Black Christmas

This post was originally published on the New Beverly Cinema blog on December 12, 2016. It is being republished here with full permission of the New Beverly. For the original post (with different artwork) please see the original post here.

Bob Clark made movies that stand the test of time and was phenomenally gifted at the art of good storytelling. Not many filmmakers can do this. But the director of the holiday classic A Christmas Story (playing Saturdays at Midnight this month at the New Beverly) has made as many people laugh as his slasher classic Black Christmas has made people feel total fear. Black Christmas is as frightening and nightmare inducing as A Christmas Story is hilarious and gut-busting.

Some may wonder: why Christmas? Was Christmas a “thing” with Clark? Perhaps. To an extent, we may examine the idea of Christmas as a holiday that is joyful and anxiety-ridden, thus Clark made two of the most iconic films in the holiday film oeuvre to study the holiday from two very different ends of the spectrum. Of course, A Christmas Story is jam-packed with neurotic holiday discourse so while the movie is certainly a loving paean to family memories, it cannot help but be a bit dark at the edges. On the other hand, nothing within the A Christmas Story narrative could compare to the relentless terror presented within the landscape of the small town of Bedford and residing within the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house of Black Christmas.

Clark was no dummy. Naming the town Bedford was as willful a move as anything else in Black Christmas. If this location sounds familiar, it should: Bedford Falls was the name of the town from Frank Capra’s quintessential Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). But that’s where the similarities between Capra and Clark’s works end. This 1974 horror film centers on a group of young women living together at a sorority house preparing for the holidays as the school term ends.

With a cast that features Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, Keir Dullea and John Saxon, this motion picture is stacked with talent. Even the little known Marian Waldman is brilliant as the booze-hiding den mother, Mrs. Mac.

The triumph and tragedy of Black Christmas is that it does not age and it is just as effective now as it was over 40 years ago. Clothes, haircuts and styles may have changed but the filmmaking is so fresh and the anxiety is so real that this work does not feel dated. The major topics raised within the narrative of Black Christmas – abortion (fun fact: Black Christmas was released the year after Roe vs. Wade was passed), stalkers, domestic violence and abuse, sexual independence, a woman’s right to choose her own way to live her life/career – are still hotly debated in 2016. This horror film is made more horrifying because those topics are knitted into the very fabric of the feature and they are still, sadly, hot-button issues.

Black Christmas is a critically important film as well as decidedly scary. Clark’s work never underestimates any of the female characters. He spends time showing their relationships, vibrant personalities and strong individual identities. He contrasts them to the men in the film who are complete liabilities: entirely useless or dangerously toxic and angry to the point of becoming monstrous themselves. While Black Christmas is certainly a slasher film (predating John Carpenter’s Halloween) and lives up to the byline on the poster: “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight!” it’s also a look at male/female relations and the ways in which they are presented on-screen.

Black Christmas is startlingly unique, both in the way that it handles its protagonists and in the way that it seeks to turn the terror up to 11. If this film doesn’t scare you, you can’t be scared. And let’s be clear about this – Clark’s film isn’t about body counts, gory details (you see little to no gore at all) or surprises.  Black Christmas is pure unadulterated terror from the very first phone call.

The sorority house is having a Christmas party and Jess (Olivia Hussey) answers the phone. The young women all stand around to listen to this caller who (we have learned) has called before. The more sexually graphic the call gets, the more interested the camera becomes in each young woman’s face and reaction to the words, screams and almost unintelligible gurgling sounds pouring out of the receiver. This perverse aural symphony is contrasted to the softly lit living room and background sound of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Barb (Margot Kidder) grabs the phone from Jess and gives the caller a bit of her tough girl “don’t fuck with me” attitude. The caller’s response? The only crystal clear words that come from that phone during the whole film – a calm, direct sentence: “I’m going to kill you.” That scene might be one of the scariest things that this author has experienced in a movie theater.

