Thursday, December 15, 2011

Black Christmas (1974): It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

At a snowy Canadian university, a Christmas party is underway in a sorority house. While the girls entertain their boyfriends inside, nobody notices a shadowy figure that lurks outdoors, peering in through the windows. The unseen man scales the building using a trellis, and enters through an open attic window, and spies on the girls. After the boyfriends leave, the intruder makes an obscene phone call, and soon he attacks and murders one of them when she isolates herself in an upstairs room. Taking her body into the attic, he hides up there until the next day, when he starts with more phone calls and more murders. Eventually the girls catch on that they're in danger, but nobody ever suspects the killer is operating from inside the house, not even the police.

I feel it is an appropriate time to geek out about one of my favorite movies ever, "Black Christmas", a Canadian flick made by Bob Clark ("Deathdream", "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things", "Porky's", "A Christmas Story"). Although "Black Christmas" isn't the first slasher film, it features a few tropes that later became crucial to the slasher genre that didn't get kick started until "Halloween" inspired "Friday the 13th", leading to an explosion of films about slashers racking up body counts in unsuspecting environments. The camera often serves as a first-person viewpoint of the killer; the opening scene of the film shows him prowling around in the dark outside the sorority house, peering into the windows at the people inside, all while heavy breathing is heard on the soundtrack. I can't watch the opening of Brian DePalma's "Blow Out" without thinking about how he seems to be channeling this movie. It also has an impressive body count for its era, with the insane killer making five on-screen corpses and several more implied.

But even though there are on-screen murders (the suffocation of one sorority sister with a handful of dry cleaning bags is one of the creepiest), this movie is more memorable because of its restraint, focusing on quiet passages of suspense followed by short bursts of loud screaming and violence. Much of the shock is communicated via the film's eerie sound design, as well as the dark, foreboding house where it takes place.  It could just be camera angles and set decoration, but there seems to be danger everywhere.

"Black Christmas" is also a little bit smarter than many similar movies, challenging the viewer and utilizing more subtle visual storytelling devices instead of plot exposition to drive the scenes. For instance, it remains cagey about the identity and motivations of its murderer. There's no character in the movie that knows who he is, or what his back story is, and nothing is ever discovered, but through the disturbingly sexual phone calls he makes throughout the movie, you can start to pick up that at some point this psychotic man possibly murdered his baby sister Agnes after sexually assaulting her. The movie never spells it out for us, just scatters the bits of information throughout the film and leaves it up to us to piece together. Even more disturbing is how the killer's psychology ties in to his victims; he targets a group of young women and calls several of them "Agnes" before murdering them, seemingly suggesting that he views all females as "Agnes". Even worse, he seems to fixate on the fact that one of the sisters is pregnant, bringing in the "baby" aspect of his madness.

A few shots in the film remind me of Dario Argento, like a murder involving the use of a glass unicorn as a deadly weapon.  Clark also uses several moments in the film where a change in focus reveals important information, like a chilling scene that shows the corpse of one of the victims staring blindly out the attic window while her father walks through the snow below outside, only just beginning to feel a sense of panic over the fact that nobody can locate her. Another focus pull later in the film reveals a second victim hanging by a hook in the attic.

The film may have no real connection to "Halloween", but you can find a number of visual cues in "Halloween" that seem to have been lifted directly from this one, such as the use of the camera's first-person perspective to represent that of the killer's. John Carpenter also seems to have noticed this movie's habit of using ominous foreground cues and background cues, often with the killer lurking somewhere in the frame of the camera, unseen by the potential victims.
I love seeing Margot Kidder in this, as well as Andrea Martin. Kidder has a delicious role as a vulgar sorority sister Barb, who swears and drinks constantly, gives alcohol to children, and gamely gives the obscene phone caller a run for his money. Olivia Hussey is excellent, too, as our main heroine and final girl Jess. In contrast to many later slashers, especially the "Friday the 13th" series, "Black Christmas" portrays its female characters as intelligent and assertive; although the girls are having sexual relationships with their boyfriends, they're never presented even once as sex objects. Barb is dominating and blunt, even to her own mother on the telephone (she calls her mother a "gold plated whore" when she calls to change holiday plans with Barb so she can take a trip with her boyfriend to a ski lodge). Andrea Martin's character cancels plans with her own boyfriend to support her sister Barb, and even mousy Claire seems to be finding her voice being in the company of other assertive women; her father's shock at finding sexually suggestive items in Claire's room reveals that she is breaking away from a conservative background. Jess in particular displays a forward-thinking attitude when she is able to very carefully navigate a difficult conversation with her boyfriend in which she explains to him her reasons for wanting to abort their unplanned pregnancy. She makes a valiant attempt to explain to her lover that she doesn't want to have his baby or marry him.

As a final girl, she doesn't get to do a whole lot; "Black Christmas" only gives her one scene where she faces the killer, and after he chases her down into the basement of the house, that's pretty much it for their on-screen battle. That's a little disappointing when you view it in terms of the countless slasher movies that came afterwards, when the Laurie Strodes and Ginny Fields of the genre showed audiences how it's done.

