1970s, Horror/Eerie

Black Christmas (1974)

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Director: Bob Clark

By Roderick Heath

Bob Clark was an exceptionally unlucky filmmaker whose career degradation came about mostly thanks to his association with the crass hit Porky’s (1981), leading to some truly embarrassing late career work. This slide almost but not entirely erased memory of the genuinely eerie and cinematically innovative work he did as a director in the ’70s, like his uniquely atmospheric Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper epic Murder by Decree (1978), and his Yuletide classic A Christmas Story (1983).

A favourite of Scrooges of all ages, Clark’s Black Christmas was a very different Yuletide classic for Clark, one that is justly regarded as a seminal English-language horror film of the ’70s. Released four years before Halloween, it beat that film to the punch in laying down the template for the type of genre film that would be so endlessly popular in the ’80s and echo through to the likes of Scream 2 (1997) and beyond to an execrable remake. It helped institute such beloved creepfest clichés as the house or institution full of female victims being hunted and slaughtered one by one, the drama revolving around a notable, preferably ironic calendar date, the mysterious heavy-breather phone calls from the killer that prove to be coming from upstairs, and the gratuitous use of John Saxon.

Black Christmas possesses ambiguities and visual intensity that a lot of subsequent imitators never quite sustained or even grasped. Taking place over about a 30-hour time span, Clark’s film commences with an unseen intruder, indicated by the liberal use of a first-person camera, sneaking into the disused attic of a university sorority house, whilst the few remaining residents and their boyfriends are assembled below. The girls split into effective types: there’s Clare (Lynne Griffin), a virginal goody two-shoes; Barb (Margot Kidder), a heavy-drinking, sharp-tongued cynic; Phyl (Andrea Martin), the bespectacled nerd; and Jess (Olivia Hussey), the level-headed English girl who’s pregnant by her pianist boyfriend Peter Smythe (Keir Dullea). The gathering is the last before Clare leaves for home to spend the holiday. The latest in a string of obscene phone calls draws the girls and their mates in to listen to the bizarre ranting, until Barb gives the caller an earful, inspiring him to snarl “I’m going to kill you!” before hanging up. Clare, easily unnerved by this and by Barb’s potty mouth, ascends to pack her bag, but is assaulted by the intruder and asphyxiated with plastic.

The next morning, Clare’s father Mr. Harrison (James Edmond), waits to pick her up, and encounters Peter, who directs him to the sorority house, where their hard-bitten den mother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) tries awkwardly to avert his attention from its less-than-snowy-pure expressions of college life. Jess tells Peter of her intention to abort the baby, news which perturbs him so much that he blows an important audition and later smashes up a school piano. Meanwhile, a 13-year-old girl has gone missing from town, and anxiety over Clare’s disappearance begins to crank up, as Jess enlists Clare’s boyfriend Chris (Art Hindle) to impress upon the police the improbability of her having gone off someplace with another guy. Canny detective Fuller (Saxon) swings into action, having the sorority house’s phone tapped to trace the mysterious caller and arranging a search party to scour the snowy, darkening grounds around the university for the two missing girls. The search turns up only the younger girl. Returning to the sorority, Barb, in self-accusatory self-pity, gets smashed and falls asleep, making her a ripe target for the killer, who soon also claims Phyl, leaving Jess alone to be told by the telephone operators that the calls are coming from inside the house…

Black Christmas’ inspired sense of atmosphere is its first stand-out quality. It conjures a deeply effective vision of an ice-crusted North American university (where it’s actually set is only vaguely defined, but it was shot mostly at the University of Toronto), with Reginald Morris’s terrific cinematography describing the sorority with its wood-panelled old-world cheer, warmly glowing lights and homey decorations, and the wintry chill and yawning shadows of the night beyond. As in Halloween and Richard Fleischer’s precursor See No Evil (1971), Morris’ camera restlessly dollies about the environs of the university to evoke the prowling presence of madness, and the extremely careful lighting turns the setting into a gothic wonderland, with an unsettling sense of space that entwines with the chronological tightness of the narrative, dark crannies, frosted windows, and sharply edited glimpses of the roving killer blurring a sure sense of who and where the threat is coming from. Most subsequent variations would suck away atmosphere altogether.

