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Black Christmas

By Patrick Crain

Sometime deep in December, my wife and I park in front of the TV and spin Black Christmas. This has been a tradition for the past ten or so years and it’s as much in our normal holiday rotation as White Christmas is for some decent Americans and Die Hard is for showboats who feel arguing the point of Die Hard being a Christmas movie is some sort of personality trait. It should be said that Black Christmas is not on my annual schedule in the same, ironic way that, after consuming one too many glasses of wine and overtaken with the insatiable desire to feel colossally stupid, 1984’s loveably dreadful Don’t Open Till Christmas finds its way into my programming schedule. And neither does it occupy the same nostalgic space as Roland Neame’s Scrooge from 1970, a film so formative that after forty solid years of viewing, two or three frames of it have probably somehow and someway become part of my actual DNA code. Instead, outside being just a damn fine horror film, Black Christmas earns such a vaunted position precisely because of the film’s tactile production detail which makes it feel more or less what Christmas from our collective youth felt like.

Don’t get me wrong. As we both grew up in Del City, Oklahoma where we violence right out in the big bright open while using our real names, my wife and I never spent a childhood Christmas in the film’s native Canada while being stalked by a killer. And as far as having any clear memories of 1974, the year the film was made, my wife was barely two and I was less than one so it’s unlikely that we would possess any. But there’s something intoxicating in the film’s production design, most of which looks like it could have been purchased in a TG&Y. The dark interiors of the sorority house, draped with department store tinsel, are routinely punctuated by candy-colored C5 Christmas bulbs that, as any 70’s kid knows, would indiscriminately show no mercy in burning the entire hell from you if you touched them. Mostly lost to time is the prevalence of things such as holiday carolers, rotary phones, and cross-hatched windows all which factor into the look, feel, and function of Black Christmas. Beyond those details, Black Christmas also plays on a theme of physical, disconnected isolation, a feeling and a sense that was available in abundance once upon a time but is almost impossible to fathom today.

For the uninitiated, Black Christmas is the story of a group of sorority sisters who are stalked, terrorized, and picked off by an unknown killer who routinely punctuates his moments of violence with some of the most unsettling prank calls ever committed to popular fiction. At the center of the story is Jess (the radiant Olivia Hussey), the plucky, raven-haired Brit who is the girlfriend of Peter (Keir Dullea, sporting a Klute haircut and mostly looking like he spent the night in a bus station) a temperamental music student. On the peripheries of their domestic drama is the search for Claire Harrison, a sorority sister who vanishes ten minutes into the film, and a further subplot regarding a missing girl from the town.

For years, Black Christmas (initially released in America as Silent Night, Evil Night) languished in a kind of semi-obscurity, slowly finding a wider and wider audience as home video accessibility collided with word of mouth which eventually led to the internet elevating its profile to a degree where it’s now damn near impossible to ignore. In fact, the film has become so popular that it remains one of the only horror films of its generation to have been remade twice. 

But in a world in which we’re so connected, it’s hard to imagine that any contemporary rework could mimic the specific, time-specific isolation that gives the film its most sinister power. Black Christmas was no doubt something of a subversive idea back in 1974, a year when the oldest of the baby boomers was not yet thirty and, like most of the long-standing customs of the generations before theirs, the idea of turning Christmas upside down was something with which to experiment. So here was a Christmas film where, instead of the standard familial coming together in the spirit of the season, the characters do their level best to achieve the inverse.

This is a film that tracks each character’s desire to temporarily escape their situations (Jess from the controlling Peter, Claire from the abrasive Barb, housemother Mrs. Mack from anything that’s not booze) and then masterfully moves its characters into scenarios where their temporary escapes are isolated death traps. Almost paradoxically, it’s only the brusque, streetwise Barb (a fantastic Margot Kidder) who emerges as the loneliest character in the film and who also does not crave isolation; a ribald wild child who would be 10/10 hot if she weren’t 15/10 pitiful.

