Black Christmas — A Fresh Look at a Horror Classic

One of my favorite podcasts that gets me through the workday is Killer POV . It’s comprised of three incredibly rad horror industry insiders – Fangoria’s Rebekah McKendry, FEARnet’s Rob Galluzzo, and Inside Horror’s Elric Kane – who have turned me on to a lot of cool films in the last several months. I can’t recommend it enough.

In a recent episode discussing Christmas themed horror, they had AJ Bowen on as a guest, who said something to the effect of being somewhat jealous of anyone who has never seen Black Christmas, considering its classic status and importance and influence on the genre. I can relate, as I’ve personally had the experience of sitting down with someone who had never seen Halloween or Halloween 2 and introducing the franchise to them for the first time. Watching them see one of my favorites through fresh eyes was a major thrill.

So, it is with this post that I can say to AJ Bowen, today, you have reason to be jealous. I’ve been a life-long horror fan and I like to think I’ve been around the block a little bit, but there have been a few classics, cult or otherwise, who for whatever reason, have fallen through the cracks for me. I can’t explain how or why, but I’ve just never gotten around to seeing some of them.

I’ve decided to do something about that, starting here and now. So, with this post, I’m creating a new feature on the site — HORROR CLASSICS THROUGH FRESH EYES. The purpose of this will be to apply what I’ve learned through 20+ years of horror fandom to not only catch up on some stuff I should have seen a long time ago, but to also make a few observations that hopefully, once in a blue moon, may be somewhat fresh – or at the very least, interesting for folks who are already well familiar with this material.

With Christmas being less than a week away, let’s not waste any more time on the preamble and get down to it for the first edition with something I finally had the pleasure of sitting down and watching today for the first time ever: Black Christmas.

Of course, I’ve heard quite a bit about this over the years, but only knew the bare bones — slasher film, takes place on Christmas, lots of pretty girls. Literally, that’s all I knew. It wasn’t until the credits rolled just a few hours ago that I found out that Margot Kidder and and John Saxon were even in it. So, this thing was full of pleasant surprises all around.

I’m not going to waste too much space here summarizing plot. I’m going to guess anyone reading this is already familiar, and if you’re not, I’d recommend watching it before you read this. I might get a little spoilery before it’s over.

I’m basically just going to hit some highlights and discuss some observations that hit me as I went along. First off, the language. And by that, I mean, the fact that the characters weave obscenities like a fine art. I’m not usually taken aback by a few adult words, but I did chuckle a little at th­­­­e fact that the first words of dialogue spoken are, “Who left the goddamn door open?” You just don’t expect that kind of language from Lois Lane.

Just when you get used to it, the girls get their first call from the killer. After Multiple Miggs gets finished discussing how he’d like to get to know them, the virginal one of the group, Clare, heads upstairs to become the first victim.

I particularly enjoyed her death and it was the first time in which I noticed how the film makes creative use of diegetic sound, punctuating her appearance in the frame with the sound of both the killer singing and a church bell in the next scene. It wasn’t groundbreaking, but was incredibly well done.

Probably the best use of creative diegetic sound came later in the film in this shot, when the group is looking for Clare, who’s been missing for quite some time by this point.

frame

In the preceding shot, Peter, distressed about the trouble in his relationship with Jess, smashed the inside of his piano, the sound of the struck strings vibrating into this shot. You can’t hear what’s happening on the inside of the house, but what you do hear is an effective combination of those strings, a dog barking, and a distant siren. The combined effect really works to help build the dread and intensity regarding the hunt for Clare.

It also somewhat breaks the rule that we’ve all become used to of the sweetest, virginal girl in the bunch ending up as the Final Girl. At this point, all bets were off, and while I was guessing it was going to end up being Margo Kidder’s character, Barb, I still had no clue.

I certainly didn’t expect it to end up being Jess, played by the unbelievably beautiful and talented Olivia Hussey. I thought early on that her storyline with Peter would only be a minor subplot, and I kind of liked it that way. I like that this serious, adult pregnancy drama was woven into what could easily be written off as a slasher film that just also happened to have a lot of genuinely funny comedy worked in. The revelation of this painting made me laugh a little more than I probably should have.

painting

There is so much going on in this thing. Jess and Peter’s storyline kind of felt like it could have easily been its own movie, and one that I wouldn’t have mind seeing.

Jess

She really stands out here and has an exotic, otherwordly quality. I looked her up, thinking that there had to be something I’d seen her in or eventually would, and I wasn’t disappointed. I then remembered her from the old Romeo and Juliet production that everyone was required to see in high school and was pleasantly surprised to see that she also played Norma Bates in Psycho IV: The Beginning. I’ve only seen the first one, and I’m thinking I need to tackle the series for a future review. Robert Galluzzo, of the aforementioned Killer POV, actually directed a celebrated documentary on the series, The Psycho Legacy. I’m looking forward to catching that as well.

A few other points of interest: I found the cinematography to be very smooth and economical. Not a shot was wasted, but at the same time, Reginald H. Morris (also responsible for Porky’s and A Christmas Story) really knows how to stylishly move the camera. He effectively takes our attention where he wants it with a dash of flash, without it trying to seem flashy, if that makes any sense at all. I’m also seriously digging the composition in shots like this.

fireplace

Another highlight is John Saxon, playing Lt. Ken Fuller. It’s fun to go into this blind – for one, not knowing he was even in it, and for two, not knowing he’d play such a similar part as he does in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. Seeing all the influences and genre conventions this sets up at this point in the game makes me look at what came later in a whole new light.

And now we’re most definitely getting into the territory of discussing something about the film that I’m sure has been discussed by a million times before I decided to tackle it, and I’m sure much more thoroughly. I don’t have much new to add here, but I’m going to mention it anyway:  The obvious example of Black Christmas‘s influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween. An argument could be made that without this, films like When a Stranger Calls and Halloween may not have even existed, or at least not in the way that we know them. Even after only seeing this once just this afternoon, it was a lot of fun to notice where Carpenter drew from it in terms of the POV device, plot structure, cinematography, and oh yeah, AHEM:

laurie and jess

Bottom line: I’m glad I finally knocked this one out, and I think it was a good way to kick off this new feature. I haven’t read good things so far about the remake, but I’m still going to see it soon anyway. From what I understand, Andrea Martin (Phyl) actually has a small part in it. I can only dream that she still has that damn haircut. God, I love the ’70’s.

If you’re reading this and you have any suggestions for any horror classics, cult or otherwise, that you think I may not have seen and would like for me to take a stab at, let me know in the comments. You’d be surprised what’s fallen through the cracks. It gets a little embarrassing.

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