Billy, Don’t Be A Weirdo… BLACK CHRISTMAS Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. 101 Films. 18.

God, Christmas arrives earlier every year, doesn’t it? Still, if you’re the kind of ghoul whose yuletide wish is to sit the family down in front of Bob Clark’s classic 1974 Canucksploiter (as, apparently, was standard procedure for the Presleys every December 25th at Graceland) then you’re gonna need five weeks or so to drop heavy hints to your nearest and dearest about slipping this one into your Xmas stocking. Maybe they won’t take your hints but never mind, worse things happen during the festive season…

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… for instance, to the occupants of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house, allegedly somewhere in the USA (actually, Toronto). Initially assailed by obscene, ranting phone calls from some sex-case identifying himself as “Billy”, members of the feisty sisterhood (which includes Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and Lynne Griffin among its number) are soon being killed and their bodies arranged in the attic, where young William seems to be putting together some kind of black Nativity scene. Clark and writer Roy Moore pull every trick in the book to divert your attention towards Hussey’s intense concert pianist, abortion-resenting boyfriend as prime suspect, which probably tells you all you need to know about whether it’s him or not. John Saxon’s Police Lt and his (somewhat clueless) underlings take an eternity to work out that those phone-calls are actually coming from within the sorority house (difficult to believe, actually, that the ungodly racket Billy makes during his calls wouldn’t have already pinpointed his whereabouts), setting up a rattling false ending and memorably ambiguous creepy  coda…

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Horror and thriller buffs of a certain vintage and of a certain theoretical persuasion have had a lot of fun (haven’t we?) trying to nail the influence of Italian gialli on the lucrative American stalk’n’slash cycle. Of course there were other antecedents (as, indeed the giallo had its own roots in e.g. Germany’s Edgar Wallace adaptations) and we’re looking at one of them right here. It has even been suggested (a suggestion which gets repeated in the bonus materials on this disc) that John Carpenter conceived (or “borrowed” the concept for) his massively-influential-in-its-own-right Halloween (1978) as a sequel to Black Christmas…

Clark (whose earlier genre credits included Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, 1972 and Dead Of Night, 1974) might or might not have been aware of Bava and Argento’s contemporary stylish efforts… there are shots in Black Christmas which strongly suggest that he was (I won’t insult the reader by spelling out precisely which ones I’m talking about… they’re clear enough) although it’s possible that he and Argento were just cribbing stuff from the same Fritz Lang movies. Whether as a result of studying Argento or not, Clark introduced… always a contentious claim… well, he certainly put considerable impetus behind the use of sinuous P.O.V. shots in subsequent North American slasher movies. To this end he and his camera crew improvised a primitive Steadicam before Steadicam was even invented. Cinematic influences are seldom a one way street and it’s difficult to watch the establishing glimpses of Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery, wherein an external shot of a face at a window lap dissolves into a similar but not identical one, without concluding that Fulci has watched Black Christmas, or at least its closing moments.

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Clark incidentally inaugurated the trend (considerably less significant artistically than in marketing terms) here of tying these kill-by-numbers films into holiday set ups and special occasions (Halloween, Friday the 13th, St Valentine’s Day, et al… not to mention such inferior, albeit sometimes entertaining Xmas slay-rides as Carles E. Sellier Jr’s 1984 effort Silent Night, Deadly Night), also spawning a fertile filone of Sorority House Massacres while he was at it.

Horror and comedy (to invoke an adage so often restated that it’s become tantamount to cliché) are two sides of the same coin and it’s not hard to detect foreshadowings of Clark’s subsequent comic success with the likes of the Porky’s films in Black Christmas. Kidder’s drunken, potty-mouthed provocateur (who kids the dumbest cop in the picture that “fellatio” is a new telephone exchange) gives particularly good value for money but all of the major cast members (well, apart from the barely glimpsed Billy) contribute believable, believably imperfect and generally likeable characters. The female principals, in particular are strong-willed free spirits, polar opposites of their sketchy cinematic descendants in so many dreary “have sex and die” epics. The fact that you care for these people makes Black Christmas so much more than the bravura display of cinematic technique that it undoubtedly is. Clark is handsomely served throughout by his collaborators in front of and behind the camera, several of whom remember him with affection and admiration in the bonus materials assembled on this disc.

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Clark died with his son Ariel on 04/04/07, reportedly at the hands of an inebriated, uninsured driver, which just goes to prove the aforementioned Signor Fulci’s point that nothing a horror director can put on the screen is remotely as horrifying as the stuff that happens every day in real life.

101’s BD transfer of Clark’s finest hour is a bit grainy but that shouldn’t put you off this seminal and seriously chilling thriller. Like it says in the trailer: “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl… IT’S ON TOO TIGHT!”

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