Friday 30 December 2011

Meet the ur-slasher

Lest this blog be accused of lacking Christmas cheer, I decided to do what I do best: watch a low-budget slasher film. But not, gentle reader, any old dead teenager flick. No, nothing but a Christmas-themed horror picture would do, because if the stylish slaughter of innocents is not the reason for the season, I don't know what is. (Jesus is. It's not Herodmass, after all.)*

Black Christmas isn't just yuletide-friendly, though.  It's also an important film, after a fashion: released on 11 October 1974, Black Christmas is the first North American slasher film, predating Halloween by four and Friday the 13th by five and a half years. That's how long it took for the template the film pioneered to catch on - which may have something to do with the fact that the first, glorious flowering of this most American of horror subgenres was produced in Canada.

It's shortly before Christmas at the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house, somewhere in the northern US (portrayed by Toronto). The girls' Christmas party is interrupted by an obscene phone call from a man the sisters have dubbed the moaner for his fondness for gurgling, screaming, and animal noises. Foul-mouthed Barb (Margot Kidder, of Superman fame) shouts at the caller, causing 'professional virgin' Clare (Lynne Griffin) to worry about provoking someone obviously unhinged. She's right to fret since, while packing in her room, Clare is asphyxiated in plastic foil by an unseen assailant.

The next day Clare's father, Mr Harrison (James Edmond) arrives in town to pick up his daughter but finds that the house mother, Mrs Mac (Marian Waldman) hasn't seen her of late. (Mrs Mac, by the way, is an alcoholic spinster, and I'm never quite sure whether to be grateful or appalled that screaming stereotypes tend to die early on, as this character does.) Meanwhile, Jess (Olivia Hussey, who shot to fame with Romeo and Juliet) meets her boyfriend, highly strung music student Peter (Keir Dullea, of 2001: A Space Odyssey), to tell him she is pregnant but will have an abortion. Peter takes this badly, and the two part without agreeing.

Mr Harrison and the concerned sisters report the threatening calls to the police. There, Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon, who later played a similar authority figure in A Nightmare on Elm Street) decides to put a tap on the house phone. (The specifics of telephony - rather different in those primitive days - are rather important to the plot, and are thankfully well explained.) Before long, the police discover the shocking truth: the calls are coming from inside the house.

As a horror film Black Christmas is extraordinarily satisfying: suspenseful and, well, scary - a less common trait in the genre than one might suppose - it towers over its lesser brethren. That's in no small degree thanks to having an unusually threatening baddie in the Moaner (voiced by Nick Mancuso and director Bob Clark himself). Most slasher villains are not actually insane: sure, Michael Myers spent most of his life in an asylum and his madness is frequently asserted, but for all practical purposes he's a functioning guy who just really enjoys stabbing teenagers to death. The Moaner, on the other hand, is frakking psychotic, and the psychosexual menace in his calls ('Let me lick your pretty piggy cunt!') makes your skin crawl in ways simpler murderfests cannot muster.

It can't be denied, unfortunately, that Black Christmas is filled to the brim with padding - although at the time many superfluous subplots seem like they'll lead to something, and I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse. For example, the search for a missing teenage girl keeps Jess, Phyl (Andrea Martin) and Mr Harrison occupied during the film's second act, but ultimately peters out. At least they're always diverting, thanks to the well-written script by Roy Moore. (My favourite moment occurs when Phyl's boyfriend Patrick (Michael Rapport), dressed as Santa Claus, glumly mutters 'Ho ho ho shit... ho ho ho fuck' into his fake beard.)

It's well-acted, too: Margot Kidder as the hard-drinking Barb, who enjoys shocking people with tales of her promiscuity to hide her lack of meaningful relationships, is perhaps the best, but Olivia Hussey comes close despite being hampered by an unsteady accent. Then there's the undeniable fact of the film's feminist subtext - surprising in a subgenre generally known for its vicious misogyny. Like many slashers, Black Christmas is in no small part about a man violently reasserting control over women; unlike some of its brethren the film problematises the patriarchal murder spree rather than celebrate it.

That feminist edge is present in our Final Girl, too. Jess, you'll recall, is pregnant out of wedlock and determined to have an abortion, and yet she's a fully drawn, rounded human being. Her let's-get-married-and-have-the-baby boyfriend, with his obsessive need for control, is clearly the less mature of the two. I'd argue, in fact, that the old 'sex equals death' cliché conceals the fact that survival in a slasher film is not primarily about virginal purity but about level-headedness and maturity - qualities exhibited by the nonvirginal Jess and the virginal-by-lack-of-opportunity Laurie of Halloween, but not by their promiscuous friends. Seen in that light, Black Christmas is a far less heterodox slasher than it seems at first.

Bob Clark's direction is far too eager to waste time with gratuitous shots from the killer's point of view but is otherwise good: the best scenes, for my money, are a slow close-up pan over the girls' faces during the moaner's first call and an eeriely beautiful murder committed with a crystal unicorn statue, in the film's most Italian moment. Black Christmas never hides the debt it owes to the giallo: the telephone subplot is cribbed from Dario Argento's Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), as is what Tim Brayton has termed the uncovering of the tableau, the scene - present in most slashers and gialli - in which the Final Girl discovers the bodies of her slain comrades.

These characteristics lead me to identify Black Christmas as the first slasher film, despite the fact that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was released ten days earlier. Tobe Hooper's violent fantasy grew out of the very American countryside-revenge film typified by Deliverance (1972) rather than the giallo, and the series has retained that genre's tropes - incestuous, unhygienic hillbillies, a rural, Southern setting, a group or family of killers rather than a lone murderer - to the present day even as it's been intertwined closely with the true slasher.

If Black Christmas still feels like a giallo in places, it has already transcended that genre and created something new - new in 1974, that is: after the Friday the 13th series set to churning out braindead paint-by-numbers slashers, its originality is easily missed almost four decades on. Many of the tropes it introduced - the lone, unseen killer, the meat whittled down one by one, the Final Girl, the crucial role of the telephone - form the bedrock of the genre to this day. Black Christmas is not, however, only the archetypical slasher. It's also one of the very best, and has lost little of its raw creepiness.

*And now I find myself wishing someone would do a slasher adaptation of the Christmas story, with Jesus as the Final Girl.

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