Good Cinema: Black Christmas (Dir: Bob Clark, 1974)

A group of young girls is being mercilessly targeted by a crazed killer on a beloved holiday. At the end of the film, only one survives and the killer has disappeared into the night, presumably to strike again.

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If you thought I was describing John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), you would be wrong, but not off base. In fact, without Black Christmas, there might not have been a Halloween at all. Carpenter, a huge fan of Black Christmas and friend of director Bob Clark, was talking with Clark about a potential sequel to Black Christmas. Clark’s response: While he didn’t want to make one, if he did, he could imagine the killer breaking out of a mental institute and wreaking havoc. Oh, and it would be on Halloween. Carpenter ran with it and created an indelible masterpiece that has gone on to reap all of the acclaim of being the progenitor for the slasher.

But it’s not only the potential plot that Carpenter borrowed from Clark. If you watch Black Christmas, you will see a few of the tropes that have gone on to define the genre which have been attributed to Halloween:

  • the camera stands in as the POV of the killer = the opening sequence of Halloween outside the Myer’s home, which Carpenter has long attributed to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), can also be found here.
  • the lone girl survivor = while this trope should technically be attributed to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which was released in theaters a week earlier, Black Christmas sets the killings within a sorority house (another trope continued to this day in TV shows like Scream Queens). Where Halloween differed and laid new ground is that while Laurie Strode was the virginal goodie-two shoes that came to define the “lone girl,” Black Christmas’ survivor Jess was a liberal minded woman, set on getting an abortion.
  • the killer attacks on its victims’ own turf = While Michael Myers slew and stalked his victims in places in which they felt at home, Billy (the faceless murderer in Black Christmas) actually committed all of his murders within their home, the sorority house, even making his ominous phone calls there, a trope later popularized in When a Stranger Calls (1979) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and parodied in Scream (1996).
  • the killer disappears into the night = Halloween‘s glorious ending sequence, as the camera takes us through the various murder locations, can also be found at the end of Black Christmas.

None of this is meant to take anything away from the majesty of Carpenter’s masterwork. Seriously. It is one of the greatest films ever made and possibly the greatest horror film of all time (barring Psycho, of course). But in fairness, Black Christmas should get some of the credit it is due.

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Black Christmas, a parody on the famous Bing Crosby tune, is set during Christmas break at a sorority house. The girls have been receiving prank calls from an anonymous moaner. Up until now it has all been rather amusing. But when one of their sisters disappears, the others think it may have something to do with their disturbed caller. Suddenly, it is a race against time with the police (led by the sexy John Saxon) in tow to try and catch him before he strikes again. Along for the journey is the father (James Edmond) of the missing girl, Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her obsessive boyfriend who may be the murderer (Keir Dullea), the sorority drunk Barbara (Margot Kidder), the wallflower (Andrea Martin) and the comedic den mother of the sorority house (Marian Waldman, paging her best Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life).

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So is Black Christmas just “important” or is it good too? Well, it’s both. In particular, some of the murder sequences are very artfully crafted, albeit without the blood and gore to which we are accustomed; it wasn’t until Friday the 13th (1980) rolled around that this became an acceptable and expected element (although Herschell Gordon Lewis had already made a name for himself in the 1960s as the Godfather of Gore with his cult films, relegated to the fringes of cinema). The performances are more earnest and stronger than in some of its later knock offs because the script tries to give them all three dimensional characters with stakes – and very talented actors were cast; Olivia Hussey was fresh off of Shakespeare and Margot Kidder had just completed her dual performance in DePalma’s Sisters (1973). However, the story of Black Christmas is overdrawn and over complicated and feels at times that it is unsure what type of movie it wants to be. Is it horror? Is it police procedural? Is it black comedy? All questions one must work out when laying the ground work for a new genre. Black Christmas, while not as great as its descendants, deserves a viewing. Especially for those interested in the history of horror.

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Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

*The film is also known as Silent Night, Evil Night because distributors were worried that people would think Black Christmas was a blaxpolitation film.

*For further viewing on the history of the slasher, see Michael Powell’s excellent Peeping Tom (1960).

