May 19, 2008
Black Christmas (1974)
While the horror genre is quite broad and its themes range from the most extreme fantasy to the harshest realism, most of the times when someone thinks about the horror genre, the very first idea that comes to mind is the slasher film: a masked psycho on the loose stalking a group of dumb teenagers and killing them one by one. And the reason for this is that being a somewhat simple and popular concept to produce, a lot of slasher films have been done since the genre's rise to popularity in the 80s, the "Golden Age" of the "Friday the 13th", "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Halloween" series. In fact, It would be John Carpenter's "Halloween" what brought the genre to the spotlight in 1978 and started the "slasher film craze", making many to consider it the very first film of its kind, but even when it helped to popularize the concept and set the standard for the films to come, the most likely candidate for being the real first slasher is a Canadian film done 4 years before "Halloween": Bob Clark's "Black Christmas".
Set in a Canadian sorority house, "Black Christmas" begins when the sorority girls are preparing to leave for the Christmas break. On their last night before vacations, they have been receiving obscene phone calls from an anonymous guy whom they nickname "The Moaner". Nobody takes seriously these calls, thinking the guys is just a pervert and continue with their packing, but the phone calls begin to get more and more disturbing each time. Everything gets worrying when one of them, Clare Harrison (Lynne Griffin), disappears after going upstairs to finish her packing. The next day, the other girls join Clare's father (James Edmond) and contact the police, but nobody seems to be really concerned about the mystery. However, the morbid phone calls continue and soon another girl disappears. For Jessica (Olivia Hussey), Barbie (Margot Kidder) and Phyllis (Andrea Martin), the remaining girls at the sorority house, it'll be a Christmas break they'll never forget.
"Black Christmas" was the brainchild of Canadian writer Roy Moore, whom taking inspiration from several real crime stories, came up with an idea that seems to be the direct descendant of Agatha Christie's famous play, "And Then There Were None", as it is essentially a murder mystery tale taken to the modern urban landscape. From the screenplay we get many of what now are considered pillars of the slasher sub-genre, like the mainly female cast, lead by a strong woman who must overcome her fears and attempt to face and discover the identity of the killer in order to survive the night. However, one thing that "Black Christmas" has that many of the films it influenced tragically lack is the way it develops its characters: they feel very real and one truly begins to care about them. Another highlight of the screenplay is the good dose of black comedy included in the story, as like Hitchcock would do, it breaks the tension with great timing, and most importantly, it never feels out of place.
However, while definitely the screenplay set some of the basics for the sub-genre, it was Bob Clark's execution of it what made this thriller different and ultimately gave birth to the slasher film. The most striking feature of the film is the way Clark handles the suspense through the movie, as while "Black Christmas" does have shocking scares of great impact, it is often thanks to the heavy atmosphere of suspense that such scares work that perfectly, even after repeated viewings (something that not many slashers can do that well). It's remarkable the great use Clark gives to his setting for creating this atmosphere, as by having most of the movie set in the sorority house at night, he manages to convey effectively the feelings of claustrophobia and paranoia that slowly begin to make prey of the characters. Clark's use of the camera is also essential for this, and his use of the killer's point of view truly enhances the idea that the menace is constant (a lesson John Carpenter would explore further in his "Halloween").
The acting is of excellent quality, as the three main actresses appear very natural in their roles as sorority girls. While their characters aren't really of Shakesperean proportions, the screenplay allows them the freedom to develop their roles at will and they definitely do, making them more than the stereotypes they may have represented. Olivia Hussey is particularly good as Jessica, conveying a mixture of innocence and strong will that would later become a trademark of her kind of character. Margot Kidder is also excellent as Barbie, and she has several of the film's best moments, as well as Marian Waldman, whom playing the sorority house's owner, Mrs. Mac, and provides many of the comedy moments of the movie. I wasn't as excited about Andrea Martin's performance, but she is not really bad, just not that impressive and a bit less developed. Finally, John Saxon completes the cast as Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller, the man who'll try to find the killer before another girl gets murdered.
Besides "Halloween", many other films have been called "the original slasher", including Hitchcock's "Psycho", Bava's "Reazione a Catena" ("Twitch of the Dead Nerve" or "Bay Blood") and Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"; however, I personally find "Black Christmas" to be the movie that for the first time combines the elements of those previous films that originate what is at the same time the most loved and hated sub-genre of horror. And sadly, that's not only its blessing, but also its curse, as for being the originator of a highly formulaic style of storytelling, at this point in history "Black Christmas" may appear clichéd and slow at first sight, specially when compared to the postmodern approach of Craven's "Scream". With this in mind, one may be tempted to think that "Black Christmas"'s status as a classic comes just for being the first of its kind, but as written above, this is not the case, as despite its flaws, Clark's nightmarish murder mystery still delivers the goods in great measure.
Not without a reason, the "slasher film" has been heavily criticized since its conception; whether for its simplicity, for its formulaic nature, and even for its supposed misogyny (whereas an argument could be made for it being one of the first genres where female empowerment was shown as well!). However, and like every other film genre, it has produced its fair share of gems that are not only great slasher films, but great horror movies in general, and Bob Clark's "Black Christmas", the very first of them, is one of those great films. I must admit that I'm not the biggest fan of slasher films, and that I may have criticize them more than they deserve, but I must say that "Black Christmas" is truly a film that lives up to its reputation and really deserves to be checked out. Like "Halloween" (which could be its counterpart), it is more than a slasher film, it's an experience.