HOLY TERRORS #4: “BLACK CHRISTMAS”
Anyone who knows me knows i have an acute Grinch-like hatred of the holiday season. Hell, I kicked off my last column listing the myriad reasons why exactly I hate Christmas and all it stands for, and I think I’m starting to exasperate people. So, no, I’m not going to bitch about the giant inflatable Santa Claus’ that sprout from every fifth lawn like some sort of hot air holiday Godzilla or the ageless, inedible fruitcakes spotted with candied somethings and the lost secrets of time. No, quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve moaned like Marley’s ghost far too much, so I’ve decided to spread some Christmas cheer of my own. And I’m doing it in the best and only way I know how: by casting my loving eye on what may truly be my favorite holiday film, the scary, suspenseful and the all together amazing proto-slasher classic Black Christmas.
While everyone seems to think the genesis of the whole slasher film subgenre of horror — y’know naughty teens getting knocked off one-by-one by a heavy-breathing loony tunes serial murderer with an unspoken conservative bent — was ground zero at Halloween, the truth is, as usual, far more grayer than that. The history of the slasher film is a story for another time when its not one in the morning and I got a self-imposed deadline to meet. Let’s just make the story short and sweet, like grandma’s gingerbread cookies; the first real slasher film, the film that really introduced many of the templates that would soon be requisite for the subgenre — a group of teen or college age young’ uns to run sharp implements through, a remote/isolated/singular location in which to snare ’em, the last remaining “final girl” — came from Canada four years before Carpenter’s classic, and made terrifying a holiday far less used to nasty frights than All Hallow’s Eve.
What separates Black Christmas from the rest of the the run-of-the-mill pack that would proliferate so wildly in later years is that it feels so different from the cheap, artless, money-grubbing T&A-fests of the post-Friday the 13th years. In fact, compared to them, Black Christmas is downright elegant, sophisticated and stylish, a world-class thriller that just happens to be about sorority girls being stalked, terrorized and bumped off by an unseen maniac. Trashy? save that slander for Sorority House Massacre. Black Christmas is about as trashy as that giant tree lit up in NYC.
Not that I don’t mind trashy. Trashy’s great. But Black Christmas is downright unnerving enough not to have to go the exploitation route. In fact, this is the rare slasher flick that has got no gore, no bare boobies, no sex and — does so intentionally. What Christmas has got going for it — what keeps me coming back year after year — is the gift of realism. A few movie-ish moments aside, Black Christmas earns its creeps because it feels plausible, as if a gaggle of real, likable co-eds was actually being stalked by some perverted prank caller who’s actually INSIDE THE DAMN HOUSE! That shiver you’re feelin’? Ain’t from the cold, baby.
Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling the surprise. We know from the get-go that something’s amiss at the manor house that belongs to the girls of Pi Kappa Sig. We see a shadowy figure prowl the corridors, and we see him kill off poor, unfortunate Claire — whose terrified, suffocated face, a rictus of fear enshrouded in plastic wrap, chillingly unnoticed through the last frame of film, became one of the movie’s most iconic images. Claire’s sisters in the sorority have been getting strange, obscene phone calls and, to this very day, over 30 years hence, they remain some of the most downright creepy, disturbing and unforgettable noises ever put to film.
The girls themselves are an easy to like bunch who feel like real girls, with real lives and real problems — not the silicone-enhanced bimbettes that flashed their immobile melons during the 80s and 90s. They’re played by actresses who were either already familiar to audiences or just about to be: there’s Olivia Hussey, the starlet of Zeffirelli’s ’68 Romeo and Juliet as Jess, a British lass with a high-strung artist boyfriend and an unwanted bun in the oven; future cinematic Lois Lane Margot Kidder as the group drunk Barb; and Andrea Martin, of SCTV sketch comedy fame, as the nerdy Phyllis. Unlike the cardboard morons of most stalk-and-slash movies, these girls make for an empathetic and intelligent lot, the kind of people who would, you know, worry and go to the police should one of their friends vanish. Not run off to do drugs, have sex and die.
But the best aspect of Black Christmas is its villain; Billy. We never find out Billy’s backstory, never find out anything about him. We never see him as anything more then a lurking shadow, or one eye, never hear anything from him other than his demonic caterwauling. He remains a mystery. If Carpenter presented Michael Myers as a boogeyman, than Blly was worse; he was, literally, the monster in the closet, unknowable, unseeable, ready to kill you and you wouldn’t even know he was there.
Black Christmas is the work of director Bob Clark, who would later go on to deliver yet another holiday classic of a different stripe: perennial favorite and TBS 24-hour marathon staple A Christmas Story. Clark also directed the raunchy Porky‘s movies, and before he entered the comedy arena, he was a burgeoning horror talent (check out his fantastic zombie-PTSD classic Deathdream, one of the first films to explicitly deal with the Vietnam War.) Black Christmas is loaded with stylish visual florishes, tightly wound suspense and several knock-em-out moments of blood-curdling terror, including the chilling, grim, ambiguous end. Clark was a promising helmer of 70s horror, and that he left it to pursue comedy was sad; that he recently passed away in a car crash after exec producing a remake of his seminal fright classic is sadder.
And that brings us to said remake, released on Xmas Day in 2006 to mild controversy and the delight of almost no one. Let’s have a word on the remake, shall we? This one is trash — and naughty, impish, fun trash. I know a lot of horror freaks like me hate this flick with a passion, and, frankly, I did too when i first saw it. It’s everything the original Black Christmas is NOT: gory, over-the-top, campy, imbecilic, over-explanatory. But, in a way, that gives this new version a perverse, lump-of-coal personality all its own. This is a movie that revels in splatter, bad attitudes and at least one nekkid lady, yet there’s a nasty, funny streak of wicked black comedy underpinning every moment of its garish existence. Lurid, smarmy and smeared with a ho-ho-horrendous red and green lighting scheme, I wouldn’t call the achinlgy modern Black Christmas ’06 good, but I like it in its own tawdry, deviant, bad-tempered junk movie way.
So, Mad Loves, there you have it — even a War-On-Christmas declaring miscreant like me can summon some seasonal love and holiday spirit. True, it may be for a movie in which a faceless psycho makes mincemeat out of pretty ladies, but hey, at least ya got me to muster up something. Hell, maybe if ya put some “spirits” into that ratty stocking over the fireplace, I may even willing to play “Psycho Santa Under The Mistletoe” for you. Now, slice yourself off a piece of holiday pie, forget White Christmas and have yourself a merry little Christmas, Holy Terrors style.