Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Black Christmas Story (Bob Clark’s Christmases) Review

No, this is not a review of a sweet Blaxploitation Christmas movie.  (I wish)  It is instead a dual review of Bob Clarke’s two Christmas movies:

Black Christmas (1974)                   A Christmas Story (1983)
Directed by Bob Clark                      Directed by Bob Clark
98 mins. Color.                              93 mins. Color.
Special Edition DVD, Critical Mass    Warner Bros. big box VHS

Beware: Spoilers abound below.

At first glance, one may not see too much of a similarity between Black Christmas and A Christmas Story.  However, upon learning that Bob Clark had directed both, I knew immediately that I wanted to review them together.

A Christmas Story is one of my all-time favorite children’s Christmas movies.  The first time I saw it, I was probably around twelve or so and it was on an all day marathon on TBS on Christmas day at my aunt’s house.  I tuned in around the time that Ralphie is holding the nuts for The Old Man as he changes a flat tire.  Ralphie’s pronunciation of FUDGE in place of the F dash dash dash word had me hooked.  I fell in love.  The scene with Santa Claus was both terrifying and hilarious.  The characterizations of the brothers and their parents was so right on, it felt totally bizarre to connect to the depression era family.  It was a reprieve from football, which was being watched upstairs, and I found so much to connect to in Bob Clark’s vision of Christmas.  It is a brilliantly conceived period piece that captures childhood so brilliantly that it spans generations and time periods.

The first time I tried watching Black Christmas, it was on Netflix Instant last December and I thought I’d give it a try.  To be fair, at the time I was looking for a ridiculous slasher with lots of crazy kills that paid off right away.  As I have mentioned before, most things I watch on Netflix seem entirely disposable.  Something about not putting a physical copy of whatever I’m watching into a machine makes it feel like I’m channel surfing.  Because there is so much garbage on Netflix, it seems to lessen the quality of great movies as well.  My whole attention isn’t there and if I don’t get hooked in 15 minutes, I will turn to something else.  Clark’s Black Christmas unfortunately was a victim of that for me.  Now, after watching it with the intent of comparing it to my childhood favorite, I see that it’s amazingly well constructed.  The acting is phenomenal, and Clark gives time to each character.  It has been compared to Halloween (1978) (to which this came four years earlier), but I think it actually compares more to Peeping Tom (1960).  The POV shots here are incredibly innovative and it is often considered one of the first “slashers.”  

Clark supposedly agreed to do Black Christmas in order to get funding for A Christmas Story.  But, it was the success of Porky’s (1982) that gave him the freedom to work on his dream project.  At first glance, Black Christmas would seem to fit perfectly within 1980s cinema, as does Halloween.  The slasher genre probably being the primary reason.  Most often the credit given for the first slasher is Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve, 1971, and is totally amazing.)  After watching it more closely, I believe Black Christmas has more akin to the meticulously paced films of the 1970s.  At it’s heart, it is a character story.  (Don’t get me wrong, it definitely draws from other horror films, even though Clark says he wasn’t that interested in horror film and hadn’t ever seen the POV shot before - I think this may be true, but it had most definitely been done before and done very well and very similarly: most obviously in the above mentioned Peeping Tom.)  It is about Jess (Olivia Hussey), Barb (Margot Kidder aka Lois Lane) and Phyl (Andrea Martin).  

Black Christmas starts with a POV shot of a creepy killer climbing up a trellis into the attic of  Jess, Barb and Phyl’s sorority house.  The ladies have been receiving creepy calls, and we witness this right away, as Barb calls in the other girls to listen to “The Moaner.”  The call is genuinely creepy.  It puts all the girls on edge.  One of the girls, Clare, goes upstairs to pack, as Christmas break is upon them and her dad will be there in the morning to pick her up.  While upstairs, the killer suffocates Clare with a garment bag and then drags her body up to the attic.

Jess, Barb and the rest continue on with their holiday festivities.  Jess is having some problems with her boyfriend, Peter (who is a weird semi-genius rageaholic pianist), Barb is a foul-mouthed alcoholic who will not be intimidated and Phyl is the scared but loyal friend.  When Clare’s father shows up the next day, the search begins.  Here, Clark does a wonderful job with the complicated characters he has to work with.  None of them (except Mrs. Mac, the house mother) are one-dimensional and their lives slowly unfold to the viewer.  

In the meantime, Mrs. Mac goes upstairs to find her missing cat and gets a giant hook at the end of a pulley swung her way, which proceeds to impale her face.

We find out that Jess is pregnant with Peter’s child, but wants an abortion.  Peter goes all whacko and sucks at his piano recital.  He smashes the piano up with a stanchion of some sort.  Those wild music geniuses, you know how they can be.

During the search for Clare, the body of a young girl is found in the park.  Barb gets all smashed and goes to sleep.  All the while, the house keeps getting really creepy calls, often in multiple voices.  The police come over to tap the phones.  In one of the films more amazing sequences, the phone tapper is running through a room full of phone lines trying to isolate the number the call is coming from.

