BLACK CHRISTMAS

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE January 2010 issue.

 

Back in the 80’s and 90’s even the slasher films were the horror genre’s bread and butter. Audacious, explicit, gorey even, they tended to prove that your reaction towards cruelty in real life may say “no”, but our unseen eye says a definite “YES”. After all, serial killers are quite popular, are they not?

Why this hunger? Very simple: because films succeed to portray an intimate side, a side which we cannot see in the everyday life. We see these killers played by actors and for two hours (or even more) we assume that we are observing one. And since it’s not real, it gives us enough comfort to sit through it all, but since some films are so well crafted, those particular films might linger in our memory long before we have seen them.

One of the first of this kind was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Based on Robert Bloch’s novel with the same name, which itself was loosely based on the life of serial killer Ed Gein, the film took its audience in places they have never been before. On the one hand, the film gives the idea of horror a new dimension, that emerging from the “human–monster”. Norman Bates seems very quiet and nice on the outside, but underneath the social mask there is no Norman Bates at all. Raised by a very possessive mother, Norman was induced the idea that a boy should love his mother for granted, which might have not been a first and still, not many serial killers emerge after this kind of treatment. However, the device is more complicated: it is all based on a request – response system. The environment (in this case, the mother) sends a request, let’s say. If it is sent in an aggressive manner and the recipient is too weak to (re)act on his own beliefs, the answer is shy, mechanical. Since the energy on that answer itself is virtually inexistent, then something must have been channeled elsewhere. No one may notice, but in time some sort of alter–ego is formed. It is fed by frustrations and fear until it takes shape. There are people who believe they can overcome their tyrants by reinventing them. Norman seemed to be one of those people. Due to such insight, the film still remains powerful even today.

In 1974, another film made its presence felt. It was called Black Christmas and was directed by Bob Clark. While overlooked all these years, the film remains important, for cementing the path of the slasher subgenre and also for employing techniques and ideas that were used later, in the slasher smash–hit Halloween. Relying less on blood and gore, and more on the effectiveness achieved by using a technical and minimalist approach, the film serves as an example not only to Halloween, but also to other genre hits such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example.

Some role in all that might have been also played by the context: the murders occur during Christmas in a convent. Of course, right now Black Christmas might not be as tempting as it was 35 years ago due to the dozens of copycat films that followed it; even if its modern–day predecessors might have had enough blood and gore to bury its audiences in it, let alone every character present in the film, most of them lack both the feeling Black Christmas had and its visual mastery.

…and there is also a delicious plot twist in the end I’ll let you discover for yourselves.

If in ’74 was “Merry Christmas” and Santa hung down the chimney, four years later it was time for “Trick or treats”. John Carpenter’s (The Thing, Big trouble in little China, Starman, In the mouth of madness) Halloween achieved its far greater success by employing the same techniques as its snowy predecessor. But it was more straightforward, more “in your face” and this time we actually know a thing or two about the killer. His blank mask is like a mirror, we can project anything and anyone we want on it, while it also expressed… lack of expression. There is nothing more frightening than a cold expressionless killer.

On the more gorey side of things, there is the no less important Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1975, Tobe Hooper – Poltergeist). Its documentarystyle approach gives the viewer a better sense of the setting and places, making him a witness of the horror that was about to befall on a Sally (the protagonist) and her friends who decided to visit her grandfather’s old farmhouse after learning that the Texas cemetery where he was buried had been vandalized.

Among the highlights of the show is Leatherface, a guy who was wearing a human skin mask on his face and obsessively wielded a chainsaw. Again, we face the lack of expression, underlined in Leatherface’s case by the absence of an intelligible vocabulary. The film was said to be based on a real case, which doesn’t sound actually surprising, but its power doesn’t come from that, but from its style, and from the way the “villains” were portrayed. It was difficult to see something through them. In other films, we take shots, we guess, we find a way into the killer’s mind; here we do not benefit from such luxury. It’s horrific enough to have someone wielding a chainsaw in front of you, or following you, but it is more horrific to know that besides the things mentioned, there is no way to penetrate his mind.

After ’74 there were other sequels and copycats, but still, Texas… is not to be repeated. It is a one–time recipe, which makes me feel sorry for the sequels and copycats. Following uninteresting efforts such as Friday 13th, or real shockers–for–shock’s–value such as The Beyond, in 1984 a new slasher marked its territory. And this time the territory was one between reality and dreams. The film’s name: Nightmare on Elm Street, its “hero”: Freddy Krueger. Built on an inteligent premise and benefiting from a colourful character (Freddy, that is), Nightmare soon became a cult favourite.

This time it wasn’t the minimalism or the inner terror, it was the idea – someone that can kill you in your dreams – that made it all happen. However, after tons of sequels, and an ’96 marked by a film that was more likely a selfparody (Scream, that is) and that generated itself a series of deplorable copycats (I know what you did last summer series), the slasher began to fall apart. Yet, some of the films remain worth seeing, for “they do not make the horrors they used to make, nowadays…”

Movie still: Freddy Krüger in Nightmare on Elm Street

review by Shade

Full article here.