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.

No Such Thing as a Guilty Pleasure–#8

Yeah, totally completely late. But my last film *will* get up before it’s 2012, even if it is after Xmas and a bit after Chanukah.

8) White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, 1954)

Before anyone bitches about how cheesy this film is, I usually watch it as a double feature with my first choice of this series, Black Christmas. It’s a lovely way to put the yin in the yang and give a kick to the sauce, so to speak.

Before you try, there is no talking me out of WHITE CHRISTMAS. First of all, there is Danny Kaye. I have a tiny little altar dedicated in my soul to that man that was erected as a small child when my parents gave me the Hans Christian Andersen (Charles Vidor, 1952) record and I memorized that. Additionally, I watched the film with a regularity matched only by with how much I watched The Court Jester (Melvin Frank, Norman Panama, 1956). In short, I watched the films and played those records a lot. Yes, I’m a Kaye-o-holic.The next thing about this film is that it’s a musical. I’m a musical junkie. Rogers & Hammerstein. Tommy by The Who. They all work for me. I love the singing, the dancing, all of it. But there is nowhere better to be fully entertained than in the old movie musicals where people could REALLY sing and dance. Could you imagine if today’s stars had to have the same kind of training in order to become famous that Kathryn Greyson or Judy Garland did? Exactly. We wouldn’t have so many complete failures and the output would be better. Not that I have an opinion about the subject or anything. But to act, sing, and dance…I love it. People now seem to think it’s “cheesy.” I think that they don’t know what they’re missing. Please pass me the Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952).Finally, there’s the Michael Curtiz thing. I never knew this until I was much older and an educated cinephile, but the director was Michael Curtiz. Hello! UH, Mildred Pierce (1945)! The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and, of course, everyone’s favorite Casablanca (1942)! So…ya know, it’s not like they just had some hack doing the film.

In any case, one last point I want to make about this film and why I love it. I have to say this at least once a day when I’m out with friends and someone looks up, grimaces a bit, and *oh no* admits to liking something that may not be so popular. They say, “Oh, this is my guilty pleasure.” And everyone nods, laughs, and it gets them off the “hook.”

What hook?

I will state, as my last statement of 2011, that I adamantly do not believe in guilty pleasures. If you find pleasure in it, you should not feel guilty about it and you should never let anyone ever make you feel guilty about liking it. I like this movie. I like it proudly. And I always will. It’s probably my favorite Christmas movie, it probably always will be, and I don’t care who knows it. See, guilt takes away from some of your pride and pleasure; makes you feel bad about what you like. I don’t believe that you should feel bad about art or media. It’s the antithesis of what it is there for.

And with that, I bid you adieu for the New Year, stay safe, stay well, and see more films!

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!

Santa with a Machine Gun–#4

I realized after revisiting my last Christmas favorite, I really dig Christmas-themed films that are shot in/around Los Angeles and where Los Angeles plays a key role. Ok, so clearly a good chunk of the films made are filmed in Los Angeles. Of this I am clearly aware. However, what I am speaking of is the group of films that make it a point to mention the city, continually referring to it and positioning it, visually and narratively, as a character within the film.

One of my very favorites amongst these that also uses the Christmas theme is also one of the most beloved to many other folks I know.

4) Die Hard  (John McTiernan, 1988)

While I have seen this film many times, I finally got the opportunity to see it on a big screen a few weeks ago and I was blown away. It was the perfect example of how a film changes completely in the transition from small-to-large screen. I argue with people all the time about theaters and supporting them and how necessary it is, but seeing Die Hard on a big screen, in 35mm, just drove that point home even moreso.

I could give you the standard spiel about how you notice more within the film on a big screen or how Die Hard is an action movie so it has better resonance and power bigger, but those are things you probably are aware of. The basic truth is that films were not created for small screens. They were made for the cinema. Therefore, whether you are watching them projected via 35mm or some digital manner, they should be seen the way the artist intended their work to be seen.

You wouldn’t hang an authentic Van Gogh painting in the local McDonald’s, would you? It would be inappropriate. Television is a different thing. That was created specifically for the little box. In that, it works perfectly, and it is platformed absolutely to its advantage. But as we start losing theaters, we start losing the possibility of seeing films like Die Hard on a big screen and that is a real tragedy.Seeing this film in all of its glory, large and in charge, was like seeing it for the very first time. I sat there and I thought: well, I may not celebrate Christmas, but the fact that I’m getting to see this, on a big screen, and it’s so exciting, and shot so well…this is my Christmas. John McClane is my barefoot Santa! Hurrah!

In general action films get me pretty happy, but this time I was practically exploding with cheer and good will towards the whole theater. It’s a celebratory film and the Christmas aspect of it adds that extra layer that makes it just that much more suspenseful. It would still be a good movie without the season’s greetings, but that makes it a great movie.

Hallidays With Johnny Gossamer–#3

My third film pick is a piece of glory from one of my very favorite modern film writers today, Shane Black.

This film, like the last one, does not center on Christmas but it takes place during Christmas time and continues to remind the audience of the holiday season throughout in various ways (costumes, sets, etc.).

3. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (Shane Black,  2005)

I adore this movie. I think I have watched it more times than most of the films in my collection. But…that goes with the territory. Films written by Shane Black (especially those called The Last Boy Scout) are generally on heavy rotation around here.

