag suffocation seen was intense. How long does it take to suffocate? Suffocation is my worst fear.

SpikeGhost said...

This is a movie i like to watch on both Halloween and Christmas. A true masterpiece of horror so sadly underrated.

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