Monday, December 22, 2008

Yuleish, Very Yuleish

It’s getting cold, Los Feliz is starting to feel emptier as night falls and it’s going to stay that way for the next few days as Christmas approaches. If that doesn’t get me in the mood to watch the classic BLACK CHRISTMAS a few more times, I don’t know what does. It even had its annual screening at the New Beverly last week and I was there to finally see it in a theater for the first time, but I’ve still been popping the DVD into the player to look at certain scenes again ever since. I’ll get to the cheerier Christmas stuff eventually, but maybe right now it’s just what I need. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I always find myself fascinated by Margot Kidder’s character Barb in the movie, but considering what she’s like I probably shouldn’t delve too deeply into the reasons for that. Still, watching it in 35mm for the first time (70s-era Warner logo on the print) I paid special attention to her when she gets off the phone with her mother near the beginning and as we take a moment to stay with her when she heads back to the party it really stuck out for me. I guess it took a big-screen viewing for that to happen but I found myself thinking about the beat and how it seemed to alter her character for the rest of the film. She’s still funny, she’s still the drunk of the film, but there’s also this entire unspoken backstory between Barb and her mother that makes her more human. It’s the sort of touch that, in addition to its best scares, gives BLACK CHRISTMAS a great deal of its potency after all these years and no doubt one of the reasons why it was able to fill the theater that night.

I also found myself paying particular attention to the soundtrack and how much it added to the film. Not just the obscene phone calls made by Billy to the sorority house which are genuinely disturbing in a way that you almost can’t put into words. In addition to this sprinkled throughout the movie is the constant feeling of the cold wind blowing through scenes—makes you want to put on a coat even if you’re not cold--as well as the carols emitting from the clock tower which seems to illogically bleed over into scenes set at other locations. And there’s the occasional ticking of the sorority house clock as well as the continuous rocking back and forth of a certain rocking chair. It felt to me like the steady metronome-like pace of these sounds were applied to the pacing of the film, allowing it to get under our skin bit by bit. Right from the start the movie seems to move steadily along through serious moments, through the deadpan humor to the genuine scares in a way that creeps up and puts you all the more on edge. For a film that has the rep of being genuinely scary a lot of it is really, really funny but it doesn’t diminish its effectiveness one bit.

Not that I want to take anything away from Olivia Hussey, who is very good in the lead role and the tortured dramatics between Keir Dullea and her do somehow manage to have some interesting shadings, but by that point in the movie what I really look forward to is the great John Saxon as the cop in charge, Doug McGrath as the police sergeant who is the victim of a certain prank by Barb and Les Carlson (Barry Convex in VIDEODROME) in the key role as the phone company employee, each somehow managing to bring more to their stock roles than you’d otherwise expect. Andrea Martin gets the big emotional scene which also feels like a beat that you never get in these movies and Art Hindle of THE BROOD did in fact get a small unintentional laugh at the screening, as I thought he might, when he states, “We’ve been going oot,” but hey, it’s Canada.

Particularly interesting to pay attention to is James Edmond as Mr. Harrison, the father who has arrived to pick up the daughter who has suddenly vanished. The actor manages to make an impression even in scenes where he has no dialogue and while his ultra-conservative demeanor makes the character someone that I don’t think I’d ever want to know in real life, his meek manner (apologizing for disturbing the student who’s just hit him with a snowball) makes him more interesting than someone who would just come off as a hardass. Not to mention that, after all, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the guy given what we know. I particularly like the body language the actor gives off as he approaches the camera in the scene where something as been located out in the woods. And yeah, there’s Margot Kidder who’s funny and sexy with that dark undercurrent of hers and when she needs help with the inhaler for her asthma it’s strangely touching and I wind up feeling sorry for her in a completely non-horror movie way. I guess a lot of this has to do with my own appreciation for Margot Kidder as she was in the seventies and yes, I could watch her character for hours but please, let’s not analyze that too much.

And there’s that ending, the sort of thing that made me want to throw stuff at the television when I first saw it years ago but now I can’t think of a better way to end it. It just goes perfect with that late night feeling at this time of year when everything is so…quiet. Except for when the phone rings. I haven’t even written about the scares in the film very much, which you’d think would be most of the reason for watching it. They’re in there and they work, but BLACK CHRISTMAS is the sort of movie where it’s not just about that. Maybe I’ll go look at some of it again. DIE HARD and GREMLINS can wait for a day or so. And THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL. Yeah, I watch that one too.


Adam Ross said...

I put this on just a few days ago. The ending really is perfect, my favorite part being the one last look at the rocker through the window where we wonder "how did no one find that body?" When is someone going to make a snowglobe of the "Black Christmas" sorority house? I would pay upwards of $30 for it (probably).

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

That snowglobe is a great idea. It would have to be big enough so that we can clearly see the body up in the attic. It's such a memorable final shot.