Bob Clark has a rather rare legacy compared to most other film makers in the business. The late Canadian Director’s output fizzled out during the later stages of his career but will mostly be remembered for the two additions he gave to the festive side of Hollywood. Two landmark efforts spaced almost ten years apart that would impress even the most sincere scrooges amongst us. The first being his 1983 yuletide standard A Christmas Story, the tale of little Ralphie Parker and his quest for a Red BB Gun is so heralded among film and holiday season fans that it is said to often play in 24 hour marathons on American T.V network TBS. Clark’s cute winter warmer remains one of the most acclaimed Christmas movies of all time being held up there with such winter classics as It’s a A wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th street. However this is a horror column, and it’s Clark’s first venture into the season of goodwill which remains my favourite and his true calling card.
Clark’s 1974 proto slasher Black Christmas, made only 9 years before he made Christmas warm, fuzzy and funny, gave us nightmares about who’s taking care of the baby, terrifying phone calls and strange footsteps up the stairs. Based around two primal fears with American teens in the 1970’s, Black Christmas uses the uneasy mix of the popular Urban Legend The Babysitter Upstairs with the fear of sorority girls being left all alone at Christmas time.
The film centres on the holiday season for a handful of sorority girls staying at their sister house. Just as we are introduced to them we are shown the POV of an anonymous, dangerous drifter who has crept in and invaded the woodwork and shadows of their holiday home. Armed with androgynous prank calls and silent footsteps, this figure (for reasons unknown) will make bad things happen and force these girls to remember this December as their last. Along with The Texas Chainsaw massacre, Driller Killer and Mario Bava’s early Giallo’s it is considered one of the first (and best) in the still popular slasher genre, and was also arguably the first time where the formula of Stalk and slash was presented on celluloid. The film also marks another more tongue in cheek standard in Horror films in that it was the first seasonal Slasher to be released. Production companies soon decided to make a seasonal slasher to tie in with almost every holiday and tradition there was, churning out the likes of Halloween, My Bloody Valentine and New Year’s Evil all in close proximity, declining in quality one after the other.
Black Christmas presented the slasher style and formula before it was officially invented and coined as a term, so we see things a little different than we would with later more Blood filled helpings in the genre. Like with the early Italian horrors, the film favours more Hitchcock like tension and suspense as opposed to the increasingly gory slashers that came after. The film relies on nerve twitching terror through noises upstairs, mysterious character disappearances and the ambiguity of who or what is actually stalking around the Girl’s house. The setting of the film at Christmas time as well seems be a fitting testament to the fact that it’s the season when everybody is supposed to be happy, merry and filled with joy. However this time around a stocking filler and Egg Nog can quickly turn into a bag over your head and an eye out, bringing a menacingly nasty bite to the picture’s Christmas pudding.
We are introduced to a few standard teen sorority girl’s, happy go lucky Jess (Olivia Hussey), the promiscuous Barb (Margot Kidder) and nice as pie Phyllis (Andrea Martin), who all turn out fine pre-Scream Queen performances, helping Clark’s intentions to sell the film as more of a dramatic thriller rather than a straight up horror. Heavily dramatized sub plots involving an abortion, the search for a missing child and Jess’s strange Boyfriend Peter are balanced with witty scenes involving Lt. Fuller (legendary John Saxon), his dopey police cohorts and the entertaining alcoholic sorority mother Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman) in the background. Before the film’s release it actually went under many different title changes to lean more towards dark thriller territory, but Cable networks eventually decided on Black Christmas, a witty and ironic send up to the films holiday setting and foreboding plot. Even its tagline “If this doesn’t make your Skin crawl, it’s on too tight” only takes itself half seriously, showing the films more fun, entertaining side whilst keeping it’s dark, ominous tone intact.
One of the most interesting things about Black Christmas is its faceless Killer; he wears no mask, has no name and never speaks a sensible word throughout, but is forever hidden by shadows, doorways and anything else he can creep behind. He’s Michael Myers without a name or a face, yet has more flair than most slasher film antagonists, yelling and screaming down the phone to our bemused Heroine’s in disturbing voices spouting about a baby named Agnes. The Killer is abstract, absurdist and in the Dark Knight Joker sense of the term a complete mystery, but as ever the little we know about the villain the more interesting he becomes. Is he an escaped Lunatic, pissed off Dad or does he just hate Christmas? Who cares, the intrigue is all in the mystery which gives us much needed time to ponder it once it’s all over, something other films of the genre miss in later less effective efforts. The villain doesn’t need character, personality or a face; he can be faceless as long as there is truck loads of personality in the protagonists he is preying upon. Something Clarkmakes sure he has with his well assured stars and script, presenting likable and funny characters we care about and don’t want to see picked off callously off by this anonymous mad man.
Black Christmas’s main plot was slightly borrowed for another cult classic a few years later in the shape of Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls. A film which at least for the first half shares Clark’s picture’s voyeurism, tension and inspiration from a popular urban myth albeit without the novelty Holiday setting, to mostly good use. However Clark’s classic was eventually remade in 2006 by Willard helmer Glen Morgan to tepid reviews. The well intentioned redo was made to fit the more post 90’s scream generation, playing on clever, witty and good looking sorority chicks being hunted by a yellow (yep, yellow) and sexually perverse escaped serial Killer named Billy, a sly hint at the possible identity of 1974 films Killer. Another entry in the ‘if you can’t beat it, why bother?’ canon that at least may coax the more curious film fan to dig out, discover and enjoy a lost holiday horror classic from a cult Director, which laid the Bloody foundations for many that followed, making it the best festive scare of all. When a movie contains the line “Let me lick your pretty piggy cunt!” you know you’re on to a Cracker.