Director Bob Clark also manages to generate a sly sense of tension, as well (helped along by an unnerving score by Carl Zitterer that sounds closer to musique concrète than anything hummable). Almost like an episode of Columbo, the search for sorority sister Claire Harrison (the engine that drives a ton of the plot) is sort of a MacGuffin as the audience has already watched her fall victim to the killer and likewise knows she’s stashed in the attic. Similarly, the big reveal to a horrified Jess that the prank calls that have become more amplified and disturbing as the film has worn on have been coming FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE is already known to us. The “who” is still relevant, but Clark curiously doesn’t set up a myriad of red herrings, despite there being enough of a character pool to justify doing so. Instead, the central mystery wisely becomes a question of “yes or no” and it is smartly complicated by both impossible-to-deny circumstantial evidence and frustratingly real spatial incongruities. But by immediately establishing that the killer is in the house and can slip unnoticed from room to room, we’re never once at ease and there is a slow choking sensation that begins to become apparent when Jess’s orbit rapidly shrinks in the film’s final third.

Christmas movies evoke all kinds of memories and feelings and, for the most part, my Christmas schedule is festooned with titles that bring the requisite, seasonal laugh and tear. But in the quest of that visceral sensation of being utterly isolated, for my money, there’s nothing that pierces the deadly quiet of a Christmas Eve night quite like Jess hopelessly screaming for Phyl and Barb to answer her. Among all of the nostalgic tchotchke embedded in the mise-en-scene, her palpable fear serves as a chilling reminder of that time so many years ago when one could feel truly alone and the terror that could come with it would freeze you into place.

Yuletide Yarns: Nate’s Top Ten Christmas Films

Tis the season to check out Christmas in cinema! There’s a whole ton of festive films out there revolving around this time of year, ten of which I’ve picked out here as my cherished favourites! Oh and keep one thing in mind: A Christmas movie is a subjective thing and each individual is allowed to have whatever the hell they want in their Yuletide canon without a bunch of blockheads screaming “That’s not a Christmas movie” to the winds. Home Alone is a Christmas movie to many and perhaps to some The Mummy or Top Gun are also Christmas movies too for whatever personal reason or memory they hold dear. Anything you damn well please can be your “Christmas movie” and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Got it? Good! Enjoy my list 😉

10. John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games

An underrated one, to say the least. Pulpy, nihilistic and packed with ironically nasty energy substituting for holiday cheer, I love this ultra violent heist/revenge flick to bits. Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron and an off-the-chain Gary Sinise are various degenerate characters involved in a casino robbery and the ensuing aftermath, murder, betrayal and tough talk. They’re all having a blast and there’s great supporting work from Danny Trejo, Donal Logue, Isaac Hayes, James Frain, a scene stealing Clarence Williams III plus the late great Fennis Farina.

9. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas

A Christmas slasher yay!! This predates John Carpenter’s Halloween as the original genre prototype and is just such a fun, spooky old stalker flick with healthy doses of camp, plenty of creaky atmospheric portent and one of the freakiest villains the genre has to offer based on his voice alone. It’s Christmas break for a house of sorority girls in small town Ontario, which should mean rest, relaxation and good times. A deeply disturbed prank calling serial killer has other ideas though, tormenting them with perverse phone-calls and eventually outright hunting them through the drafty halls of the manor. Starring the beautiful, classy Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, John Saxon, Margot Kidder and Nick Mancuso as the killer’s terrifying phone voice, this is a holiday classic for me, it practically fills up your living room with atmosphere when you put it on.

8. Joe Dante’s Gremlins

This is one of those ones that kind of works at Halloween too because it’s so gooey and horror-centric, but the quaint small town Christmas vibe is so pleasant and wonderful, right from the joyous opening titles set to Phil Spector’s ‘Christmas.’ One young man’s Christmas present goes haywire when cryptozoological Mogwai Gizmo and his clan get right out of control and cause a bigger holiday riot than Boxing Day at the mall. It’s like a Christmas party gone ballistic in the best, most mischievous ways and the fun lies in seeing these little green monsters terrorize, blow off steam and run around town destroying everything in their wake.

7. Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2

I know what you’re thinking, but I actually prefer this rambunctious sequel over the iconic first Die Hard film. Switching up the action from a skyscraper to hectic, bustling and heavily snowed in LAX on Christmas Eve is just such a cozier, more festive setting, not to mention ripe for so much action, villainy and comedic bits. Way more characters, tons of cool cameos, a blinding snowstorm to create atmosphere and so many gorgeous explosions.

