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Black Christmas (1974)

by on 2012/10/30

“Just like having a wart removed.”

* *

Black Christmas (this 1974 version) is frequently cited as a forerunner of the modern horror movie. Assuming this claim is both accurate and complimentary, it’s still hardly as early — or effective — as at least two similar films: Sorry Wrong Number (1948) and Dial M for Murder (1954).

Shot on the University of Toronto campus, here renamed “Bedford”, the action — such as it is — is largely confined to a sorority house in December. Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey) fields a series of crank calls, about the same in number as the housemates who go missing.

Do you enjoy watching innocents killed one after another, while other innocents are blamed for their deaths? If so, this may be your bag. There isn’t much else otherwise.

It’s a terrible situation in theory, so how come I never cared? Perhaps Jess being a standoffish priss factors in. Or perhaps the story told hardly seems worth caring about. Whodunit? Who cares?

The trouble is, I did care despite myself . . . but not because I was won over. I cared because I was cheated out of a rational resolution. Or an irrational one, whatever. Any ending would have been better than none, even “it was all just a dream”.

No, I didn’t expect a neat little package with all the loose threads tidied up. And a Hollywood finish would be odd for this sort of flick. But, silly me, imagine wanting an end, not a sudden stop.

Believe me, I’m spoiling nothing here. The movie does that all on its own. It drags us along for an hour and a half, then cheats and abandons us. It’s utter, bloody negligence masquerading as wannabe art.

I believe the key word here is “misdirected”. The entire trip is riddled with missteps. For instance, incessant alcohol humour is funny, though mostly to drunkards when drunk. Search party yokels, hidden flasks, and outbursts of vulgarity are juxtaposed against the fears of parents who have lost their children. It doesn’t take a religious teetotaler to find it somewhat off-putting.

What a waste for content so weak to be treated with fairly strong craft. The lighting and cinematography are good, with shadows and silhouettes, undizzying handheld work, and point-of-view perspectives. A silenced scream transitions to a ringing phone. The musical score undulates with prepared piano wires. Sombre chorales set an eerie tone.

Otherwise, I’m rather struck by the high esteem in which Black Christmas is held. Oh, some fans seem to recognize the weaknesses, yet excuse it by reminding the world it predates Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. While it’s lauded for being comparatively bloodless, that doesn’t guarantee its success. Nearly forty years along, it remains slow, nearly boring, unfunny, and frustratingly wasteful.

It might have been the I.O.U. for a lump of coal in your stocking, but it forgot how to write the note, then cried a bit, and finally wandered away.

* *

Rated 18A

98 minutes

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