Review- Black Christmas (1974)

Review- Black Christmas (1974)

Whilst it’s widely thought that it was John Carpenter’s Halloween that initiated the slasher genre those who actually know anything about horror know that it was actually Bob Clark’s Black Christmas made in 1974. In fact, Clark and Carpenter worked together on a project after Black Christmas was made. Clark said to Carpenter that he no longer worked in horror but that he had had an idea for a horror film that was never realised. This would be based around the occasion of, you’ve guessed it, Halloween! Carpenter then later asked to use the idea for a film he was to due to work on and the rest is history. This isn’t to say that Carpenter ripped off Clark but this explains how The Babysitter Murders (the original idea for Halloween) suddenly morphed into the masterpiece we now know and love.

In fact, the opening shots of Black Christmas are similar to those of Halloween- the killer’s point of view camera shot. Halloween reveals who this person is (and it’s one hell of a reveal) but Black Christmas doesn’t. In fact, the killer isn’t revealed fully throughout the entire film which is the first reason that Black Christmas is so revolutionary.

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The story involves a group of female students on the night before they leave their sorority house to go home for the holidays. They start to receive very disturbing phone calls and things start to get dramatically worse soon after.

Another reason to love Black Christmas is that the extent of the killer’s mental instability is shown by the first girl he kills. She is suffocated and then placed in a rocking chair in the attic where the psycho is hiding out. Throughout the film we see him ranting and manically rocking her.

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Arguably some of the most disturbing sequences within the film are when the intruder calls the girls. They don’t know the calls are actually being made by the killer who’s in the attic within the same house. From the calls we come to learn that the person making them is called Billy and that he seems to be playing out incidents from his past, incidents rife with cruelty, abuse and possibly murder. Bob Clark used five different actors for the calls. These phone calls are some of the scariest, most disturbing and unsettling sequences I’ve ever seen in a horror film. They were even cut when the film was first released in the UK.

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Theres also the fact that Black Christmas was the first film to use the now established trope of a killer’s phone calls coming from inside the same house as their potential victim(s). This was years before When A Stranger Calls.

Another great thing about the film is the humour contained within the movie especially from Margot Kidder’s character, Barb. It’s amazing that such an unnerving film can still have genuinely funny interludes but without forsaking the movie’s tension.

But maybe thats because the film is extremely tense indeed. Theres a certain sense of doom to the proceedings that are depicted in the movie. A great example is where Olivia Hussey’s character Jess has just found out that the calls are coming from the sorority house, that Billy is ensconced within it but so are two of her friends (the audience knows otherwise as we saw them get dispatched earlier). On going upstairs (even though the police have phoned and demanded that she leave the house immediately) she enters one of the girl’s bedrooms to discover their dead bodies- and the killer looking at her through a crack in the door. This sequence is one of scariest in horror history.

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Add to this one of the most warped endings I’ve ever seen in a horror movie and you have a masterpiece.

Theres only two horror films with the ability to give me sleepless nights. One is The Exorcist, the other is Black Christmas. Essential.

5 out of 5 stars

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Blu Ray Review- When A Stranger Calls (1979)

Blu Ray Review- When A Stranger Calls (1979)

I learnt about When A Stranger Calls after seeing the excellent horror film compilation Terror in the Aisles. I then saw the full film and was blown away. I bought the bare bones American DVD release years later and thought that was the best cineastes would get regarding this film.

So I was thrilled when I learnt that the amazing company Second Sight Films were releasing the movie on Blu ray with a ton of extra features. These include the sequel. And the original short film The Sitter that director Fred Walton made prior to the feature length film. And the soundtrack. This sounded like one hell of an amazing package. Does the reality live up to the specs?

The Film-

A young babysitter receives phone-calls asking if shes ‘checked the children’. After numerous calls to the police she learns that the calls are coming from inside the house (this plot device had only been used one time before in film terms with that film being Bob Clark’s Black Christmas in 1974).

After this extremely tense first 20 mins the film shifts gear and the second act of the film involves the killer, the cop determined to catch him and a bar patron the killer first rather clumsily tries to pick up and when that fails, stalks.

The last act of the film involves the babysitter years later again with the killer trying to kill her again.

Lazy critics and film fans will have you believe that the first and last acts of this film are great, with the middle act (and majority) of the film being boring and pedestrian. This is utter rubbish. My thoughts on the film and particularly the middle act of the film can be found here.