6. Robert Zemeckis’s The Polar Express

What a majestic film. People rip on this for being way too elaborate and hectic when compared to the simple, direct timbre of its source children’s book, but I love how far they took it. It’s a thrillingly cinematic, highly immersive rollercoaster ride to the North Pole packed with Carols, stunning motion capture animation, Tom Hanks in like four different roles *including* Santa, breathtaking swoops over northern landscapes and a genuine sense of wonder.

5. Ted Demme’s The Ref

Christmas ain’t always a loving, cherished time of year as you’ll see in this acidic, cynical and jet black comedy of family dysfunction, misanthropy and petty crime. Denis Leary is one pissed off cat burglar who hides out from the law with a couple played by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis who are basically the most unhappily married, hateful pair of grinches you could find in white suburbia. It’s a brilliantly satirical sendup of Christmas in the Midwest with terrific, off the wall performances from the three leads, a wicked sharp script and hilarious supporting work from J.K. Simmons, Christine Baranski, BD Wong and Raymond J. Barry.

4. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns

Christmas goes Gothic in my favourite of the initial four Burton/Schumacher Batman films. This is a seriously gorgeous gem of a film with Keaton at his moody best as Batman, Danny Devito creeping’ it up tons as the freaky weirdo Penguin, Christopher Walken embodying corporate evil like no other and Michelle Pfeiffer as the most absolutely sexy, dangerous, funny and commanding take on Catwoman ever. The film takes place over the holiday season in a Gotham highly reminiscent of bustling New York, all austere wintry edifices and decked out super malls.

3. Tim Burton/Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

A double edged sword that works wonders as both Christmas and Halloween film, this is just a classic, iconic festive singalong with the OG beautiful Burton/Selick stop-motion animation and a wonderful host of vocal/singing performances from Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, Glen Shadix, Paul Reubens and Danny Elfman.

2. Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest

Another counterintuitive one, this is an icy, sardonic black crime comedy about a mob lawyer (John Cusack), his untrustworthy associate (Billy Bob Thornton), a slinky stripper (Connie Nielsen) and a big city gangster (Randy Quaid). They’re all neck deep in an underworld embezzlement scheme on Christmas Eve, out to kill, deceive, screw over and get rich by the time midnight rolls around. I love this film, it’s a Yuletide noir with healthy doses of deadpan comedy, a mournful rumination on what it means to be a family member around this time of year and how morality plays into a life of crime. Plus positively everyone steals the show including the lovable Oliver Platt as Cusack’s drunken buddy.

1. Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol

The number of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carols film adaptations is near infinity but for me this one tops them all. Dazzling motion capture animation gives larger than life vitality to the classic story of Scrooge, his three ghosts and Victorian London. Jim Carrey outdoes himself playing the old dude and *all three* spectres while the cast is filled with beloved performers like Gary Oldman, Robin Wright, Colin Firth, Fionnula Flanagan, Cary Elwes and the late great Bob Hoskins in multiple roles. Zemeckis’s sure hand with this dynamic style of animation gives the film an impressive aura of sweeping visual movement and immersion, the performances capturing the essence of each actor in various modes while the colour, carols and rousing action make this the best produced version of this story I’ve ever seen, I watch it once a year without fail.

