Review: Black Christmas

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

“The Film Funding Corporation Limited in association with Vision IV” has produced a serviceable-enough Canadian low-budget shocker in Black Christmas and pitched it at the end-of-year trade. Unless I’ve missed some subtle subtext, the tie to Christmas is tenuous: an establishing shot of wassail seen through the windows of Gothic-looking Hart House, University of Toronto (decked out with Christmas lights and disguised as a sorority house in the college town of “Bedford”), and an advertising campaign built around a Christmas wreath gift-labeled “Season’s Greeting’s” and enclosing a still of a polyethylene-wrapped corpse propped in a rockingchair. One question about this campaign teases my mind more persistently than any puzzle propounded by the film itself. Did the merchandiser who dreamed it up personally place the apostrophe before that plural s in “Greetings,” as unselfconsciously as if he were scrawling the words on a wrapped Christmas gift in the sanctity of his own home; or could FCC Ltd./Vision IV in fact be trying to hip us, via their use of this endemic seasonal illiteracy (see also: Greetings from the Smith’s, The Smith’s Live Here, etc.) to their extraordinary concern in Black Christmas for the exact social detail?

If I could only resolve this question of intent, I suspect it would help with other questions in the body of the film. Such as: when the roster of missing persons keeps swelling at that sorority house, and the bodies of murdered women are piling up in the attic, and conscientious, intelligent Lieut. Fuller (John Saxon) finally takes charge of the investigation, is his elementary failure to have the house thoroughly searched a sophisticated Hitchcockian reversal of audience expectations (1ook how sober and competent this cop seems … you assumed he’d be a great detective, didn’t you? … horse on you, chaps!)? or does it merely reflect the filmmakers’ helplessness in the face of the tact that one peek into the attic would reveal the dead bodies, the extension from which the killer has been making wildly obscene phone calls after each of his depradations within the house, and maybe the killer himself, thus ending the film? Similarly: when director Bob Clark hits us over the head for 85 minutes with the same soundtrack red herring, an ominous twang of piano strings, and then, in the last five minutes, unashamedly exposes his own dishonesty, does he expect us a) to retrospectively erase the sounds, and visual clues, too, that he has attached to shots of the killer at work? b) to laugh with him at this clever imposture? or c) to forgive him almost anything just because he transmutes a trick ending into cinematic gold? I confess to c. The conclusion is beautiful: a meld of fading sounds, shadows, and reflected lights; a smooth, slow travelling shot, a high overhead; a cop warming his hands outside the darkened, hulking Hart House; a sedated girl lying on the bed in a pitchblack room; silence; a phone ringing.

This complicated but fluid last sequence argues a talent in Clark that could lead to better things. There are setups and camera strategies throughout the film, cheek by jowl with its crudities, that support this hope. A series of attempts at telephone central to trace the obscene phone caller is excitingly done. And there’s a finely judged moment amidst the sometimes overstated horror and humor, when Jess (Olivia Hussey)—whose menacingly unstable piano-pounding boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) is the putative (twang!) killer—asks another endangered sorority-house inhabitant how her boyfriend’s getting along. “Chris?” her lriend says, “oh, Chris, he’s OK … you know Chris”: and that offhand answer, with its intimation of a stable, taken-for-granted world of reliability outside the demonic goings-on in Pi Kappa Sigma house, generates a more authentic frisson than any of the graphically gory killings shown onscreen. We must owe the exchange and its placement in the flow of events to both director Clark and screenwriter Roy Moore, who thereby redeems some of his own sins. Actual1y, it’s hard to be too severe with Moore. Black Christmas is a modest genre movie, after all, and any screenplay that brings us the stylish Margot Kidder inviting that all-stops-out obscene caller, the next time he needs another charge, to “go stick his tongue in a wall socket” can’t be all bad.

BLACK CHRISTMAS
Direction: Bob Clark. Screenplay: Roy Moore. Cinematography: Reg Morris.
The Players: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Andrea Martin, Lynne Griffin, Marian Waldman, Doug McGrath.

Copyright © 1975 Ken Eisler


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