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John Saxon

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?

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Review: Black Christmas

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Black Christmas starts to get interesting in the last two minutes. After a series of killings in a college-town sorority house at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, the supposed murderer, in a scene we don’t actually get to see, has been done in by his own girlfriend and a handy firepoker when she thinks that he’s set on making her his latest victim. The movie is about to end on a shot looking from the hallway of the house into the bedroom where the girl (Olivia Hussey) is sleeping, having been left alone to rest until her parents show up in a few hours. Then, with the recurrence of a few familiarly ominous chords on the soundtrack, the camera begins slowly to pan to the right through the dimly lit hallway, pausing at each doorway where a murder has occurred. So far it’s just a kind of chilly atmospheric effect, prolonging the tone of malaise and spookiness, leaving us slightly off balance even though things have been pretty well wrapped up. But that ain’t all. The camera just keeps on trucking, and we begin to hear the maddened jabberings of the heard-but-not-seen psychotic killer who apparently is still around and who apparently wasn’t Keir Dullea, the boyfriend, after all. The latch on the attic trapdoor springs shut once again (that’s his hideaway), he gently rocks a dead girl—his first victim—who sits wrapped inside a plastic bag on a rocking chair (still we don’t see him), and the final scene of the movie looks at the house from a slightly elevated perspective across the street; a cop stands guard on the front walkway, listening to a phone ring inside. The killer, who made it a habit of saying obscene things over the phone before he murdered someone, still seems to be on the loose. Strange, but it doesn’t really seem to matter much by now.

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“Queen of Blood” and “Blood Bath”: Lessons from the Roger Corman School of Cinematic Recycling

Roger Corman is the world champion of cinematic recycling. Why waste the potential of a set on a single film when there’s a hungry young aspiring director ready to cobble together a second feature and shoot on the set in the days (and nights) before it’s torn down? A couple of good films (and a whole lot of B-movie fodder features) were created because Corman played every angle of an asset, whether if be a particularly lavish set, a couple of days left on an actor’s contract or an expensive stunt sequence that surely could be reused in another feature or three.

One of his favorite tricks was to buy up the rights to science fiction films from behind the Iron Curtain and have movies built around the special effects and/or action sequences. Two of these productions recently came out on the MGM Limited Edition Collection, one of the more robust MOD (manufacture on demand) lines currently pouring out its catalogue.

Queen of Blood (1966), directed by Curtis Harrington, is arguably the best of the Corman-produced recycling jobs and as fun a haunted spaceship film as there was until Mario Bava’s  Planet of the Vampires.  The special effects and alien ship came from a pair of big budget Soviet productions that Corman bought simply to cannibalize, notably Nebo zozyot (which a young Francis Ford Coppola previously turned into Battle Beyond the Sun, 1962, for Corman), and the plot reworks It! The Terror From Beyond Space (which provided the premise for Alien as well), with a green-skinned blood-sucking siren (Florence Marley) subbing for the marauding lizard of It! John Saxon, in All-American hero mode, is the leader of the three-person space mission that finds the ship floating in space and Judi Meredith and Dennis Hopper fill out the crew.

Harrington, who came to genre filmmaking via avant-garde films (including collaborations with Kenneth Anger) and the wonderfully spooky Night Tide, a mix of horror, fantasy, character study and mood piece, creates his own film out of these elements, which he shot in a brisk ten days. The delicious imagery of the Soviet films, from the eerie planetscapes to the dreamy shots of ships in space to the delirious color-drenched interiors of the derelict alien ship, give the film a sense of scale and detail that Corman couldn’t hope to provide. The American side of the production tends to skimp on the American spaceship and space station sets. Basil Rathbone delivers his role seated at a minimalist control center that makes the Star Trek TV bridge look absolutely epic, ordering the astronauts via  microphone (no view screens in this budget) to keep this specimen alive at all costs.

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