Thursday, October 27, 2011

2011 Halloween Film Festival: Black Christmas (1974)

Olivia Hussey as "Jess" in Black Christmas
Notable for being one of the first slasher films, director Bob Clark’s 1974 Black Christmas starring Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, Marian Waldman, and John Saxon, is largely based on a series of murders that occurred in Quebec, Canada around Christmas time. The film which follows a group of college students who must face a deranged serial killer lurking in their sorority house, has achieved a devoted cult following in the years since its release, and inspired other films such as Friday the 13th and John Carpenter's Halloween.
Margot Kidder (left) as "Barb" in Black Christmas
Cameraman, Albert J. Dunk, created the POV camera shot by mounting a camera onto his back and creeping around the house. He crawled up the housing trellis in the beginning of the film as well. According to Bob Clark, due to the surprisingly light snowfall, most of the snow scenes outside of the sorority house were made of foam material provided by a local fire department. The role of Mrs. MacHenry (the alcoholic house mother) was offered to Bette Davis. The role of Peter (Hussey’s boyfriend) was originally offered to Malcolm McDowell, but he turned it down. The role of Lieutenant Fuller was supposed to have been played by Edmond O'Brien, but due to failing health he had to be replaced. John Saxon was brought in as a last minute replacement. Gilda Radner was offered the role of Phyllis Carlson. She was attached, but dropped out one month before filming began owing to Saturday Night Live commitments. Future ‘Not-Ready-for-Primetime Player’ Andrea Martin got the part instead. With so many subsequent films borrowing elements from it, the original Black Christmas might mistakenly seem outdated, cliched and plodding, but this is merely due to its age and overall low-production values. The film still does some things surprisingly well, by effective use of music, skilled editing and nice camera work, Black Christmas builds suspense by suggestion and tension minus gratuitous amounts of gore; and if nothing else, the obscene and disturbing phone calls that the girls receive throughout the picture have lost none of the punch. They are really weird!

A seemingly disoriented man enters the sorority house through an open attic window during a Christmas party and then begins picking off the girl’s one at a time. After each death, and before the other girls are aware of the danger, they receive increasingly bizarre and suggestive telephone calls. The local police are initially dismissive of the first victim’s disappearance, believing instead that she is probably shacking up with a lover, but this coincides with a local mother’s report that her young daughter, Janice, is missing as well.The sorority girls, friends and family present a joint plea to Lt. Fuller and a search is mounted. The search party finds Janice's dead body near the park; Jess returns home and receives another obscene phone call. Later, Jess and Peter argue about her decision to have an abortion. Peter becomes frustrated and leaves after Lt. Fuller arrives to discuss the phone calls with Jess. A technician places a tap "bug tracer" onto the sorority house phone to trace the phone calls and an officer is stationed outside the house.

The deaths continue, with the house mother and more girls succumbing to the unseen killer, but circumstances lead the police to suspect Peter as the culprit, though Jess doesn’t agree. Eventually the phone tap traces the calls to the same sorority house, and with Lt. Fuller en route to the scene, Jess fails to heed Sgt. Nash’s urgent instructions to put down the phone and leave the building. The terrified Jess is attacked by the real killer, but manages to lock herself in the basement, when Peter shows up and kicks out a window to enter. As Fuller arrives, her screams are heard and as the police enter the basement they discover Peter dead, having just been bludgeoned to death by Jess with a fire poker in self-defense. Later, the films memorably ambiguous ending shows Jess in drug-induced sleep in her bed as Fuller and the officers discuss how and why Peter must have been the killer. They also mention the fact that the first victims body still hasn't been found, revealing that they neglected to look in the attic (where both Clare and the house mother were taken). The officers leave Jess asleep in her bed, stating that a man will be right outside the front door. However, once the house is quiet, the phone starts to ring and the audience is shown the attic, with Clare and Mrs. MacHenry's bodies still undisturbed as the killer whispers to himself.

I enjoyed Black Christmas, with only a couple of performances leaving me a bit cold. Frankly, I’ve never liked Margot Kidder as an actress. Her performance as the caustic, boozy “Barb”; is seemingly there solely to make some crude and humorous sexual references, but why any of the sorority girls would actually like Barb is beyond me. The over the top Mrs. MacHenry (played by Marian Waldman) belongs elsewhere too, both women were simply irritating and I was glad to see them fall victim to the slasher.

1 comment:

Mike D. said...

Every now and then even after all these years..this movie pops into my head...the Racket Peter makes on the piano...the glass unicorn used as a murder weapon .."the caller is in the house!" That's been borrowed a few times. I had nightmares for years after seeing this. It's that good of a film to induce nightmares for years to come. Yeah..I hated Margot Kidder too...still do. The body in the attic looking out the window...the eye behind the door...creepy film. It's a Slasher classic!
I think some italian Directors borrowed bits of this film for their own gore fests!