BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
It's not high art, but Black Christmas is a spare, efficient fright flick.
BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)D: Bob Clark; with Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin, James Edmond, Lynne Griffin. Before there was You Better Watch Out, before there was Silent Night, Deadly Night, heck, before there was "And All Through the House," the Tales From the Crypt installment starring Larry "Dr. Giggles" Drake as a murderous Santa Claus, there was Black Christmas, a nifty little Yuletide slasher about the deadly goings-on at a sorority house. While the sisters of Pi Kappa Sigma pack up for semester break, sensible, poised coed Hussey receives obscene phone calls that veer between cunnilingus references, pig squeals, and ravings from an obscure conversation. No one is overly concerned until a priggish housemate (Griffin) goes missing. We know what the characters don't: The girl has been suffocated with a dry-cleaning bag and stashed neatly away in the house's attic. Will the next victim be salty sister Barb (a scene-stealing Kidder), a chain-smoking lush who calls her own mother a "gold-plated whore"? Perhaps the tippling housemother (Waldman)? Frizzy-haired, owlish Phyllis (yes, that Andrea Martin, of SCTV)? The pesky house cat, Claude? And what of Peter (2001's Keir Dullea), one of the sister's tortured-soul boyfriends? Along with seminal efforts like Halloween (released four years later, and by some accounts intended as a sequel to Black Christmas) and Mario Bava's Bay of Blood (1971), this modest Canadian production helped inaugurate the conventions of the slasher subgenre. The killer's perspective is rendered with shaky handheld camerawork, his (or her) snorty breath is all over the soundtrack, and the tranquil small-town setting plays for ironic effect, with solemn carols booming from the quaint campus bell tower. Composer Carl Zittrer contributes those rumbly, ominous bass piano notes ubiquitous in thriller films. It's not high art, but Black Christmas is a spare, efficient fright flick. Director Clark had already made something of a name for himself with 1972's zombie knock-off Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things. He'd go on to enjoy one of the most mercurial careers in film history -- you may know him as the director of that other holiday heartwarmer, 1983's A Christmas Story, but the rest of his résumé is a smorgasboard of turkeys, from Rhinestone to the lamentable Baby Geniuses. The surprise here is that Clark's direction is actually good; he draws out the tension with long, slow mise-en-scène shots of the house's spooky hallways and, in one scene, sets up a shot with a barely discernable human shadow in the back of the frame. Worth a look, even if only to cure the insulin shock from all the celluloid sugarplums dancing in your head this time of year.
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