AKA “Silent Night, Evil Night”, “Stranger in the House”
Starring Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin, James Edmond Jr., Doug McGrath, Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin, Michael Rapport
Directed by Bob Clark
Expectations: Pretty high. This is a genre classic that I’ve heard nothing but good things about.
Like the ending of Black Christmas, my feelings about the film are ambiguous and require some thought. Usually I can assign a rating to a film within a few moments of finishing it, and some I can predict a rating while watching. With Black Christmas, I’m unsure whether I saw one of the best 70s horror films or one of the most boring and obvious. Watching Black Christmas, one of the earliest recognizable slasher films, for the first time in 2011 definitely isn’t doing the film any favors as its plot twists are pretty apparent to anyone who’s seen any major slasher film. Well fuck, let’s be real here, the plot twists would be obvious to anyone paying attention to the movie, even if they’ve never seen a slasher film.
The story is pretty basic: a sorority house receives strange, sexually aggressive phone calls while a weirdo murderer lurks about in their attic. That’s pretty much it. The film is built upon the premise that you identify with the girls of the sorority, most notably star Olivia Hussey, as she slowly confronts the evil that stalks her. For this to work, the audience must be able to place themselves in her shoes and in her mind; we must live within her fears. This is where Black Christmas fails because right from the first scene we’re also privy to the mind of the crazed killer. We follow him from outside the large sorority house as he climbs the trellis and slides his way into attic. As the film moves along we jump perspectives between the girls and the killer, further allowing the audience to know more than the characters they should be identifying with, and therefore many of the scenes that should be tense and full of scares are pointless and drawn-out because we know exactly where the guy is!
For instance, why should I care about or be excited by a lengthy section of the film where they tap the phone and then trace the call when I knew the lunatic was upstairs from the first shot of the movie? Sure, seeing the mechanical relays of the 1970s phone company was pretty awesome, but where’s the entertainment in watching a drawn-out scene where the inept characters become aware of something you already know? There are times when having more knowledge than the characters can work, like the first kill where the killer hides in Claire’s closet or when he holds the hook while the house mother climbs into the attic. Those scenes work because the extra knowledge adds an extra layer of suspense and tension to the scenes, but as the film continues there’s far too little of this and far too much time spent informing the characters of shit we already know.
The perspective shifts also make me question if I’m supposed to identify with the sorority girls or the killer. It’s purposefully ambiguous I think, to allow for the viewer to slip into the role they choose. It’s an interesting choice, and a daring one, but ultimately one that leaves me torn between the two extremes and left cold somewhat in the middle of them. This is frustrating because each part seems to work on its own. There are genuine moments of terror from the victim’s POV, and there are fantastic shots and sections told from the killer’s perspective, but by having both running concurrently, neither is allowed to truly shine.
Most of the killer’s scenes are shot in a first-person perspective ala Dario Argento’s giallo films, and they add a lot of style and creepiness to the film. I would argue that they work even better here than they do in Argento’s films, with director Bob Clark’s perspective shots composed mostly of the killer traveling around the house or stalking his prey. The only first-person kill I can remember isn’t even shown in full detail, the camera cutting away quickly to a different scene entirely. Showing the results of the kill are not necessary here and it’s moments like these that show Clark was going for a more respectable film than simply trying to wow censors with graphic violence. In addition to swiping the first-person murderer cam, Clark also apes a direct shot from Argento’s 1970 début film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, where a man opens a door in complete darkness, silhouetted by the light from the room behind him and then the lights in the main room turn on to illuminate the entire frame. It’s still a good-looking shot, and perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but somehow I doubt it.
Bob Clark (who later went on to direct such classics as Baby Geniuses and A Christmas Story) has a keen eye for a good shot, especially when shifting focus between objects or people. During the film’s first phone call from the murderer, there’s a wonderful close-up of the phone receiver that slowly moves to capture the frightened face of each girl in close-up. The aforementioned first-person shots are incredibly well-staged and technically speaking must have been a nightmare to film. Margot Kidder’s death by unicorn figurine is also incredibly well-shot. Despite the issues I have with the plot and the pacing of the film, Clark’s talent for visual filmmaking shines through. The cinematography is exceptional, with deep shadows filling the frame and creating striking images throughout. On a side note, the Blu-ray for this one looks great. The image exhibits beautiful film grain and is truly one of the best looking films on Blu-ray I’ve seen yet… but I LOVE film grain and I’m no home theater enthusiast, so your mileage may vary.
Black Christmas is an impressive, interesting film, but one that doesn’t really do much for me. The lack of tension is a big deal breaker and it makes the film’s ninety-seven minute runtime feel at least twice as long. I can respect the film for what it is, and what it did for the genre, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it. I can understand how it would have been much more shocking and scary in 1974 though, so I guess I really should have watched this in my youth for the full effect. Oh well! I did enjoy the ambiguity of the ending though, and it made me long for the days when horror films didn’t always need to explain everything to an audience afraid of thinking.
So this dude also directed Baby Geniuses? Okay, I’m sold.
I’d probably only ever watch this for Margot Kidder, and even then, I’d have to be paid.
He did direct Baby Geniuses (and the sequel!), which I haven’t seen so I can’t actively comment on the direction within. I used it as a joke to counterpoint the serious visual talent he seems to exhibit here, with the path his career seemed to take in the 90s/00s where he focused on family comedies. They could be masterful for all I know!
If you like 70s horror though, I’d definitely recommend this one despite my indifference to it. Most everyone else seems to love it.
I watched this the other night, enjoyed it but was more impressed by the technical precision than the film itself. For a cheap-ish, old film the sound mix is sweet and the camerawork / framing etc are fantastic. Like you say, the first person scenes are creepy, but think how hard that would be to look that effortless with a massive 1970s camera!
I’d probably recommend it, just on the basis of being the first proper slasher film that defined an entire genre. Biggest problem these days is that we’ve all seen 1,000 other films that have copied most of the story / themes / characters.
SPOILER – I hated the ending for the massive non-reveal of who the killer was, or why they did it… weak!
Yes, for a 70s movie the sound was exceptional. The first-person scenes are definitely representative of some incredible technical work. Must have been so hard to get right, and like you say make it look effortless. Really impressive. I wish Clark had continued making horror films!
I can understand being frustrated with the ending, but I liked it. The murderer reveal is always so cliched and expected in a movie like this, and I don’t think the film would be as impressive and talked about with a more traditional ending.