The screenplay by Roy Moore is detailed, amusing, and spotted with great little character moments, from Michael Rapport as Phyl’s boyfriend grumpily cursing his way through playing Santa Claus when he finds she’s going on a skiing trip, to Mrs. Mac’s fondness for guzzling the secreted liquor in the sorority. But it’s also as cryptic as the visuals in terms of what’s really going on. The killer’s paranoid fixations are memorably suggested, but never truly explicated; his bizarre phone calls seem to hint at a history involving abusive parents and the fate of a baby named Agnes at the hands of a boy named Billy, who may or not be the killer, still enacting a prepubescent trauma. Either way, the killer keeps referring to his prospective victims as Agnes. The looming terror of infanticide seems linked in a threatening way to Jess’s contemplation of abortion and Peter’s queasily anguished response to it.

Moore’s narrative works painstakingly to build up a convincing suspicion that eventually consumes Jess—that Peter might be the murderer—and the score by Carl Zittrer lends force to the hints by providing a dissonant, rumbling piano that accords with the noise that erupts from the school piano when Peter pulverises it. This all builds to the point where, when Peter finds Clare hiding from the deadly lurker, instead of greeting him as a saviour, she beats him to death with a poker. The motifs of Black Christmas make it revelatory not simply in technique and story patterns, but also in the confrontational approach it takes (not dissimilar to Dario Argento’s Deep Red from the following year) to the anxieties presented by a rapidly transforming cultural zeitgeist. The dynamics of second-wave feminism and campus counterculture gave rise to an explosion in urban legends, so many of which stemmed from the late ’60s and early ’70s, popular as cautionary post-liberation tales for young women, and Black Christmas most overtly captures that atmosphere, especially in evoking Richard Speck’s murder of a dormitory full of student nurses in 1966.

Here, the era’s anxieties are explicitly evoked, initially in comic style, with Mr. Richardson looking down his nervous Midwestern nose at the jokily rude posters festooning the sorority and worrying about his daughter’s declining morals in such an environment. Similarly, Barb is almost the caricature of a liberated woman, fond of traditionally male dirty talk and booze, contemptuous of straitlaced Clare, mocking of masculine authority—as in the amusing moment she fools dimwit police sergeant Nash (Douglas McGrath) into thinking the word “fellatio” is a new telephone exchange—and of other women (in response to news of the rape of a girl in the town, she retorts, “You can’t rape a townie!”). She’s actually enraged with her “gold-plated whore” of a mother, and becomes abusive in expressing her guilt at Clare’s disappearance. Her fate is to be stabbed to death with the phallic horn of a crystal unicorn statuette.

It is in Peter’s outrage at Jess for fracturing the ideal of the man-woman-child arrangement for which he’s willing to quit the conservatory where the reactionary impetus is clearest. Jess is unwilling to give up her ambitions to this quirk of biology. Simultaneously, her guilt and attachment to the moral schema she’s rejecting in the planned abortion is signaled by the large crucifix she wears about her neck. Whether then Peter is the killer becomes moot in importance: Jess’s situation in its entirety evokes a closing vice of life alternatives. Unlike her successors as movie “final girls,” Jess is not ennobled by any perceived outsider status or lack of sexual association, but instead by her efforts to live up to her liberated ideals. The finale underlines a disturbing point, that such conflicting ideals will be mutually destructive and leave everyone at the mercy of the lurking, monstrous id upstairs.

Of course, in the bleakly funny pay-off, a distraught, tranquilised Jess is left alone in the house by the police and other attendant males, only for the unmistakable sounds of the killer’s presence in the attic to be heard again, his cache of corpses still undiscovered, just before the telephone calls start up once more. Unlike the many witless facsimiles of such an unresolved conclusion that would invade the genre, this one retains its dark wit and mordant evocation of evil not returned to the box. In spite of the air of cheap imitation that lurked around a lot of Canadian-produced horror, Black Christmas is damn classy on top of its visceral pleasures. Clark entirely avoids the more exploitable elements of the set-up, with very minimal gore and no opportunistic co-ed bra shots. Kidder gained a tremendous career boost from her terrific performance, and the film also gave the delicately sexy Hussey, whose career was badly limited by agoraphobia, one of her best-remembered roles.

Watch it, again or for the first time, and have a very merry Christmas.

