The slasher film, arguably the horror subgenre most susceptible to endemic sequelitis and its viewers to a repetition-induced rash. With 12 Jasons, 9 Freddies and even a quadrilogy of Slumber Party Massacres, do we so much gasp “Don’t go in there!” anymore as state with a certain matter-of-factness, “Goin’ in there are ya? Fine”? There are exceptions of course.
”Black Christmas” (1974) is one of the original North American slashers, a Canadian production featuring now knownsilent Canuck talent Margot Kidder (”Superman”), Andrea Martin (of Canada’s “SCTV” fame) and Romeo and Juliet’s Olivia Hussey as Jess, the “final girl.” In Christmas, she finds herself tormented through the telephone lines by a psychopath who babbles in multiple personalities. He takes shelter in the attic of the girls’ sorority house in the opening minutes, above their heads and under their pretty noses. What better home-base from which to call them, then pick them off, one by one.
The film contains a bucket full of slasher movie tropes more popularly attributed to John Carpenter’s ”Halloween” despite Christmas being made four years earlier. But other films that pre-date even Christmas, such as those of splatter-maestro Hershell Gordon Lewis (”Blood Feast”, 1963) and Mario Bava (”Twitch of the Death Nerve”, 1971), have also guided the genre. Regardless, we now know these tropes in our sleep: the ensemble of young female victims, the stalking camera lens, the heavy breathing and the ever-tardy local authorities. Just out of the nick of time they come-a-runnin. “A Nightmare on Elm Street” actor John Saxon pre-peats his role in Christmas as the hard-jawed police chief. He’s brought into the story after the first of the group, the innocent Claire, goes missing. Her father is very concerned. This isn’t like her at all, and by nightfall a search party is sent about the town. Who would have thought though that she sits so close, cold in a rocking chair just beneath the roof. No one does, but it plays as a completely believable omission and has to for the story to work.
Christmas differs from many of its peers in one important way: we learn next to nothing about this lunatic. His face, his motive, even his one true voice is kept largely a secret. As it turns out, there is a reason for this; it unfolds in the second half, but until then our imaginations are free to do that unnerving thing that they do. From ”Psycho” to ”’Jaws” to “Psycho” to ”The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, it’s hard to protect yourself as a viewer when you don’t know what you’re dealing with. The film is also unique for its kind in that it is hanky-panky free. Not that it wasn’t on screenwriter Roy Moore’s mind. The sex is delivered in dialogue form only, occasionally through the calls but mostly through the character of Barb (an effective Kidder), the token perv, and her death is the grisliest of the lot. A dirty mind begets an even dirtier demise – another slasher convention is born. But does it all work? Absolutely. “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl…It’s On Too tight!” goes one of the film’s many tag lines and ”Black Christmas” lives up to the promise, without the gore expected by today’s filmgoers and without a villain using a signature mask or weapon. What it does have, and exploit well by director Bob Clark (”A Christmas Story”, ”Porky’s”), is a simple idea that most of us have at least considered in our minds – that someone else is in the house. If you live alone, possess a ladder-accessible attic or deep closets…this might not be the movie for you.
Now here’s another simple idea – Santa punishes the naughty…with an axe. It belongs to ”Silent Night, Deadly Night”, a movie that fails on almost every level save motherhood, having given birth to four sequels I probably won’t be subjecting myself to. The film was controversial even before its release, for obvious reasons. Its television spots depicted Saint Nick in ways that would likely disturb children and/or necessitate family counselling. The TV ads were pulled and then not long into its theatrical run, the film itself. For what it’s worth (nothing), it outgrossed Wes Craven’s original ”Elm Street” on its opening weekend (according to Wikipedia).
The story: Christmas Eve, 1971. Young Billy and his parents make the long drive to visit Grandpa at a Utah mental facility. The old man is unresponsive at first, but when left alone with his grandson he comes alive to pass on a piece of festive advice. “You see Santa Claus tonight, you better run boy! You better run for your life!” Thanks Gramps. We never see him again, but his warning comes to pass on the drive home. Billy’s parents are murdered by a thief masquerading as Mr. Ho Ho, psychologically scarring the youngster into believing that Santa will violently punish the wicked. The years that follow in a strict Catholic orphanage only hammer home the point that “Punishment is necessary. Punishment is good.” Words from the Mother Superior naturally, a ruler-smacking tyrant naturally. Already you can see where this is going. By the time Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) is old enough to strike out on his own, he has all the makings of a psychopath.
The story lazily gestures towards certain social issues (violence shaping personality, the implications of child rearing), but Silent Night has no greater aspiration than a hockey goon’s, to bludgeon the audience with one simple, meat-fisted, juvenile promise, in the film’s case to show Kris Kringle spilling blood. The performances are at times unintentionally laughable and not helped by scenes that suddenly abandon the genre. My favorite example shows actor Wilson playing the dutiful stockboy (in a toy store no less) in a musical montage better suited for a Chris Farley movie. Billy moves a box. Billy helps a customer. Billy assembles a Mr. Potato Head. This shows that Billy wants to be good. Good, but the problem here is that once he finally cracks (he’s asked to play Santa), he’s a villain with bells but no mystery. His actions are reprehensible, even disgusting, but not frightening in the least because we know him too well (and because Wilson is scary like a candycane).
Finally, the film is visually dull. Compare with Christmas, which had a comparable budget but far more interest in utilizing the tools of cinema to envelope the viewer: shaped lighting, discriminating focus, teasing shadows and those all important silences. ”Silent Night”’s creative palate again proves that “bad Santa” is all it has. The film is artless, pointless and even for an exploitation genre, tasteless. In one scene, a young girl is approached by Santa/Billy after he’s killed the guardian and her boyfriend. He asks her if she’s been naughty or nice and reaches into his pocket for a box cutter. We’re meant to think that he’ll kill her if he’s given the wrong answer. When she finally responds “good” he hands her the bloody cutter as a gift. Film critic Gene Siskel took the filmmakers to task for this scene and the film in aggregate. “You people have nothing to be proud of even if you made a few bucks off of all the negative publicity.” I’d have to agree.
And the “winner” is: Black Christmas