It is usually what you cannot see or do not fully grasp that makes a film so ultimately disturbing. And so it is with Black Christmas. The film is a complex quilt of aural and visual stimuli, running the gamut from killer’s POV to female protagonists’ perspective. While we can hear these phone calls as much as the women in the sorority house do, we cannot understand them any better than they do. We are equally as scared by the deeply frantic and distressed energy that increases with each call.  These sounds are not just heavy breathing or the standard prank dirty talk.  Clark’s audio in Black Christmas is meant to hit us on a whole other level: the caller could be a tortured child, someone with multiple personality disorder, a perverted sex offender, or…? The calls are an unknown quantity that we cannot put our finger on, in any recognizable manner. This is perfectly stated in Clare (Lynne Griffin)’s comment on the first call: “Could that be one person?”

We get the opportunity to see through the eyes of the killer but it feels unstable, voyeuristic and wholly uncomfortable. Reginald H. Morris did most of the camera work for the film (and went on to do both Porky’s films, A Christmas Story and Turk 182! with Clark) but Albert J. Dunk strapped a camera to his back to shoot the POV material.  The audio for the phone calls was also highly specialized and not created by one voice – the calls came from Bob Clark himself, Nick Mancuso (of Under Siege, 1992 fame) and an uncredited female performer. 

Black Christmas will unnerve you because it doesn’t bother to answer your questions.  It categorically refuses to help you out as a viewer and yet it satisfies you completely on the level of character development. It is perfectly damning for everyone involved, audience and fictional personae alike. On an even more bone-chilling level, a work like Black Christmas has high critical value and relevance because violent stalkers still exist, unstable men continue to threaten/intimidate women in all kinds of weird ways (phone, mail, etc) and legal authorities don’t believe them until it’s too late. This movie should scare the shit out of you because the story could just as easily happen today as in 1974. It may be a horror movie and one of the first slasher films, but the happenings at the Pi Kappa Sigma house delve into seriously dangerous territory that still need attention.

Bright Light! Bright Light! or How I Learned to Love Microwaves–#5

Joe Dante is one of the nicest and most knowledgeable guys you’ll ever meet in your life. From the first time he ever programmed a festival at the New Beverly in 2008 (discussed here by the inimitable Dennis at Sergio Leone & the Infield Fly Rule), I knew he was one of the “good ‘uns.”  Realistically, I had known this since I was a kid, but I reserve judgement on someone’s person until I get a chance to meet them (if I get that good fortune- which is rare- but in LA…it happens). However, Joe is absolutely golden. But I really should’ve known that since this was the man who gave us Matinee (Joe Dante, 1993), a film that has a lightly-disguised William Castle-like character (and I’m a huge Castle fan) and is dedicated to the undying love of cinema. I also should’ve known this since I remember seeing Innerspace (Joe Dante, 1987) with my mom in the theater as a kid and thinking it was one of the coolest movies ever, adoring the Sam Cooke song, and thinking that is this was what movies were about, I wanted to see ALL OF THEM all of the time. And yes, I’m a huge fan of The ‘burbs (Joe Dante, 1989) as well. I was so very pleased to get to see that at the New Beverly a little while ago as well.

But, as we are all aware, the erudite Dante made a Christmas film. And it is not just any Christmas film, it is the Christmas film.

5) Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

One of my friends is probably the ultimate anti-Christmas-film person. He’s down with the food, but the “happy happy joy joy” stuff and any kind of religiousness? Keep that the hell away from him. It’s just not his style. But he loves Gremlins. He really, truly adores this film like it was going out of style. And considering some of his other favorite directors are Tod Solendz, John Woo and Werner Herzog and he believes that Salo by Pasolini is a staple…this is saying quite a bit.

He’s not alone, however. Gremlins  is widely considered a classic. And I think it’s generally because not everyone likes Christmas in its Joyful Portrayal. See, every bright room has some dark time, and to many people (myself included) the dark time is, in many ways, a great deal more interesting. In fact, if you were to take a look at the other “classic” Christmas films, they are all a bit dark, which leads me to question why we have so much trouble recognizing that. I mean, to be completely honest, It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) is a film about a guy who wants to commit suicide. How cheerful a theme is that around holiday time?