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1970s, Horror/Eerie

Last House on the Left (1972)

Director: Wes Craven

By Roderick Heath

From among the other talented filmmakers of the early ’70s who began in or gravitated to horror, Wes Craven is one of the few who has managed the impressive feat of surviving (seen John Carpenter lately?). Red Eye was one of the best-made, least pretentious, most pleasurable films of 2005, whilst Cursed was one of the worst, which sums up Craven’s uneven career in a nutshell. Best known for the well-conceived, badly executed A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and the Scream franchise, Craven’s films often balance a deft realism with a heightened, often high-camp wit, built of cleanly constructed shots, well-filmed action, sleek framing (great in widescreen), and an assured ability to slowly crank up narratives to a frenzied pitch.

Craven, like Hitchcock, deals with the violence and chaos lying just below the surface of normal life. Even more than Hitchcock, he details the capacity of average people not to survive, but to respond to evil with equal violence. The worms turn and prove often to be alligators themselves in ferociously Darwinian narratives that often pointedly satirize their eras. Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes take on the outsider terror of the ’70s-era bourgeoisie. A Nightmare on Elm Street saw the pitch-black side of repression and past evil swallowing up Reagan-era children; The People Under The Stairs portrayed Bush One-era urban life as a prison run by fascist capitalists named Ron and Nancy. Scream exactly described the emotional paranoia and media-obsessing self-distancing of Generation X.

Last House on the Left, Craven’s second film (after a porn film, Together, in 1970) in collaboration with producer Sean S. Cunningham, is one of those fascinating experiences of watching a director learn how to make a film as the work is progressing. In its first half-hour, no amount of auteurist squinting can make out much talent. The plot is acknowledged by all as a modern-day spin on the Swedish myth Ingmar Bergman filmed as The Virgin Spring (1961). Dr. John Collingwood (Gaylord St. James), an affable, greying academic, his wife Estelle (Cynthia Carr), and teenage daughter Mari (Sandra Cassell), live in leafy upstate New York. The Collingwoods are neither insufferably square nor certifiably hip, and are mildly uncomfortable with their daughter’s bursting sexuality, pithy teenaged attitude, and choice of friend in Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham), a slightly older girl with a penchant for pot and wayside excitement. Estelle gives her daughter a present—a peace-symbol necklace.

To a soundtrack of awful faux folk/rock (by costar David Hess, a Tin Pan Alley escapee), Mari and Phyllis drive into Manhattan for a concert whilst listening to a radio news report about the recent jail break of sex offenders and low-rent criminal masterminds Krug Stillo (Hess) and Weasel Padowski (Fred J. Lincoln), with the aid of their bisexual moll Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and Krug’s drug-addled, browbeaten son Junior (Marc Sheffer). Wouldn’t you know it that what Mari and Phyllis try to score some weed, they approach Junior, who takes them to the apartment where the gang are holed up. Swiftly, Krug, Weasel, and Sadie rape Cynthia, whilst Mari watches in frozen terror (the intended impact of this moment is blunted by its home movie staging).

Hoping to escape to Canada, Krug and his cohort stuff their two prisoners in the boot of their car and drive out of the city; being idiots, and more impressed by TV than real life, they ponder if their actions will make the great list of “sex crimes of the century.”? The Collingwoods, worrying about their daughter’s overlong absence, call the police. Just a few hundred meters away, Krug and company have pulled over into the woods, where they force the two girls to have sex with each other after various acts of torture. It’s here that Craven gains tense control over his grisly material. Aiming for a detached, unremitting approach, the unblinking camera and stark staging makes the scene intensely convincing (even the actors, especially Cassell, were freaking out). Craven stated his desire was to approach violence in a confrontational, entirely unromanticised way, and in this he certainly succeeds.

Craven’s background – a would-be hipster philosophy professor who had gotten bored with academia and moved to Greenwich Village – is evident, at first clumsily, but with increasing precision. The film is culturally engaged to an extent the film’s standard reading – as the ultimate parental cautionary tale – hardly encompasses; amidst the many issues tossed at the screen include such hot-button issues as Vietnam, the generation gap, feminism, and the peculiar violence fascination of the hippie era that made hits out films like Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch, and this one. The narrative is driven by a series of essential conflicts: rich/poor, suburban/urban, mainstream/outsider, sex/violence, unmotivated violence/revenge, “good” family vs. “bad” family.

