12 January 2012

Fin's Review: Black Christmas

Due to the time of year, Ally thought he would bring a festive-themed horror to the table. He could have done a lot worse than Black Christmas: a taut, well-made and genuinely creepy horror film which laid the groundwork for many of the classic slasher films we know and love. Although this Canadian made film was produced on a tiny budget it is made with enough love and more importantly skill to be a suspense-filled thrill ride. 

Having never seen Black Christmas before, its quality came as a surprise, as did the extent of its influence over future horror classics. My initial thought after watching the film is that it is a criminally underrated film. Having watched it you can see its fingerprints all over a number of more heralded later films, not least Carpenter's Halloween. Black Christmas marks an interesting transition from more traditional suspense mysteries to the slasher films which helped to define 70s and 80s horror.

Like the slashers that would follow in its wake, the set-up of Black Christmas is deceptively simple: a group of female sorority girls are terrorised by a sinister and faceless killer who invades their house a few days before Christmas. This simplicity, however, forms the foundation for a film full of mystery, terror and more red herrings than you could shake a stick at. Despite the set-up of the story, Black Christmas does not lapse into the misogynistic cliché this genre of horror so often becomes. Director Bob Clark achieves this by creating a female cast that is diverse and, for a slasher film, three-dimensional characters. The violence perpetrated against the girls is grim and frightening, but it is not overdone and many of the kill scenes are crafted in a way which does not revel in the violence in screen. By introducing the parents of a couple of the characters who meet their hideous deaths, the consequences of violence are contemplated - a rare thing in most horror films. As a result the violence does not take place in a vacuum and seems all the more scary for it.

As with any serious horror film, Black Christmas must firstly be judged on whether it manages to be scary. In this regard Bob Clark's debut ticks all the boxes, containing a number of genuinely unsettling aspects. It also has to borne in mind that, as the first definable slasher film, the original viewers of Black Christmas would have been even more unsettled having no knowledge of what would go on to become genre conventions. 

The first aspect of the movie which demands attention is the killer himself. The film opens with a scene very reminiscent of Halloween's opening shots in which we are looking through the eyes of the killer as he enters the sorority house. The concept of seeing through the eye of the killer and the unsettling implication of sharing in the violence have become a concept very common to horror cinema, but in 1974 this was seriously fresh. The killer himself, with his hideous animal-like breathing, creates his terror not through his appearance or identity but rather in his nightmarish mystery. We are given no explanation of motive or back-story - we are simply presented with a blank canvas onto which the viewers can project their own fears. The killer is the age-old faceless, formless monster which stalked the forests in fairy tales and it is the formless nature of the killer which creates the terror. This would go on to provide the template for many horror protagonists to come. 

The prank phone calls which are so key in establishing an atmosphere of dread and fear are extraordinary and must rank as the scariest prank calls in any film ever. These films are so full off menace and craziness they have to be heard to be believed. They calls make the calls in Scream sound like child's play. The weirdness of the prank phone calls establishes a strange and unsettling atmosphere that pervades the entire film and, while not reaching Argento levels of weird, it often comes close. A scene where one of the students is killed inter-cut with children singing Christmas carols is particularly unnerving. The killer creeps around the house killing the individual students in ways which Argento would definitely approve of.

Ultimately Black Christmas is a seminal film which, despite remaining largely unknown outside of a cult following, created the bedrock upon which the slasher film would build and develop. Black Christmas is a film I really enjoyed and, although I have some hang-ups about the ending of the movie, it is a film I would struggle to criticise.

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