Polish Gremlins poster. I love Polish posters.

A man I wrote about a few entries earlier, Bob Clark, has dipped into the “dark time” of the Christmas room twice, with Black Christmas and with A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983). While the latter film is more comedic, it has more edge than a straight-up, feel-good comedy. Most of the film centers on the gun that the child-protagonist wants, and how his parents think that it will “shoot his eye out,” not to mention the rest of the dark things that happen to the young members of the cast. Are we supposed to injure children in Christmas films? Heh. Well, maybe in my kinds of Christmas movies. As long as they’re accompanied by the right balance that Clark gives us (which he definitely does, in Christmas Story– if you haven’t seen that one, see it).

Gremlins has monsters in it. And lord help me, I’m a sucker for a monster movie. I don’t care what season it is. And, more importantly, it has the significant interplay between human, monster, and sympathy. The things that will always get me. You put those things in a film, and more often than not, I’m YOURS. Then you add humor and a dark view of the holidays??? SOLD!! Gremlins has been on my list for these reasons and always will be. People can try to knock it, but they will always fail. In my mind, it is an essential. It wouldn’t be the holidays without it!

What’s a Nice Jewish Girl Like You Doing in an X-Mess Like *THIS*???–#1

Right. So I missed the first night. In the spirit of the season, you should forgive me. I was busy hanging out with new friends, watching a National Geographic special about submarines in South America that attempt to smuggle cocaine into the US, a mini-documentary by David Schmoeller called Please Kill Mr. Kinski, and a police training film by the Milwaukee Police department called Surviving Edged Weapons.  I have to say that this was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend the 1st night of Chanukkah, considering there are really no “Chanukkah” movies.

So, aside from that wondrous evening, I realized that I really enjoy Christmas movies, and being that I have a platform to tell everyone what my favorite ones are and why…I should do so.

In the most Jewish way possible.

So here we go. Starting late (hullo Jewish Standard Time), I shall now give you…

Sinaphile’s 8 Nights of Cinema for the 12 Days of Christmas

1. When I think Christmas, I think: IF THIS PICTURE DOESN’T MAKE YOUR SKIN CRAWL, IT’S ON TOO TIGHT.

Black Christmas

Yeah, When I think Christmas, I think Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974).  I can’t remember the first time that I saw this, but I think that it was probably some crazy after-hours screening around the holidays, and it had to have been probably a little under 10 years ago.  I remember being utterly, completely, GLORIOUSLY and GUTWRENCHINGLY terrified. It made me so happy!!!! See, movies don’t scare me. This one did. It’s on the list of the three films that have ever managed to truly creep me out or scare me in my lifetime as a movie-watcher. That experience was the best gift that Clark could’ve ever given me.

Original poster for Black Christmas aka Silent Night, Evil Night

Since that first time watching it, I have watched it many, many, many times over. And the best part? It still scares me. Bob Clark was an amazing filmmaker and a truly talented man. The fact that he died so early and in such a horrible way (he and his son were tragically killed by a drunk driver in April, 2007) still saddens me.

Original Black Christmas film advertisement, "first run" for the Conestoga Four Theaters in Grand Island, Nebraska

Clark had called the film Stop Me initially, but that was clearly not where it ended up. He retitled it to Black Christmas but the film was originally released as Silent Night, Evil Night for the US theatrical release then changed yet again to Stranger in the House for television broadcasts (although that ended up getting nixed due to it being “too scary” for TV). As shown, Black Christmas had a very indirect route to its title. Shot in Canada, it managed to do pretty well on release. While the critical reviews at the time were poor, it has since gotten to be more of a popular title, even spawning a remake a few years ago (which I categorically refused to see).

While Christmas time may seem like a time of happiness, joy and giving, jingle bells, snow and cider-y goodness, it warms the cockles of my heart to know that there’s always a good ol’ piece of classic slasher cinema there for me to dig my eyeballs into and get creeped out by. It makes me happy.

And if this trailer doesn’t get you…well, I’d do something about that skin.