Black Christmas

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Black Christmas

A-

Black Christmas

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In less than 10 years, Bob Clark went from codifying the slasher film genre in 1974's Black Christmas to making a different kind of holiday movie in A Christmas Story. But the two films aren't too far apart, at least in terms of their settings: Both take place in big, lit-up, snowbound houses. In A Christmas Story, it's a suburban nuclear family home preparing for the holidays; in Black Christmas, it's a sorority house being stalked by a serial killer. Both look so warm, inviting, and communal that it's hard to imagine how anything really awful could happen there.

In Black Christmas, Clark cracks the happy façade quickly. Not five minutes in, the killer strangles one of the girls in her upstairs bedroom and drags her corpse into the attic, where it goes unfound for days. During the murder, Clark shifts between three perspectives—the audience, the victim, and the killer—and he alternates between tracking shots and frames that are static and partially obscured. After establishing a visual grammar and creating a sense that anyone could be killed at any time, Clark toys with the audience for the next 90 minutes, using the same kind of tracking shots and obscured frames even when nothing's happening, and still scaring the bejeezus out of us.

Black Christmas features some lightness, both in its oddball cast—Andrea Martin? Margot Kidder? John Saxon? Keir Dullea? Olivia Hussey?—and its satirical jabs at an ineffectual police force, which continually bungles its attempts to save the sorority sisters. But mostly, Black Christmas is too terrifying to be funny, let alone full of holiday cheer. Much of the shtick used by Clark and screenwriter Roy Moore was later stolen both by countless hacks and at least one real artist (Halloween director John Carpenter), but few repeated Clark's most devious tactic, accompanying the violence with the sound of the killer's nerve-janglingly maniacal shouting. In Black Christmas, the audience can't escape the horror by closing their eyes.

Key features: This edition loses the commentary tracks from earlier editions, but keeps the fine making-of featurette and interviews, including a great one with Kidder where she recalls the birth of the Canadian film industry and her place in "the new Hollywood" of the '70s.

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