Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Black Christmas (1974)

The girls of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority are receiving threatening phone calls on Christmas Eve, but little do they know that they are coming from a killer that is hiding inside the house! Unappreciated in its time and still surprisingly unseen by many, BLACK CHRISTMAS nevertheless remains one of the most influential films in the pre-Slasher cycle, and an unsung classic of modern Horror. Calls coming from within the house, a faceless, motiveless killer, an auspicious holiday setting, a house filled with terrified co-eds, the chilling first-person perspective of the killer. Many of these defining characteristics first appeared in BLACK CHRISTMAS, a full four years before John Carpenter would release HALLOWEEN.

BLACK CHRISTMAS introduces us to an excellent cast of characters who, though conventional, show a great deal of personal identity. We have Margot Kidder who plays an all-too-convincing drunken bitch, a bumbling and smart-mouthed house mother Mrs. Mack, the beautiful Olivia Hussey in the lead, and film legend John Saxon as the cunning police chief who is out to stop the killer. The actors help to balance the even blend of dark humor and horror that Bob Clark has written in to each of their lines. No character is ever 'offed' in any simple manner; each of their deaths are as violent as they are unique and memorable. Clare's asphyxiation atop the rocking chair holds the same impact and horror as Argento's opening strangulation in SUSPIRIA.

Bob Clark instills a constant sense of dread despite the cheerful holiday setting. The old, dark house provides an ominous setting for his characters to roam, as the camera effortlessly floats through its hallways with all of the style and grace of the great Mario Bava. The suspense never ends in BLACK CHRISTMAS, and neither does the mystery. The audience is left guessing as to the identity of the killer all the way to the very end. There is no safety or solace to be found in the closing scene; in fact, the night has just begun for poor Jess! Though many are killed throughout the film, very little is actually shown. Instead, Clark tastefully alludes to the extreme acts of violence off-camera. This would be reversed in the 2006 remake. Utterly.

Before his tragic death in 2007, Bob Clark revealed that an ambitious film student once asked him what he would do if he were to ever make a sequel to BLACK CHRISTMAS. Clark stated that he would set it one year later in the same house. The killer was caught, but has escaped from the mental institute to resume killing. He would call it HALLOWEEN. Who else would ask but a young John Carpenter, the known opportunist who would go on to make the similarly titled (and themed) Horror classic. Whether Carpenter truly stole his ideas from here or not is largely irrelevant at this point, but BLACK CHRISTMAS deserves rightful recognition for establishing many key elements of the Slasher genre that are commonly ascribed to HALLOWEEN. It is a wonderfully dark and brooding film that should be at the top of every Horror fan's list!

Rating: 9/10.

Movies like BLACK CHRISTMAS:
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, HALLOWEEN, SILENT NIGHT BLOODY NIGHT, THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE.

Read on for an extra Christmas treat as we explore the two possible killers in BLACK CHRISTMAS from our original 2009 review:

**SPOILERS AHEAD**

What may be the greatest element of BLACK CHRISTMAS is the ambiguous and open ending, which never gives the viewer closure on the identity of the killer nor does it allow the viewer the satisfaction or safety of knowing that the killer has been stopped. The entire film is based around the mystery behind the insane Billy, and there is a clear debate over whether or not Jess' boyfriend Peter was actually the one responsible for the murders. Clark leaves clear visual and audio clues throughout the entire film that back both claims:

The attentive viewer will find numerous details that prove Peter is actually Billy. Peter lives in the conservatory for the musicians on campus, and he is a concert pianist. During the time of the first murder, his only alibi as he explains to Jess is that he has been locked away practicing for days. Later, we are privy to his final exam before the committee, where he offers a less-than-stellar performance. This implies that he may not have been studying as he claims to have been. Also, during the recital, we are shown that he plays in a very modern and expressionist form, with no harmony or melody but rather a rash string of harsh notes. This mirrors the piano notes that Clark cues during the killings, which could easily foreshadow the fact that Peter is involved. The exchanges between Billy and Agnes during the phone calls also seems to insinuate some sort of childhood trauma between the two. These strong ties to childhood events combined with the prospect of Jess' pregnancy could have served as the catalyst that sets Peter off if he were, in fact, Billy. There are several visual notes that also tip Peter off as the potential killer. During Barb's murder, Billy is seen to share a striking resemblance in body composition and hairstyle to Peter. There are also a few seconds where Billy's clothing give off a green tint, similar to the green sweater that Peter wears the majority of the film. As Jess escapes in the final chase sequence, Billy also grabs at her through the stairs with a green-clothed arm. It could also be argued that Peter is yet another persona of Billy's fractured psyche, since he already appears to have three distinct personalities during the phone calls to the house.

With this much evidence pointing towards Peter as the killer, it would seem that he is the clear and obvious choice, but Clark cleverly drives several other points across that make the film even more ambiguous. After Clare is killed, we catch a glimpse of Billy in what looks like a Navy blue shirt and jeans, which is entirely unlike any of Peter's wardrobe. None of the three voices that come through on the phone resemble Peter's tonality or vocal range. It is also important to note that Kier Dullea, who played Peter, was not one of the three actors used to voice the recordings for Billy's phone calls, which also distances him from the character. There is a complete lack of motive for Peter to begin killing prior to finding out that Jess is pregnant. Clare is killed before he is made aware of the pregnancy or of Jess' plans for it, so there is no reason for him to have suddenly cracked previous to this. It is also presumed that Peter is at his piano recital at the same time that Mrs. Mack is killed, giving him another sound alibi. If we are to believe that he has been telling Jess the truth, other musicians at the conservatory would have been able to vouch for his whereabouts as he studied for his exam while Clare was being strangled to death. In the final chase scene, there is a close-up of Billy's eye behind the door. In this shot, Billy's eye color is established as being a light green, but there is a prominent brown crescent or cataract around his iris. As Jess lies in the basement with Peter's lifeless body draped over her, it is clear to the viewer that Peter does, in fact, have bright green eyes, but he does not have the brown distinction around his iris. It is also presumed that his body was removed from the house by the police at the end of the film, which would clearly prove he is not the killer since Billy returns to the attic in the closing scene. This, however, also lends to the argument that there may have been two killers, and that Agnes is the person climbing into the attic in that final shot.



5 comments:

  1. I love this movie! I had heard of it for years but had never seen it until four or five years ago and I fell in love with it. So great on so many levels - writing, directing, acting. Just all done so well and turn out such a great movie. As for two killers, I often wonder about that. Maybe Peter killed the girl in the park but Billy did the rest and, because Jess kills Peter, he gets the blame for them all. We will always have to wonder!

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  2. jervaise brooke hamsterDecember 15, 2011 at 3:57 PM

    This is such a perfect movie to watch at 10pm on Christmas eve.

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  3. One of my all-time favorites as well Joe, it always surprises me to find out how many Horror fans have never seen it! We watch it every year as a Christmas tradition, then slink off to SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT for my guilty pleasure!

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  4. Fantastic review, Carl. It never occurred to me that there may have been two killers. But you make a good argument for it. I'm going to have to revisit the film soon and pat closer attention.

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  5. Thanks Lee, it is always worth reproaching again and again to dissect, so many possibilities! Peter could still be the killer, and it could be Agnes that we see crawling back into the attic in the end!

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