Saturday, 16 December 2017
Black Christmas (1974)
I'm not really a big fan of slasher movies but that's actually because nine out of ten are derivative pap with Hollywood churning them out in a manner somewhat akin to wringing out an old dishcloth. But when they're done properly, such as here in and the first Halloween (the latter often considered the daddy of the slasher genre though this film actually predates it by four years), they're really rather enjoyable.
Now granted, Black Christmas is utterly predictable right from the off, but what makes this surprisingly shoestring budgeted Canadian chiller so effective are some truly striking cinematic sequences and the overall atmosphere of the piece. Writer A. Roy Moore and director Bob Clark take the much-repeated (and subsequently adapted) urban legend of 'the babysitter and the man upstairs' and plant it firmly in the festive season, capturing that unnerving, sinister essence that has often gone hand in hand with Christmas (and used to great effect with the traditional ghost stories of the season) yet hidden beneath the tinsel, baubles and the notion of goodwill to all men.
Olivia Hussey's Jess is bathed in a red glow from the wreath on the sorority house door as she watches the carol singers and its an image and a colour that is redolent of both the warmth and kitsch of Christmas and the bloodbath of the horror itself. The subversion of the festive themes make Black Christmas the perfect candidate for an alternative festive movie, not only in the notion of the horror being set at Christmas but also in the mischievous disregard it has for the season: Margot Kidder's Barb plies a child with drink at a party, and house mother Mrs Mac (Marian Waldman) is hardly ever seen without a bottle of booze - they both know the true 'spirit' of Christmas! And where does our infantalized killer hide out? Why in the attic naturally, the space for abandoned and forgotten toys.
Also in the film's favour is the fact that the script never once treats its female characters like idiots. Yes they can be a little obnoxious (hello Margot Kidder) but they are astute and convincing as intelligent young college students, who are allowed to discuss and joke about sex, drink and smoke and be independent enough to not only know that they have such rights but to actively insist upon them too, as evinced by Hussey's decision to have an abortion and her refusal to consign her own career and ambitions to the scrapheap because her selfish and highly strung boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) has failed in his own. These are female characters who are far from the dumb, highly sexualised objects of lust that often populate such examples of the genre. There's no denying that Hussey in particular is a very striking, attractive young woman, but these characters possess an everyday, natural beauty that no longer exists in such a genre these days as the women simply look like they're in a film.
With its emphasis on suspense from a telephone landline, it would be easy to write off Black Christmas as rather dated now. However nothing could be further from the truth. The basic ingredient of an unknown monster lurking in the shadows, harassing, stalking and terrorising young women continues to be topical and all too relatable when you consider the online misogyny of trolls. And sadly, just like anyone who has had to fight to get their harassment acknowledged online, it takes our heroines a hell of a long time to be taken seriously by the police or indeed the community at large.