To me, Hell is a 24-hour loop of the same movie over and over and over again. Repetition is my agony. So this time of year is a rough one for me personally. It’s all about repetition. Even a clever holiday film like Bob Clark’s 1983 demi-classic A CHRISTMAS STORY can become a torture device when repeated on loop by whichever cable channel is doing it this year. I need constant freshness. I need variation. I need a Christmas movie that hasn’t yet been played to death.
Almost ten years before he made A CHRISTMAS STORY, director Bob Clark made one of the great holiday-themed horror films, which also happens to predate another holiday film which it has much more in common: John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN.
If anything, people remember Bob Clark best for comedies such as PORKY’S and A CHRISTMAS STORY and purported disasters like RHINESTONE and BABY GENIUSES, but he deserves rediscovery as a grindhouse filmmaker. His run of horror movies in the early 1970s — starting with the clever genre-flip CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, continuing with 1972’s ruddy but indelible DEATHDREAM, and concluding with 1974’s BLACK CHRISTMAS — is an adventurous group well worth re-visiting.
BLACK CHRISTMAS may be the best of the trio, technically speaking. In this movie, a phone-call-makin’ freak terrorizes a sorority house over Christmas break. First he just sounds like a creepy pervert, but soon enough the calls turn more sinister. Roy Moore’s script smartly expands the long-standing North American urban legend (predating cell phones and the internet) which turns on the heart-stopping revelation, “The call is coming from inside the house!” Teen girls and babysitters passed that story around more than enough for it to become a pop-culture trope in the middle years of the past century. If you’ll remember, Michael Myers made some creepy phone calls to teenagers too, but that’s just a move out of the playbook passed along by “The Moaner” in BLACK CHRISTMAS.
The ensemble is perfectly cast. Some of the sorority sisters are played by SUPERMAN’s soon-to-be Margot Kidder, SCTV’s Andrea Martin, and the insanely distractingly lovely Olivia Hussey (whose beauty blew up minds in films such as Franco Zeffirelli’s ROMEO & JULIET and Brian Trenchard-Smith’s TURKEY SHOOT). 2001’s Keir Dullea amps up the creepiness he showed in Otto Preminger’s BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING, as one of the few male characters in the film. Fans of awesomeness will want to know that ENTER THE DRAGON’s John Saxon plays the investigating detective, the “Dr. Loomis” of the piece.
Here’s a typical scene, which starts as a typical Bob Clark comedic scene and hangs around long enough to become creepy. (The language is pretty upsetting, actually. Although I confess I’ve heard worse around my family dinner table.)
The director and the actors carry this material out effectively. Really, the mood is oppressive and ominous from the start; no humorless dirge, but it’s very clear some bad things are coming. There’s an unsettling inevitability to the dark events that come. And there’s no forgetting the way it ends. In 2006 Bob Clark co-produced a glossier remake, which co-stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and for that reason alone isn’t half bad, but the original is so dank and nasty (in a good way) there was never a pressing need to trade it in.
BLACK CHRISTMAS is screening tonight — in 35mm!!! — at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn. Perfectly, it’s an annual midnight tradition over there. Couldn’t recommend attending any more highly.
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