The killer stabs Barb in the throat with a glass unicorn he finds in her room and then kills Phyl as she enters to find out what’s going on.  

Jess receives a call from the police, the call is coming from inside the house.  (The first time this gag was used.  Now it seems clichéd, but I’m still pretty spooked by that idea.)  Rather than run out of the house, Jess brandishes a stabbing implement from the fireplace and goes upstairs to get Barb and Phyl out.  Upon finding them both dead, she attempts her escape.  

It has a whodunit quality that draws in Lt. Fuller (John Saxon - Nightmare on Elm Street).  But, it’s so much smarter than that appears.  This is before the slasher craze and predicts all the things that would make later slashers successful.  But, beyond that, in a genius move Clark chooses to never show the killer’s face or divulge his identity.  Through his ramblings we find out his name is probably Billy, but little else is known.  His motives, outside of just being a psycho, are also unknown.  

A Christmas Story would seem to have little in common with this, but upon further reflection, Clark’s view of Christmas and more importantly, people, shine through.  

Ralphie is nine, and more than anything he wants a Red Ryder 200 shot Carbine Action Air Rifle.  Some people’s fathers are Catholics and others are Baptists, but Ralphie’s old man is an Oldsmobile Man who fights furnaces and can weave a tapestry of obscenity like no other.  His mother is a sweet and gentle woman who loves her children but is easily fed up with Ralphie’s antics.  Ralphie’s younger brother, Randy, is a helpless younger brother.  A Christmas Story is more an episodic view of childhood than straight-forward movie.  

Scenes of Ralphie being chased by the bully, Farkus, being present for one of his friends daring another to put his tongue to an ice-covered flag-pole, meeting Santa Claus and his father winning a major award put together something like a semblance of a whole, but moreso, is just a genuine view of being nine years old.

Similar to Black Christmas, here Clark is focused on depicting complicated and believable characters.  The Old Man is at one point a comical, impatient and harsh father, and in the next moment looks at his children with a gleam in his eye.  His mother is the silly housewife who just watches her husband read the newspaper, but in reality she hates the major award, cleverly finding a way to destroy it.  She shows her deep impatience with Ralphie as he whines during the Christmas parade and comforts him when she finds him fighting.  

Ralphie is both horrible friend and loving brother.  He abandons his friend Flick when he gets his tongue stuck to the flag-pole, not even telling the teacher where he is.  He blames his friend Schwartz for teaching him the F word, (when in fact he learned it from The Old Man, but doesn’t want to fess up to that) getting Schwartz a beating from his mother.  But, he also goes back for Randy when Randy tips over and can’t get up in his huge winter get-up.  

There are a number of moments that look or feel similar between the two films.  In Black Christmas, the killer’s voice on the phone is played by three different actors.  It is a terrifying barrage of voices and sounds.  When Ralphie blames Schwartz, his mother gets on the phone with Schwartz’s mother and the vocal patterns sound very similar to those in Black Christmas.  Likewise, all the POV shots with Santa Claus feel very similar to those in Black Christmas.  I remember being physically repulsed by Santa in that scene, and now I know why.  Clark feels that meeting Santa as a child is like being face to face with a murderer.

Set Yourself Up:

  • It's probably best to play this double feature with a bit of an intermission.
For Black Christmas, gather some friends, turn the lights low, and let the Bulleit flow.
Then follow up with A Christmas Story, pour some eggnog and order some chinese take-out.  Preferably something with Duck.


  • Black Christmas was a horrible failure when it was originally released in the states.  It was originally released under the title, Silent Night, Evil Night.  Years later, when NBC showed the film during prime time (under the title "Stranger in the House"), it was deemed 'too scary' for network television and was pulled off the air.  This gave it the notoriety it needed to find it’s following.
  • The Lone Ranger’s nephew did indeed ride a horse named Victor.  (What?!)
  • For A Christmas Story an elaborate fantasy sequence - in which Ralphie joins Flash Gordon to fight Ming the Merciless - was filmed but dropped from the final cut. 
The Hype:
You shouldn’t need to hype this double feature.  If you do, you might need some new friends and / or family.

The Goods:
Black Christmas: Critical Mass and Somerville House did a nice job with the release of the Black Christmas Special Edition.  They did a nice job with the re-mastering process, as the film looks and sounds great.  They brought Dan Duffin, superfan and creator of, on-board to help with the bringing together of the special features, which include two scenes never before seen, a documentary titled “The 12 Days of Black Christmas,” some interviews and a Q&A.
A Christmas Story:  The Warner Brothers Family Entertainment big box VHS of A Christmas Story is excellent.  The box may is most familiar as the way that Disney released all of its’ VHS.  However, this is great, as a giant out-of-focus Ralphie face dominates the front cover, with weird floating images surround him.  You get four pretty sweet trailers: a new Scooby Doo feature with a very forgettable name, Jack Frost (ASV favorite Michael Keaton!), The Iron Giant (ASV favorite Vin Diesel!), and The Animaniacs - Wacko’s Wish (Holiday musical).

All in all, I think if you can’t fit these two in before the Holidays, you will have sorely lacked in proper preparation.

-J. Moret

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