Black Christmas (1974, 1 hr 38 mins)
My Christmas post for 2014 is about a Canadian classic. Made in 1974 and said to be one of the first slasher films, Black Christmas has a special place in my heart. It is not only one of my top 5 horror films, but also a favourite of my childhood friends. As kids, we would discuss it at length and giggle at the scary parts. They have since moved out of town, but when we come across it on T.V. or pop it in the V.C.R. or D.V.D. player, we always text each other.
When I heard that Rue Morgue was putting on a 40th anniversary screening of the film at the Royal Cinema, I had to go. Imagine seeing it on the big screen as it was intended with fellow fans as we walk down Memory Lane? With one of the films stars in attendance? And the option to purchase a limited edition poster? Yes please!
The story, loosely based on real murders that happened in Montreal, is about a sorority house that is plagued with obscene calls made by a mysterious and murderous nut-job as he kills the girls off one by one. It has become an iconic Christmas horror movie that, to the trained eye, uses some very familiar locations and is slice of Canadian history. From the search party scene filmed in the neighbourhood that I grew up in at Grenadier Pond (the source of some historical myths), to University of Toronto where I pursued higher education, Black Christmas is a map of an old Toronto even though it is set in the fictional U.S. town of Bedford.
Starring Hollywood heavies such as John Saxon, Olivia Hussey, Andrea Martin and Margot Kidder, the organizers invited Art Hindle, who played the fur-clad Chris, to host the screening. Hindle is a busy Canadian actor who has worked on shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and the award-winning Canadian series E.N.G. He has a face that is easily recognizable, and it was great to see him in the flesh, wearing the actual fur coat monstrosity from the film that he kept after all these years as a souvenir.
Before the movie started, Hindle answered some questions about his experience being in the film. He said that he took the role of Chris to make money, plain and simple, because he had to support his family. A chat with Margot Kidder convinced him to go to Los Angeles to find more work because Toronto at the time was not booming in the entertainment industry. He also raved about late director Bob Clark’s “consummate craft of filmmaking”. Hindle felt Clark was a genius and cited the classic teen sex comedy Porky’s as a technically advanced film, despite its subject matter; in fact, Hindle pointed out that the crew would often consult Clark beyond his directorial skills because he was so technically well-rounded.
As I watched the film on the big screen, I realized my favourite aspect of Black Christmas was the deliciously slow camera shots that either panned across rooms or came in for close-ups-the epitome of building tension-as well as the killer’s point of view camera work, which was apparently mounted on camera man Bert Dunk’s shoulder. Along with the tension came the jarring score by Carl Zittrer. Christmas carols surrounded by jangling discordant notes, eerie wind mixed with moans, and heavy breathing, all culminating when Jess’s high-strung boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) blows a gasket and destroys a perfectly good grand piano. Those angry sounds resonated throughout the film as things got worse.
Another key element was the well-placed comedy. Writer Roy Moore, along with script revisions from Clark, incorporated dark humour that punctuated the action so cleverly. Among the most memorable moments were Kidder’s dry portrayal of the perpetually drunk Barb and the fellatio phone number scene, and Sergeant Nash’s (Doug McGrath) general oblivion. Add the foreboding old school telephone ring which was central to the film and the truly creepy, rambling phone calls, and you have all the ingredients for an entertaining and well-crafted horror movie that has become a cornerstone of the horror genre.
To mark the anniversary, a limited edition poster was created. Toronto based artist Ghoulish Gary Pullin, who has had a multitude of clients such as Rue Morgue Magazine, Dread Central, and Anchor Bay Entertainment just to name a few, and won for best movie poster for the documentary Why Horror? at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, was invited to reinterpret the look of the Black Christmas movie poster. I am not normally a poster type gal, but when I saw it, I needed to have one. Silk-screened and featuring metallic silver inks, it is truly a thing of beauty. Pullin was actually on site to personally hand out prints and say hello! He said he was humbled when he was asked to do the poster and was a genuinely nice guy and obviously extremely talented.
My first experience with Black Christmas will always be remembered as a popcorn and pyjama movie with close friends, but I had a lot of fun seeing it loud and proud on its historic 40th anniversary. It was great to sit with an audience as we laughed and shrieked at some old school horror. Who knew a little film about a crank caller and murdered sorority girls would be such an industry trailblazer! So glad I made it out to revisit the mystery of Billy, Agnes and the baby!
Merry Christmas, dear reader!
*I would like to dedicate this post to my childhood friends who loved this film as much as I did, and to their loved ones who recently left us. Terry and Sharon lost their father Desmond on September 3rd, and Tessa and Suzette, Desmond’s nieces, lost their beloved friend Danny December 11th. May they find solace in the memories and the good times with their friends and family, and here’s to a happier new year for us all.