Black Christmases

Billy needs a nap, eh?Here's a minor confession: the first time I saw Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974), I found it dull, slow, and badly acted - and that was quite some time before I developed a great affinity for vintage shockers, be they slashers, gialli, or weird.

What's surprising this time around is how classy the film is, in terms of Clark's direction, the sharp editing, the beautiful camerawork, and the carefully coordinated sound mix that balances harsh, ugly sounds & Carl Zittrer's music concrete with moments of silence, natural effects, and Xmas carols.

Other filmmakers have tried to make their own variations, in terms of dropping a serial killer/stalker into the cheerful holiday spirit of several characters - the sleazy Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), and the inane P2 (2007) - but Clark's film keeps moving towards the top because there's a grittiness to the villain (and his increasingly terrifying phone calls), and the characters are less stupid and over-sexed than the standard archetypes in slasher films. It's also a very simple story: maniac in the attic torments and picks off dorm inhabitants because it's so easy, and so fun.

Clark also doesn't wallow in unnecessary weirdness, and being one of the first formal slashers, he's not making satirical nods to an existing genre. It's an original work, and it's still a chilly little nightmare with just enough peripheral drama - the police investigation of a missing child - to give the film a bit of a docu-drama/police procedural feel.

As a complete contrast, there's Glen Morgan's misguided attempt to expand on the villain's backstory in his 2006 remake, with nods to the original (in terms of props, killings, and the casting of original castmate Andrea Martin as the new dorm mother), and beef up the gore to a stretchy, cartoon level.

Once the first eyeball is ripped from a girl's skull and munched by one of the film's two killers, you realize Morgan's on a comedic genre satire that woefully sacrifices the simplicity and earnestness of the original.

The fact he even renders the phone calls into laughable teases proves his script was wrong from the first paragraph, and it similarly validates the argument that perfect films shouldn't be remade unless there's a very, very good reason. With three endings to choose from, it's clear there was no justification to add a new spin on a classic beyond making some easy cash. The filmmakers had a lack of good judgement, and the producers showed contempt for horror fans, whom they felt would lap up anything with a classic title.

In one of the two featurettes on Dimension's DVD, Clark makes an appearance on set, and while the cast and crew's reverance is real, one can't help feeling the producers should've given him the money to make a film. Prior to his horrible death in 2007 (both Clark and his son where killed when their vehicle was hit by a drunk driver), Clark had been planning a return to the genre by developing a project called The Dreamers, which Burt Lancaster had wanted to make, ages ago.

It's not that Clark needed a hit, but a chance to get back to the genre that started his career, since Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1972), Deathdream (1974), and Black Christmas (1974) were the films that firmed up his career as bankable writer/director/producer.

The creative successes of Tribute (1980) and A Christmas Story (1983) were contrasted by the massive windfalls from Porkey's (1982), after which he made a mixed bag of comedies, which included the disastrous Rhinestone (1984), Baby Geniuses (1999) and SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2 (2004) - the last one being his final film credit.

Black Christmas has appeared several times on DVD, and I've written up a comparison review between the key versions up to and including the 2008 Critical Mass/Anchor Bay/Starz edition, which was released in tandem with his equally classy mystery, Murder by Decree (that review will be up shortly).

Those interested in more info on Clark should check out an interview with the director (as well as actors from Black Christmas) in Issue #63 of Rue Morgue, plus a page tribute to the late director in Issue #67.

Those fond of Clark's less bloody take on the holidays - A Christmas Story - might also be interested in a piece at, where David Fleischer wrote up an affectionate piece on the Toronto locations used in the film, and how they've changed in the intervening years.

Coming shortly: a review of Bernard Herrmann's Christmas Carol, on CD, as well as the fifties teleplay.



Copyright © mondomark