Sunday, December 25, 2016

Holiday Horror: Black Christmas (1974)

Christmas break is coming up at a university and a certain sorority house has an unwelcome visitor. The young women are busy with their Christmas parties and packing up to visit family. Their festivities are interrupted by the disappearance of one of the sorority sisters named Clare and numerous anonymous obscene phone calls. The women try to go to the police, but no one listens to them. When a young girl is found murdered near the school, the police finally take them seriously and consider that the events are all related. Is it too late to save the rest of the sorority sisters?

Black Christmas is credited as the first American slasher film, a full four years before Halloween that is usually seen as the first. Black Christmas has many aspects in common with slasher films, but some with a different spin than usual like the victims, the killer, and the resolution. The group of women being stalked are older than the usual high school students. These women are more self assured, more intelligent, and much less naive. The stereotypical final girl is virginal, sweet, and does almost nothing wrong. Clare would be the final girl in any other slasher with her virginal innocence, but she's the first to die. The other women can be quite crass, sexually active, and unapologetic about their decisions, which is a refreshing change from the usual ditzy high schoolers. They all are genuine friends which is shown in quiet moments of caring between the women. It was nice to see women I could cheer for instead of ones I cheered the slasher for murdering.

My two favorite characters are Barbara and Jess. Barbara, portrayed by Margot Kidder, has a spiky exterior. She tells things like it is and isn't afraid to clap back at people with sarcasm or cruelty. I love her interaction with the dismissive police officer that offered some much needed comic relief. Her life is much more painful than she lets on, shown in a phone conversation where her mother doesn't want to spend the holidays with her. Barbara is flawed, but strong. Jess is just as strong with a lot more tact. She takes care of her friends but also stands firm in the face of oppostion. She recently found out she was pregnant by her boyfriend Peter and already firmly decided to have an abortion. When her boyfriend goes from incredulous to angry, her decision stands firm because she has her own hopes and dreams that she doesn't want to give up no matter how many times her pleads or threatens. Even now, this portrayal of Jess's unapologetic decision to abort is a rarity that should be seen much more often after 40 years. Both women are flawed but strong individuals that I hoped would survive the film.

The men in the film treat the sorority sisters with disdain and dismissiveness. Peter is the worse offender as he tries to pressure Jess into keeping her baby and marrying him. His behavior is disgusting and abusive. He threatens her, insults her, pleads with her, and then decides they should get married. He tells her he is leaving the conservatory and they will get married. No asking, just telling. This occurs after he destroys a beautiful piano belonging to the school. The police are slightly better, but that's not saying much. They don't take a missing girl or obscene phone calls seriously even though it might be tied to another local girl missing. The only decent man in the film is Lt. Kenneth Fuller who sees the connection between all the suspicious events and calls on Jess to help catch the killer.

The killer in this film is interesting. He is never seen clearly. An eye is shown through a crack in the door, his shadow and hands are seen, and his voice is heard. Most of his action are shown through a first person camera from his perspective, allowing us to see through his eyes. He's a disturbing figure for a number of reasons. Not only is he a murderer, but the way he rocks and sings to Clare's body is incredibly disturbing. His ravings and different voices (possibly suggesting multiple personalities) are chilling to listen to as he shouts, squeals, tantrums, and sings. He stays inside the house right from the first scene of the film and the girls have no idea. He stores bodies in the attic and they are never discovered despite not bothering to hide them. There's no logical reason for him to be targeting these women like in other slashers. It's a completely random series of crimes that could happen to anyone which conceptually is more frightening than the reasons for other slashers.

While Halloween stays firm on the top of my list of favorite films, Black Christmas proves itself to be a hidden gem that goes largely unrecognized for its merits. I find it interesting that even before conventions were in place for this genre, this film went in the opposite direction. The main characters are older, more established women. The killer isn't an iconic figure, but someone hidden and raving. The ending is incredibly bleak that makes this film all the more chilling. My only issues with the film are some bad decisions made by Jess and the police that were uncharacteristic near the end and the lackluster music. Black Christmas will definitely be in my rotation of yearly Christmas films because of the incredible characters, insanely scary villain, and unexpected ending.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

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