Mari tries to convince Junior, who likes the girl but is too psychologically defeated, to help her escape. The spunkier Phyllis makes a run through the woods, but – in a merciless fright moment – is caught, stabbed, and gutted in a series of flash cuts that make the violence thankfully incoherent but even more sensually violent. Krug rapes Mari after carving his name on her chest. Mari stumbles in a daze down to wash in a pond as Krug and gang stand, uncomfortable, even ashamed, in temporary awareness of their loathsome acts. Krug dutifully shoots Mari in the pond, and she sinks into the slimy water.

This intense drama is cross-cut with very bad comic relief by the sheriff (Marshall Anker) and his deputy (Martin Kove, later of Karate Kid villain fame), while responding to the Collingwoods’ plea for them to find Mari, find themselves desperately trying to get a life after their car breaks down. Krug, Weasel, Junior, and Sadie clean up and head for the nearest house, where they pose as travelers needing a place to stay for the night. Yup, it’s the Collingwood place. The Collingwoods treat their guests to a blackly comic, hospitable dinner as their guests struggle to be convincingly square salespeople. Junior is afflicted with nightmares that Estelle tries to soothe, but then she recognises Mari’s peace necklace around his neck. Estelle wakes John, and they search the woods. They find Mari’s body and howl in agony over it. Rather than calling the police, John and Estelle now plot their own intimate vengeance.

Craven pulls off a thunderous finale, and lays down a blueprint for many of his later films, not just in having his heroes turn tables on their savage nemeses, but also in their method. John, like later Craven heroes, proves that humans became the dominant species on the planet not just by being violent, but by being intelligently so. Estelle lures Weasel outside, pretending to respond to his self-promotion as a super-stud. She convinces him to tie himself up to prove his prowess as Estelle performs fellatio on him, and then she bites off his penis and spits it in the pond. John wakes Krug and tries to shoot him, but Krug, quick and tough, beats John in a straight fistfight. Junior tries to help John, but at goading from his father, the emotionally broken youth shoots himself. Krug’s escape is halted when he grabs an electrified door knob, one of John’s traps. Whilst he struggles to stand, John descends to his basement and returns with his chainsaw, and relentlessly presses toward Krug until he corners him. Sadie flees, but is caught and disemboweled by Estelle. The sheriff and deputy arrive just in time to see John cut Krug in half. The final image is of the distraught John and Estelle clutching each other in the charnel house that was their home.

As this synopsis indicates, Last House on the Left isn’t a cute horror movie, and yet it resists becoming just another gore flick. It is rigorously low-tech and oddly honourable in its purpose. Craven is never tempted to indulge, and he knows when enough is enough. The Collingwoods’ revenge is both atrocious and entirely sympathetic, and Krug and his band, though vicious and crazed, are not blank-faced ciphers of evil. They’re weedy, underclass offspring who rudely destroy the shallow rebellion fantasies of Mari’s generation (she has a Mick Jagger picture on her bedroom wall under which Krug and Sadie later sleep) and the tranquility of bourgeois life. Along with Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Last House on the Left was one of a batch of hugely controversial studies in violence released in the 1971-72 season. Unlike Kubrick and Peckinpah, Craven does not blur the morality of the sexual violence with matters of sexual desire, dominance, and aggressor- identification. In Phyllis’ case, there’s a brief, promising flash of modern heroine spunk when she escapes that Craven’s later heroines, like Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott in Scream, display. Krug, well embodied by Hess, commands none of the sly heroism of Alex as a sleazy thug, pathetic in his hollow-souled, deadbeat monstrousness.

Last House on the Left proved enormously profitable as well as controversial. Five years passed before Craven followed it up with The Hills Have Eyes, which, in many ways, is a remake with a more fantastic set-up. Producer Sean S. Cunnigham would, for his own shot at the big time, concoct a Halloween rip-off entitled Friday the 13th (1980) that would invert everything that was worthy about Last House on the Left as the ultimate body-count porn. The best of the Friday the 13th series, Part II, was directed by Steve Miner, a student of Craven’s who was employed as an assistant director and editor on this film. Last House on the Left’s influence was strong on other low-budget beasts like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), knock-offs like Lipstick (1976) and I Spit On Your Grave (1979), through to art films of the ilk of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl. The Hills Have Eyes was remade by a French director, suggesting Craven has become canonical there.l

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