-Nate Hill

Bob Gale’s Black Christmas

Bob Gale’s Black Christmas predates Carpenter’s Halloween by four years as the first slasher film, they both take place on a festive holiday night where a shadowy killer stalks people in quiet suburbia and they *both* open with an eerie POV tracking shot, and while Halloween is the more polished and notorious film, Black Christmas is definitely my favourite. Halloween opened up suburbia wide and had the boogeyman roam free in daylight while this one keeps it tight, dark and constrained to the shadows, attics and resoundingly atmospheric hallways of a giant Tudor mansion where a group of sorority sisters are celebrating Christmas. Extremely obscene phone calls herald the arrival of Billy, possibly the scariest slasher villain ever thanks to the hair raising voices on the other end of the line, provided by Canadian acting legend Nick Mancuso in one of his first gigs. Billy more or less kills like your average, well adjusted horror villain, but he vocalizes like a disturbed demon straight out of hell and it contributes to the freaky atmosphere so much. Olivia Hussey makes an absolutely gorgeous beauty of a scream queen as the proverbial ‘final girl’ Jess, her melodramatic, theatrical approach to the role only makes me love her more and gives the character flourish. Margot Kidder is hysterical in a lengthy cameo as another sorority sister with a huge potty mouth who seriously gets her Christmas drank on, as does curmudgeonly house mother Marian Waldman, who has an extended solo traipse through the dimly lit house that’s a fine example of physical comedy and inspired improv. Legendary John Saxon, who also headlined yet another iconic horror franchise, plays the intrepid police captain who tries to trace the calls and capture Billy, he always provides tough guy charisma. There is just so much to enjoy about this film; the quiet, ambient Yuletide stillness of the mansion in which you just know that even though no creature is stirring, not even a mouse, Billy is in there somewhere waiting and chuckling maniacally to himself, which makes my skin crawl to this day. The nervous score by Carl Zittrer includes objects like forks and combs tied to string instruments, giving them a warped, spooky timbre. The production design, or maybe it was simply a lucky find with the house as it was, is so beautifully mid 70’s and filled with colour, decorations, garish wallpaper, strange artwork and knick knacks, it feels lived in and authentic, as does the easy breezy camaraderie between the sorority sisters and the police banter, all part of a believable atmosphere. The lighting, or partial lack thereof, is something to behold, every few metres holds an army of shadows and murky artifices for Billy to hide in, and the camera drinks it all in slowly for maximum effect. I could go on all day about how much I love this film and what it means to me, but you get the idea. It’s everything a slasher should be and more: funny, morbidly scary, terminally weird at times, visually audacious, sexy, bizarre, festive and packed with atmosphere. Another interesting thing is that although this gathered the steam of a cult classic like other famous horror films, it never generated any sequels which makes it feel kind of special in the genre, like a sacred mile marker. Having said that, there is a remake out there that is absolute fucking festering garbage, it’s worth zero interest and only stands as en example of what not to do in service of a bona fide, enduring classic like this.

-Nate Hill

Black Christmas: A Review By Nate Hill

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Before John Carpenter’s Halloween, there was Black Christmas, and no it’s not a Tyler Perry holiday special. It’s a slick little slasher set in a 1970’s sorority house during Christmas break, when many of the girls have gone home. Suddenly mysterious phone calls start to plague the ones still there, and one by one a murderous, unseen prowler starts to murder them. The phone calls themselves aren’t overly threatening, but instead sound like the nonsensical babbling of someone who is a couple reindeer short of a sleigh, making them all the scarier. I remember watching this years ago and being far more creeped out at the phone calls rather than the actual murders. That is a perfect example of using atmosphere to get under your audience’s skin rather than straight up gore, and a testament to the fright films of the 70’s and 80’s, which really seemed to have all the atmosphere vs. gore dials in the right positions. This positively drips with tension and ambience. The silences in between screams are almost deafening in their vacuous anticipation of terror to come, and strange as it sounds, there’s actually a nice Christmas-y feeling in places where the fear hasn’t yet struck, despite it being a horror movie. Olivia Hussey plays Jess, the main target of the killer with appropriate wide eyed intensity, Margot Kidder is briefly seen as the house mother, and horror regular John Saxon shows up as a suspicious Police Chief as well. I’d say this one achieves a state of suspense and atmosphere that can step up to the same plate as Halloween any day, it’s just a little overlooked I suppose. The house they are in is the perfect setting, a sprawling Yuletide manor of creaky hallways, desolated basements, dark, dingy attic space and an uneasy thrum of awaiting gloom that gives the words Silent Night a new meaning. The poor girls just never know when a shrill telephone ring will slice through the eerie corridors, forcing them to answer it and hear an unnerving voice warble out “It’s me, Billy” on the other end. 
PS: avoid the remake at all costs. It takes everything that was creepy and restrained about this classic and turns it into a disgusting nightmare.