Friday, 30 December 2011



A big old house at night. Obscene phone calls. An unseen maniac killing sorority girls. The camera taking on the killer's POV. A shifty and suspicious boyfriend. Useless police officers. A familiar cult movie actor in an authority role. "The calls are coming from inside the house!" A nuisance cat. A creepy attic, a creepy cellar. Twist ending where the horror isn't really over. How many times have these join-the-dots ingredients come up in every cheap slasher movie ever made? Admittedly part of the fun of slasher movies is enjoying the tropes of a Halloween, as much as seeing them wittily subverted in a Scream. Fine, but they weren't tropes to start with: this pioneering Canadian slasher came four years before Halloween, five before When A Stranger Calls and six before Friday The 13th. More than those movies, this is the one with a greater claim to inventing the cliches in the first place.

Yet first doesn't always mean best, and it's curious that Bob Clark's 1974 slasher Black Christmas doesn't actually work anywhere near as well as some of the films that came after it, specifically the big franchise-starters Halloween and Friday The 13th. Certainly it has incident and it kicks off with the dirty phone calls right from the start (very dirty - the handful of C-words is probably why the film still retains its 18 certificate after more than thirty years), but once it graduates to killing its sorority girls rather than making obscene noises at them, it settles into something that now seems painfully obvious and predictable unless you actually saw it back in 1974. Suspicion is cast firmly and early on Olivia Hussey's ridiculously creepy boyfriend Keir Dullea, yet it couldn't possibly be him and there's no motivation given. But who else could it be?

Frustratingly, the film elects not to reveal its antagonist, simply letting the end credits run over the sound of the ringing telephone. Personally I feel that's a copout, like Agatha Christie ending a novel before Poirot gets round to his ten-minute deconstruction and unmasks the villain. Whether it's because the idea of an unknown murderer is more horrific than a known one, or because Clark and writer Roy Moore believe it doesn't really matter, it leaves the movie without a tidy and satisfying conclusion.

I know it's heresy but I probably prefer the 2006 remake, partly on the grounds that there's more in the way of upfront gore (this original version is pretty restrained in the ketchup department) but partly because they do actually bother to identify the killer. The slick and bloody but empty Glen Morgan version may not be much of a film overall (it's an enjoyable popcorn slasher rather than a work of actual quality) but I have a soft spot for it. But I can't get enthused about Bob Clark's original: it's okay, and it's good to see Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea and John Saxon (I've never been a fan of Margot Kidder, though), but it's really no more than okay.


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