Thursday, December 2, 2010

Catching Up On The Classics: Black Christmas (1974)

December, y'all! 'Tis the season and all that jazz. I found the original Black Christmas on Netflix Instant Streaming (whoever invented Netflix, I will have your baby), and wanted to see if it was better than the horrible yet hilariously cheesy remake from 2006.

Probably the shortest synopsis I've written: During the holiday break, girls in a sorority house are terrorized by a series of menacing phone calls and the disappearance of one of their sorority sisters. Starring Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Olivia Hussey, and some other people that I don't care about.

Sadly, I wasn't as scared by the film overall as most reviewers said I would be. It's a good movie and all, but for me the scare-factor is grossly overrated. Perhaps it's because I've seen the whole girl-alone-in-house-receives-creepy-phone-calls scenario one too many times and I'm seriously over it. Perverted phone calls themselves are just not scary. I'm sorry. I mean, we know from movies like this and When a Stranger Calls and Scream that the person on the other end of the line really actually might be a psychotic serial killer, but if you can get upset from somebody saying gross things to you on the phone, you're just kind of a wuss. And there's a simple solution - hang up. Better yet, don't answer the phone again. Problem solved. If you call me and don't state your business right after I say hello, I'm hanging up on your ass, that's all there is to it.

If the film were paced differently, this plot might have worked out, but after the first girl's murder near the beginning, the movie drags on for more than an hour before anything really gets going again. We have too many side stories of Jess's bun in the oven and the other girl who was murdered in the park earlier that day, plus an overlong attempt at tapping the phone in the sorority house. We all knew from the beginning that the killer, Billy, was living in the attic, and later on John Saxon says something about there being two phone lines. Survey says: Phone calls were coming from inside the house, duh! But it takes the characters a hell of a lot longer to figure out what any audience member paying attention would already have known for the last hour. It was much too drawn out and led to a conclusion that was far from satisfying.

I might have been more creeped out by the nature of the phone calls themselves IF I could have actually fucking heard what was being said. Of course I heard the first call - the Penthouse Forum edition, if you will. I had to go back and watch all the phone call scenes again and turn the volume up before I caught all the stuff about Billy and Agnes.

See now, this is why people shouldn't make fun of me for watching almost all my movies with subtitles. I always like to put the English subtitles on a film that I'm seeing for the first time so I don't miss anything. Clearly, I could have used them here. Get on that shit, Netflix.

Anyway. The mystery of Billy the Killer is one of the film's strong suits. The remake gives him a full backstory as I vaguely recall, but in this original there is no explanation for who Billy is or what exactly he has done or been through to make him go all schizo and kill those girls. The sorority house looks like a regular house. Did Billy grow up here and never leave? Or did he come back and having all those girls around set him off? We never even really get to see Billy besides an eyeball and a shadowed outline. His motivations are unknown and hopefully you never bought Peter as the red herring, because the movie is mos def not over when Jess kills Peter in the basement. The ringing phone that can be heard as the camera zooms away from the house suggests that Billy has killed Jess as well (and why was she not taken to the hospital???).

I did kind of lose all respect for Jess when she still goes upstairs after the officer specifically told her not to. The calls were coming from inside the house, and from what the caller said, he is probably psychotic and the only other people in the house are not answering your repeated yells - you're in college, girlfriend. This is a no-brainer. LEAVE. But no, the dumb bitch is right at the front door and she still decides to go upstairs. At the same time, thank you for following steadfastly to the rules of surviving a horror film. There's comfort in that kind of consistency. Will we ever have a truly smart Final Girl who never makes any stupid decisions?

Also, and I'm sure this has been mentioned countless times before about this movie, but it is a leeeeeetle bit strange that Billy could have been going all crazy with his Norman Bates impersonation and screaming shit into the phone without Jess ever realizing that the dude is right fucking upstairs. And not in the attic, either, he had to make the calls from the house mother's room.

Sidenote: Thank goodness "house mothers" are not a part of normal sorority life anymore. I was in a sorority in college and that would have just been weird. What the hell would a house mother do all day, every day anyway? 'Tis unnecessary.

Olivia Hussey and her most beautiful face and voice make a wonderful leading lady and final girl in the character of Jess, and she is a nice character for us to follow. I hope Ms. Hussey knows that pretty much every woman in the world probably hates her guts and she should lock her doors at all times. It's the accent. And the hair. And the eyes. Mostly the accent. Margot Kidder is quite good as the sorority drunk with a sharp tongue - although I thought for a second that she was the house mother because she looks far older than the other girls. John Saxon seems to always be a cop in his movies and he seems to have got the role down pretty good.

All in all, this impressive cast makes up for the fact that the movie is - dare I say it - boring at times. There is tension throughout, but not enough action at the conclusion to relieve that tension. The final scene does leave me feeling very creeped as to what Billy is going to keep doing in the attic of that sorority house. You read in books about people "shuddering." I think I actually did that at the end of the movie.


  1. Hehehe...I thought I was the only one who occasionally fell asleep during this movie while snails mocked its speed.

    It's good, but it's not Halloween. And I never thought about them hearing him upstairs, but that makes sense too.

  2. pretty much what I thought. It's a pretty good but horribly overrated movie

    btw: I'm probably the only person in the world who likes the reboot about as much as the original :)

  3. If only you could have seen this movie in the 70's, before Michael and Jason and Freddy and the hundred slashers that followed numbed you to the concept, you would have loved it. Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (debuting about two months apart) pried the horror genre from the gentler hand of Hitchcock and tore into it with an unexpected brutality, given the collective unease of the population of North America at the time. It was 1974. The slasher genre didn’t exist at all and John Carpenter had yet to even dip a toe into horror (he was busy at the time making a sci-fi comedy). The concepts of mass and spree and serial killing were growing and seizing hold of our darkest curiosities. We were shocked and horrified by the Speck killings and then the Manson Family killings and then the myriad of other killings that suddenly seemed to be absolutely all around us, and now this new monster, “Ted,” was roaming the west and tearing up women in awful ways and at a brazenly prolific pace. This was long before the internet and the oversaturation of information that has jaded us against even the most detestable of concepts, so the danger seemed very real — faceless and evil and lurking in every shadow — but very real.

    I know it’s too late, but I’m telling you, if you could have watched Black Christmas in this context, it would have knocked your socks off.

  4. Really did enjoy your review - just wanted to offer a different perspective.

  5. @Maison - No prob, dude. There are SEVERAL films that I would have liked to see in the era they were actually released because I know what an effect that has on the audience. Maybe the idea of some random psycho targeting random people would have been scarier then but of course that it sadly not the case now.