Well, it’s that festive time of the year, and what could be more appropriate than the remake of Black Christmas hitting the theatres on December 25? Now, I haven’t seen this film, of course, but the advance word is not encouraging. Head on over to www.dreadcentral.com and you’ll see that it seems that directors Glen Morgan and James Wong know how to do comedic horror (Final Destination), but have no idea how to play things straight. Sounds like we have another fine mess on our hands. But the remake has …ad a good result in the re-release on DVD of the 1974 original. While the new version has lost some of the features of the previous release, it is now in 5.1. Whatever the home video version one watches, however, this is a terrific film, and perfectly perverse counter-programming.
Director Bob Clark has had an extremely eclectic career. Anyone who manages to have both Porky’s and the Sherlock-Holmes-versus-Jack-the-Ripper effort Murder by Decree on their resume isn’t in any danger of being stuck in a rut. But he also must be one of the few directors to have made not one but TWO significant Christmas movies: Black Christmas and A Christmas Story. Different enough for ya?
Black Christmas, as has been pointed out many times before, is arguably the progenitor of the contemporary slasher movie (in fact, Halloween began life as a proposed sequel to this flick). In this story of a killer who lurks in a sorority house, many of the now familiar conventions are present: the faceless killer and his POV camera shots, the sinister breathing, the female victims, the useless authorities. But there are significant differences, too. The murders (like those of Halloween) are not particularly gory. They are, in fact, quite restrained, with the exception of Margot Kidder’s demise, whose slow-motion terrible beauty shares some of the same aesthetic sense as Dario Argento’s elaborate killings. But more important is the fact that the characters are far more carefully developed than in most of the films that would follow. We genuinely do care for the victims, and they aren’t all the same bunch of stereotypes. Olivia Hussey, our Final Girl, for instance, is not, as would be standard later, a virgin. Quite the contrary: she is pregnant, and is locked in a bitter dispute with her boyfriend (Keir Dullea) over her right to choose to have an abortion.
This last point is very important to the film’s theme. Dullea’s character is extremely unpleasant, and one of the prime suspects. I won’t spoil whether he is the killer or not, but the point here is that it doesn’t matter. Dullea’s relationship with Hussey is a power struggle, and the killer’s actions are merely Dullea’s attitudes taken to their furthest extreme. The film is thus very much about the male impulse to control women at any cost, and to punish independence, and its articulation of these ideas shows a questioning impulse absent from many of its imitators.
Yes, I know, heady stuff. But the film is also extremely creepy, in no small part due to the telephone calls the killer makes to his intended victims. Here is some of the most disturbing sound design in horror cinema, on a par with The Exorcist. The multiple voices the killer adopts and his rants hint at some kind of absolutely appalling back story, the details of which are never fleshed out, leaving things up to the horrified imaginations of the audience (something the remake, it seems, completely fails to understand).
All in all, then, this is a classic of 70’s horror cinema: intelligent, disturbing, and utterly, utterly black. Just the ticket for you holiday viewing.