Some viewers are frustrated by the film's ending, which offers no explanation about the killer whatsoever, even refusing to suggest his identity. Maybe that's why I love "Black Christmas" most of all, it knows that the identity of the psycho is more frightening because it's unknown and irrelevant. "Black Christmas" understands that violence and murder can be terrifyingly random, and these particular victims just happened to catch the attention of a maniac. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How to Make a Monster: AIP's Gay Teenage Terror

American International Pictures is a name well known to geeks like me who love films from the 50s to the 70s, particularly low budget exploitation pictures.  Helmed by a sales manager and a lawyer, James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, the company also employed Roger Corman, notorious film producer known for his cheap production values.  It was Arkoff who was savvy enough to devise a formula where he created films targeting males in their late teens, and the company made a lot of money off of horror and sci-fi films.  People are always reading subtexts into horror films, like when people talk about "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and say "That was really about McCarthyism, man!"  I think "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is really about alien pods that duplicate people, but the subtext of not being able to trust people is a powerful one, lending the movie its ominous weight. 

The AIP horror movies echoed some of the same sentiments, but there was a new plot device in the form of hypnosis.  Just like "radiation" had the potential to turn ordinary insects into lumbering giant predators, hypnosis had the power to turn ordinary people into murderous monsters, and it was being used by villains with dubious intentions.  "The She-Creature" featured a man who used hypnosis to cause a woman to "regress" to a point where she became a prehistoric monster--somehow this powerful hypnotic trance caused even her body to transform.  Hey, it was a reason to have a monster in a movie, right?

But if hypnosis was the tool used by the villains of the films, same-sex relationships were the terror that lent weight to the movies' supernatural monsters. AIP had also figured out its marketing scheme by now, and it paid off with the big 1957 hit "I Was A Teenage Werewolf". Along with this new teen formula, the scriptwriters had introduced a distinct homoerotic undercurrent, suggested by the doctor who preys on Michael Landon's teenage character and turns him into a werewolf without his knowledge.  "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein" was also released in 1957 and featured an older male doctor who created a body out of spare parts--a body that just happened to stitch together into the form of a hunky young man. Reminding us that his hands have been all over that body, the scientist famously tells the creature "Speak! You've got a civil tongue in your head, I ought to know, I sewed it there myself!"

On a double bill with the AIP "Frankenstein" film was "Blood of Dracula", where the gay suspicion was turned way up.  Although the film's creature is conceived as a vampire, it was still a werewolf-style transformation into a mute, hissing creature.  It takes place in an all-girl prep school, where maladjusted new arrival Nancy is immediately set upon by a predatory female science teacher who just happens to be dedicated to turning people into monsters via hypnosis.  Using an amulet she acquired in Transylvania (AHA!), she somehow turns our heroine into a vicious vampire with rat fangs for nighttime tantrums of murder and bloodsucking.  Her purpose?  To counter the development of the atom bomb by proving that the human mind is the greatest weapon.  Because, ya know, that makes a hell of a lot of sense, right?  There are a lot of unspoken motives for all of this, particularly the undeniable erotic tension between the science teacher and another one of her pupils, a young girl who blatantly helps lure Nancy into her predicament.

1958's "How to Make a Monster" followed up "I Was A Teenage Werewolf" and "I Was A Teenage Frankenstein", but introduced a self-referential format that was decades ahead of Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven.  The script of "How to Make a Monster" actually takes place in the studios of American International, where a sequel is in production that pairs the Teenage Werewolf with the Teenage Frankenstein. Spoiling the fun is a pair of new studio bosses who make the decision to abandon horror and concentrate on beach party movies and musicals.  They give a bunch of people the pink slip, including an aging monster-makeup artist who decides not to take it lying down.  Together with his simple minded (and obviously bottom-bunk) assistant, he uses the hunky teenage stars of the Werewolf/Frankenstein movie as his stooges in a series of revenge murders.  First he lures the boys into his makeup chair, where he applies special makeup that makes them open to hypnotic suggestion.  Then he instructs them to kill his enemies.  This makeup concoction is particularly mysterious, since it apparently causes a transformation all on its own, even without the hypnosis: the makeup man puts it on himself and transforms into a Mr. Hyde type monster that kills a nosy security guard.  The climax of the film finds him luring the boys back to his house, where he gives them alcohol and attempts to talk them into allowing him to..."put the makeup on" (wink wink) more time. The boys, however, start to remember the strange circumstances of their hypnotic trances, and the jig is up when the house catches fire.

I think it's pretty obvious these films were lightweight nonsense, but these "teenage" horror movies had dark underpinnings of strange, intimate same-sex relationships.  "How to Make a Monster" and "Blood of Dracula" in particular painted their evildoers as sexual predators, with a lesbian teacher and a dirty old makeup man as their real villains.  We know that this is the attitude that many people have about homosexuals themselves, even moreso in the 1950s when it was "the love that dare not speak its name". The actual "monsters" in these films were really victims, youths transformed into aberrations against their own wills or without their knowledge.  Once they allowed themselves to be placed in a suggestible situation with these older predators, their lives were forever changed without them even realizing it.  Usually they wound up dead at the conclusion, or in the case of "How to Make a Monster", carted off by police to pay for crimes they didn't even know they committed.