But this film is especially precious to me. If you have read this blog for any amount of time or even glanced at other pieces I’ve written, you will notice that I enjoy the noir genre quite a bit. Well, this is comedy-Christmas-noir, in a sense. It’s self-aware and self-reflexive without being obnoxious; it’s entertaining and very smart without coming off as pretentious, it’s an all-around excellent film.

So let’s talk Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Not only is it a wonderful film, but it’s got historical roots. It may look and act like a modern-day piece, but in reality, it is not simply the Raymond Chandler names for the film “chapters” that are based in the literary past. The entire film springs from the tradition of pulp fiction. Shane Black got the inspiration for the film from a novel by author Brett Halliday, nom-de-plume for prolific writer Davis Dresser.

Novel that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was based on

Dresser/Halliday’s work was made into several films in the 1940’s and a variety of radio shows as well, primarily featuring the detective Michael Shayne.  Aside from the narrative, Black manages to engage Halliday’s work into Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang by inventing a series of pulp fiction books by a writer named Johnny Gossamer. The books look a great deal like the ones written by Dresser/Halliday and published by the company that he later formed with his wife, Torquil Publishing. While the average observer would simply be entertained by this and might think it perhaps a simple pulp fiction reference, I find it to be even more rewarding to have that extra “bonus” link to the Mike Shayne novels.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang does it all right. It works on all the “right” principles: Hollywood, holidays, intrigue, humor.  It is also one of the first films to platform a gay character without having him function as a stereotype. While action and gun battles may not scream “jingle bells” to you, the gal running around in the Santa costume is pretty easy on the eyes, and Robert Downey Jr.’s detecting in this outdoes Sherlock Holmes any day of the week, any month of the year.


A "Johnny Gossamer Thriller" in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, looking pretty close to a "Mike Shayne Mystery"

If you haven’t seen this film, please do. It’s highly recommended and highly rewatchable. And what are these films about anyway but insane rewatchability, right? In essence, when you’re finished lighting that menorah, chuck this in the DVD player, get this from Netflix, hell- do a blind buy on Amazon or at Amoeba or your local DVD shop. You won’t be sorry.

What’s Your Function in Life?–#2

The next film on my list needs…well, a little bit of introduction. It may be the only film on the list that readers haven’t heard of and/or seen, and it is very likely to be the strangest of the bunch. While the whole film doesn’t take place at Christmas time, enough of it does that when I first saw it, I immediately put it on my list of “Favorite Christmas Movies.”

It is a Japanese film and the filmmaker is primarily known for directing television commercials. In addition, he is also quite well-known for his visually dynamic and surreal style. I was first introduced to this film at an all-night film fest, and was stunned into submissive awe, excitement and jaw-dropped silence (if all three of those can go together, which, in this case, they did).  I attempted to search it out, and found that it was quite difficult to find. I was lucky enough to get a copy and can now watch it at my leisure (which I do).

This film, while definitely not for everyone, is a special film. I love it and am extremely happy that I own it and can add it to the films I will watch to celebrate Chanukkamas/Christmukkah.

2) Survive Style 5+ (Gen Sekiguchi, 2004)

The first thing to note about this film is that it is a pop-culture aesthete’s wet dream. Then again, it is a Japanese film. It is all shades of pinks, blues, greens, and neon…everything. In fact, one could even say the soundtrack is neon. Watching Survive Style 5+ is like mainlining immense amounts of acid and ecstasy to your eyeballs and narrative analysis zones all at once. In other words, this movie is a trip, man.

The inimitable Sonny Chiba

But I love it.  Not only does it have Vinnie Jones of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels fame, but it also features Sonny Chiba (has been in everything), Tadanobu Asano (most famous for playing Kakihara in Ichi the Killer but also has a reasonable roster), and Jai West (in Love Exposure, another crazy film I adore, and played Young Ioki on the original 21 Jump Street TV show).

Survive Style 5+ : a movie that is unlike anything you have ever seen or will see again

The film doesn’t take place entirely at Christmas time, nor is Christmas the MAIN theme to the film (if there is just *one*), but in my humble assessment, it is during the “Christmas act” of the film where all of the different storylines take their final, pivotal turns. The film itself functions as a type of interlocking anthology piece of sorts, and when each storyline reaches the Christmas chapter, they peak, like they were on the drugs guiding the creation of this piece of enthusiastically adrenalized coloring-book madness.

There are tons of films that have “famous Christmas scenes.” As I’ve been watching all the multitudes of Xmas specials on television, most of them have been quoting Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincent Minnelli, 1944) as being first on that list. While there is no denying Minnelli or Garland, I have to say that the sheer visual explosivity of Survive Style 5+ mixed with just the right amount of sweetness works for me on a level that I treasure dearly. Yes, I admit to having very different proclivities when it comes to my holiday cinema treats, but I dare anyone to watch the Kobayashi family storyline and not become attached to their struggles within the narrative, surreal or not.

While Survival Style 5+ may not be Capra, it is certainly memorable, and I do not say that in any kind of backhanded compliment-type manner. While it may not initially come across this way, this film has wonderfully redemptive qualities, and (for me) makes perfect holiday viewing. The lessons that the characters learn within the sequence of events are not dissimilar from many within a standard Christmas special: love, family, loyalty, friendship, gameshows, psychotically-charged existential hitmen…ok, so maybe not every Christmas special involves the last two, but my point still stands.

Viva Friends!

If you get a chance to check out this film, I highly recommend you do so. But before you do, I would suggest that you ask yourself what your function is in life. You might need to know. Just in case.

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


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.