*Available on YouTube.

‘Cause You’re On Your Own in the Real World

As some of you know, I have spent the past year with O.J. Simpson. Not literally with O.J. Simpson – that would be, to put it mildly, uncomfortable – but working on two O.J. docs that recently premiered on LMN and A&E. I am officially a co-producer with legit IMDB credits and a few people at a major network know my name. Go me. Tact and future dealings preclude me from divulging all I may, but trust it will make a really cool chapter in my autobiography one day.

Last night, I returned to catering, my stalwart source of employment. Throughout this year long excursion into death and celebrity justice, I made sure to stay in the loop at Wolfgang Puck, working a shift every few weekends; no one ever really “quits” Wolfgang Puck. Wolfgang Puck – from management to housemen – is full of actors, writers, directors, producers, singer/songwriters, stand up comedians, and other dream chasers in a series of rotations; this season’s crop of available people in between their projects and new imports to the city; that delicate balance of seasoned vets, too bitter to care, and wide-eyed ingenues too naive to know they are being taken advantage of.

It was a typical event – an easy one, at that; dozens of lemmings feeding an anonymous group of corporate out-of-towners who think they are getting the best meal of their lives.  It was really nice seeing old friends and was even looking forward to the gig; after a year of intense, crazy 12 hour days, dealing with drama, last minute demands, and a desk full of tasks that inevitably became mine, I was eager to show up in a place where I could literally exist on autopilot, making fairly decent money. But 15 minutes before clocking in, I started to get this overbearing sense of anxiety and unrest in the pit of my still good, but no longer 6 packed stomach. I texted Julian my concerns – a man that on top of being my husband, etc. is very much living his own Arrested Development, trapped in situations from which he is feverishly working hard to emerge.

“It’s not where you belong,” he said. As if anyone “belonged” catering. I think I’ve met about five people in all my years of hospitality that actually wanted to be there.

But I knew what he meant. And he was right. I did not belong there. I had seen the other side, experienced what life could be, what I was capable of, appreciated by legends, and now I was back to doing the very thing I had done when I first moved to Los Angeles over 5 years ago. If I had let myself really sulk in it, it would have been a really depressing night.

Surprisingly though, it made me hungrier, starving in fact. Ask most anyone, particularly Julian, and you will know that I have not always been the most driven of people (see my post Little Teeth for a recent reference point). And while I may not “need” to be famous/rich, it sure beats the alternative. But even above being famous/rich, “happiness” – that elusive, yet gregarious paramour – is really what life could be about. And working in catering is not it. Duh. So I need to chase my happiness; 32 years in and that word is finally gleaning some real world definition.

My biggest fear of going back to WP, back to these people that I had “left behind,” was that I would look like a failure. I was really trying to avoid any conversation about Mr. Simpson and my current life. Of course, I was asked the unavoidable question (“I saw your show! What are you doing here? Why aren’t you on to the next big adventure?”), but I’m kind of glad it happened. Among other reasons, it humbled me a little, remembering that all of us are one gig away from “making it” – and completely susceptible to having our lives take a turn and returning us to the start.

The main thing that this O.J. experience has really taught me – or I guess made blindingly obvious – is that nothing is out of reach, yet everything requires hard work, determination, and passion. And that nothing will ever be handed to you, ever. If I want to be done catering, I have to apply myself. I have to have a plan, an end game. The flame must always be slightly lit. It helps that I have people to throw logs onto the dying embers, but it is always up to me to strike the match.

Here’s to the next bonfire.

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Lost in Translation

Torn between the rain and the dust,
there are some things I feel I must
explain to you.

I find myself wanting to say
the thing
that thing
that others will not understand
but we do

Yes we do.

We feel the same, He and I
about the future
and though he holds the reins
sometimes he lets me drive the carriage.
So I put on my spurs
and crawl into the saddle
and ride
yes ride to the footstep of your door.

Separated by space and language
I fumble for the best way to seduce

Torn between my love and lust
There are some things I feel I must
Explain to you

But I guess I don’t need to.
I guess I don’t need to.