Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 24

Black Christmas (1974)

When it comes to Christmas themed horror flicks, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” and similarly exploitative fare tends to hog all the press. Which is fine, as I too enjoy a good Santa slasher flick. However, few seasonal horror films truly utilize the eerie potential of Christmas… The soft, spooky glow of the tree… The disquieting hum of barely heard carols… “Black Christmas” was directed by Bob Clark, years before his far more well-known Christmas movie. It’s regarded as a pioneering slasher film and Christmas horror movie. (Though “Silent Night, Bloody Night” predates it on both counts.) It’s not only influenced “Halloween” but some consider Clark’s film superior. I’ll be the judge of that!

The peace of a sorority house during the Christmas holiday is disrupted by increasingly nasty obscene phone calls. The girls inside have problems of their own. Jess has discovered she is pregnant and her unstable pianist boyfriend is insistent on keeping the baby. Barb’s booziness makes her unpopular with her flat mates. Claire has vanished and her father wonders where she is. A dead girl has been found in the park. Unbeknownst to everyone, a raving lunatic has sneaked into the sorority house’s attic and is slowly picking the inhabitants off, one by one.

“Black Christmas” begins with the camera slowly moving across the home’s front lawn, snow scattered about. As we draw closer, the soft bars of “Silent Night” slowly become audible. It’s creepy. “Black Christmas” doesn’t use its holiday setting as a gimmick or an afterthought. Instead, Clark’s film builds an unnerving atmosphere by subverting the traditional iconography of the holiday. Christmas decorations contrast against the murders that happen in the home. Christmas carols take on a creeping quality. (Though it's never built into a solid point. Jessica's pregnancy can't help but reminds us of another girl who was once pregnant around Christmas...) The music and sound design especially help cement “Black Christmas’” very spooky tone. As Jessica becomes increasingly alone, you really begin to feel her isolation. The film never quite generates extended tension but, with a prevailing atmosphere of dread, it doesn’t really need it.

Calling “Black Christmas” the first slasher film is somewhat misleading. Many of the sub-genre’s formulas had yet to be established. There’s no drugs or sex nor a virginal final girl. Though there’s some comic relief, the police aren’t incompetent. Like “Halloween,” “Black Christmas” drawls from American urban legends. The script is basically an extended adaptation of the “Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,” maintaining the legend’s climax beat-for-beat. Truthfully, “Black Christmas” earns the title of “slasher film” through its focus on the murder scenes. The deaths in “Black Christmas” are claustrophobic in their closeness. Claire is suffocated with a plastic sheet, the camera shoved in the closet with her. The camera is attached to the swinging hook that takes out Mrs. MacHenry. The film lingers on the distortion via glass, splattered blood, and gasps for help when Barb is stabbed with a glass unicorn. There’s little in way of exploitation here. Instead, “Black Christmas” mines stark horror from the murdered scenes.

Clark is really good at creating a creepy atmosphere and shocking death scenes. Yet that’s not “Black Christmas’” secret weapon. That status belongs to Billy. Unlike most visually oriented slashers, Billy is never fully seen. Instead, we get a shadowy shot of a staring eye or a fleetingly glimpsed hand. The camera frequently adapts his point-of-view, putting the audience in his insane head, which was undoubtedly an influence on Carpenter. Billy is recognized by his voice. Through the phone and the obscene calls, we hear him ranting incoherently. His voice changes pitch, rolling from female to male, adult to child. He shrieks, cries, and roars. He mentions someone named Agnes and a baby, hinting at a disturbing back story otherwise unelaborated on. In short, Billy is the creepiest motherfucker around. Unlike the comic book badassery of other slasher villains, Billy comes across as genuinely insane, a totally unhinged and dangerous murderer.

Further solidifying “Black Christmas’” status as a classic is a legitimately likable cast. Olivia Hussey’s undefined accent marks Jessica as someone more sophisticated than her classmates. Yet Hussey’s beauty has a girl-next-door aspect, making her seem down-to-earth. Her subplot involving the pregnancy actually allows her some subtle, low-key acting. Margot Kidder is also unforgettable as Barb, the boozy and loud-mouthed classmate. On paper, Barb probably wasn’t very likable. Kidder gives the character a vulnerability beneath her sharp tongue. At the time, the film’s marquee name was John Saxon. Saxon was experienced at playing authority figures in low budget genre films, always bringing a certain charm and humor to the parts. I also like Marian Waldman as the funny, usually intoxicated Mrs. MacHenry and Andrea Martin as the mousy Phyllis.

