Twelve Days of Axe-mas: Black Christmas (1974)

I am taking part in The Chicago Creepout’s Twelve Days of Axe-mas holiday viewing event. This is my day eight.

The legacy of Bob Clark as a director is largely based on his two Christmas films. While Black Christmas and A Christmas Story can’t possibly be more different in terms of plot and tone, they share a raucous sense of humor in places that lightens up some fairly astute looks at the way people really interact. That his love of a good joke would eventually lead him down the path of diminishing returns with the first two Porky’s movies and other painful misfires (I really don’t want to delve into his final film) is best forgotten. It’s more emotionally satisfying to remember the late director as the man who brought horror to Christmas, the Red Ryder BB gun into mainstream pop culture, and got the best performance ever out of Margot Kidder.

What is lost when considering Clark as a director was his ability to change styles to suit the genre in which he was working. In even the worst of his comedies, he understood the art of editing to a proper reaction shot and always fostered a sense of fun among his casts, creating an atmosphere of enjoyment that was often more entertaining than the awful scripts he was trying to save.

While he dabbled off and on in the horror field (besides Black Christmas, he directed the excellent Deathdream, the largely annoying Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, and, depending on which account you believe, most of the modestly entertaining Popcorn), nothing else he did in the genre was as stylish as his work on Black Christmas.

While he used some techniques in the film that were already being used by other directors working in the genre at the same time (killer P.O.V. shots from Dario Argento, split diopter shots from Brian De Palma), he never used them as mere trickery. He shot much of the film in a classical style with lots of long takes, fluid crane shots, and slow dolly movements to heighten tension, he also added his own spin to the P.O.V. shots, using an extreme wide-angle lens to distort the perception of the film’s mostly unseen killer.

In addition to his use of camera techniques to create tension, Clark also kept the film more a work of suspense than a graphic horror movie by either cutting away from the killings or shooting them in oblique ways. The most famous of these was the murder of a young woman with a crystal unicorn figurine witnessed through the cloudy, distortion of other pieces of crystal. Slasher fans might be disappointed in the movie for its focus more on suspense than gore, but while Clark was unknowingly setting the template for future slasher flicks (if you don’t count Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve, released three years earlier), he was also defying what came to be expected from that style of film. If it is possible for a film to be a subversion of a genre before the genre actually existed, Black Christmas is that film.

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