Another possible influence “Black Christmas” had on “Halloween” is its ending. Billy escapes justice, Jess’ boyfriend getting the rap instead. In its final moments, the film focuses on Claire’s dead body, still saran-wrapped and sitting in the attic. As the camera pulls away, we hear Billy’s insane rantings again. The ambiguous ending is as chilly as the winter’s night air, leaving the audience shivering. “Black Christmas” is not as good a film as “Halloween.” Though a beautifully orchestrated horror story, it’s not in service of deeper themes like Carpenter’s film. Still, in a dark room, lit only by a Christmas tree, it is astonishingly effective. It may not be the most well-known holiday horror film but it’s probably the creepiest. [9/10]

Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)

Despite it being their most popular and beloved Christmas special, Rankin-Bass did not make a sequel to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” until 1976, twelve years after the special originally aired. The time lapse is made even weirder because “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” is a direct sequel. Santa and his elves look and sound entirely different, the quirky character designs of the original “Rudolph” have been absorbed by the Rankin-Bass house style. Despite this, it picks up minutes after the conclusion of the previous special. After Rudolph saves Santa’s midnight flight, the fat man receives news that Baby New Year has disappeared. If the baby can’t be found by midnight on the 31st, the next year can’t begin. Rudolph heads off for the Archipelagos of Time in search of the missing child.

“Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” does the most unexpected thing: It creates a bizarre mythology around Rankin-Bass’ holiday characters. Turns out every year is overseen by Father Time, who ages an entire life time in the span of twelve months. At the end of the year, a new baby is born who becomes the next Father Time. After his year is up, Father Time retires to an island. These islands maintain the characteristics of whatever year that Father corresponds to. In the course of the story, we visit a prehistoric island full of dinosaurs, a medieval island populated by fairy tale characters, and an island stuck in revolutionary America. Also, Father Time’s servants are humanoid clock creatures. Got all that? Good because “Shiny New Year” is just getting started. There’s also a giant vulture named Eon, who lives an eon and turns into ice and snow after his time is up. He wants to kidnap Baby New Year, so the year won't end and his life won't expire. All of this information and more is explained to us by Red Skelton as Father Time, who belabors every point in an extensive voice over narration.

The original “Rudolph” was weird but to saddle an hour-long holiday special with all of the above information is just overkill. Despite all its meandering oddness, “Shiny New Year” replicates its predecessor’s structure. Rudolph meets an oddball collection of characters on his journey. First, he is accompanied by a clock-man soldier who rhymes all his sentences with “Sir,” an annoying quirk. Soon, they meet a camel with a clock in his hump who talks in a slow voice. Next, they encounter a whale with a clock in his tale called Big Ben. There’s a caveman, a knight (voiced by Frank Gorshin, no less) and a cartoon version of Benjamin Franklin. That doesn’t include the fairy tale character they also encounter, such as the Three Bears or Cinderella. With such an extensive cast, Rudolph winds up being lost in his own special.

Rudolph doesn’t become useful until the very end. You see, Baby New Year fled because everyone made fun of his freakishly huge ears. Annoyingly, the special soon falls into the structure of Rudolph and his ever-expanding gang finding the Baby’s previous location right after he left. When the reindeer finally catches up with the infant, they have a heart-to-heart. After all, Rudolph has experience being excluded because of an unusual physical attribute. Despite seemingly pushing the same “never judge a book by its cover!” moral as the original, everyone still laughs at Baby New Year’s big ears. Later, his Prince Charles size ears save the day. Upon seeing them Eon falls into a fit laughter so jovial it melts his icy heart. Get your moral straight, “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year.”

Piled atop the incoherent mythology and far too large cast is a collection of annoying, subpar songs. The first number, “The Moving Finger Writes,” is actually kind of nice, Father Time describing the onward march of time to a low-key melody. Every other number you can forget about. “Have a Hap-Hap-Happy Year” has a repetitive, grating melody. “Raining Sunshine” has some of the most asinine lyrics to ever appear in a holiday specials. When recounting the origin of his nose, a reprise of Rudolph’s theme song plays. Oddly, scenes from the first special are shown but in traditional animation. There are other songs but I’ve already totally forgotten all of them.

The antics of Baby New Year and a singing caveman really make you long for the comparatively charming antics of Hermie the Dentist Elf and Yukon Cornelius. “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” occasionally gets aired along side its more famous companion. However, it says a lot about this particular hour that it’s packed on the “Year Without a Santa Claus” DVD as a bonus. A glance at Rankin-Bass’ Wikipedia page shows me they made way more of these than I realized. As of right now anyway, I’m ready to declare “Shiny New Year” the weakest Christmas special the company would ever make. Happy New Year, I guess. [4/10]

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