When a Stranger Calls is a masterpiece and I believe one of the best horror films ever made. Really. It should be mentioned in the same breath as Halloween, The Shining and Psycho but isn’t. Maybe this Blu ray release will help to rectify this situation.

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Video-

The transfer on Second Sight’s Blu ray is amazing. The picture quality is flawless and visuals crisp even though the intended look of the film is quite soft. I compared this release to the Region 1 DVD I mentioned earlier and this transfer represents a significant step up in terms of visuals especially in the scenes that happen at night or where shadows are involved. One scene that nicely demonstrates this is the nocturnal walk home the character Tracey takes from the bar.

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Audio-

The audio is just as great as the visuals. Previous releases had a tendency to sound muffled and flat in places. Second Sight’s release rectifies this to such a degree that both music and dialogue are crystal clear and easy to hear. There no need for a manual sound mix using your remote with this release as with so many other releases from other labels.

Features-

This release is jam-packed with special features and the kind of features that fans of the film were waiting decades to see.

Firstly, we get director Fred Walton’s short film The Sitter that was made as a short film with Walton hoping to expand this into a full-length feature after the success of Halloween. It’s interesting to see that a lot of the nuance and detail that are present in the When a Stranger Calls are already a part of The Sitter. The ice maker as a source of terror, Dr Mandrakis’ funny line about ‘we even have low fat yoghurt’ and the opening of the front door to reveal a detective are all in place in The Sitter showing that attention to detail was there from the very start. These elements weren’t added as an afterthought into the full length feature. I’ve waited years to see The Sitter and the wait was worth it. It certainly feels like the embryonic streak of genius that would later be more fully realised in the later film.

The Blu ray also includes the TV movie sequel When A Stranger Calls Back. It was great to finally see this film after hearing so much about it. The character arcs of Carol Kane and Charles Durning’s characters feel realistic and authentic and this is a worthy continuation of their stories. As with the main feature the video and audio on this movie are both top notch.

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Also included are interviews with director Fred Walton, stars Carol Kane and Rutanya Alda and composer Dana Kaproff. For a film of which little was known, fans suddenly have a treasure trove of information about the film’s genesis, it’s production and it’s reception. Walton’s interview is the most revealing and is full of anecdotes which shed considerable light on the film. One such is how actor Tony Beckley felt massively insecure about acting with an actress as great as Carol Kane. Colleen Dewhurst said something to him that instantly remedied the situation beautifully and restored his confidence in his abilities.

And if these special features weren’t brilliant enough we also get the film’s soundtrack on CD (a great addition as Dana Kaproff’s score is a massive part as to why the film works so well), a booklet including an excellent essay on the film and a replica of the original film’s poster.

Of all of the Blu rays I’ve bought this year this is by far the best. A great film has been given the treatment it truly deserves. But I have come to expect this kind of product from Second Sight Films as they were responsible for the amazing package released for The Changeling. I look forward to their release of Boys in the Band early next year.

5 stars out of 5.

31 Days of Halloween- Day 31- Dawn of the Dead (1978)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 31- Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The sequel to George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead shows that the zombie epidemic has gotten much worse and society is on it’s knees. Two television workers plan to escape with two SWAT team members in the TV station traffic helicopter in search of…whatever they can find that’s better than their current situation.

There is so much to love about this friggin’ film. The tenement opening scene (the shoulder bite was cut by the BBFC as was the exploding head), the way the film suddenly changes course completely as the four fly off in the helicopter, the scene where they land to fill up the copter with fuel (theres the taboo of zombie kids being shot here. Theres also the amazing scene of the zombie having his head decapitated by the helicopter’s blades) and then we get to THE SHOPPING MALL!!!

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The shopping mall/man trap

The mall is one of the greatest locations ever used in a film. Imagine having this shopping centre at your personal disposal with everything inside being free and your property. I love Romero’s social commentary regarding this. The dream of consumerism quickly rings hollow as do the images being conveyed within the advertising produced before the zombie epidemic. Within the extended cut of Dawn (which is just as good, if not better than the original theatrical cut of the movie) the female character Francine is the only person who wants to leave the mall when the topic comes up of whether to move on or not. The men state that they have everything they need here and so should stay but Francine says that the mall is ‘a rut. A trap’. Ans she’s completely right.

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The four main characters

The zombies continue to come to the mall (Stephen mentions that ‘this was a big part of their lives’) which is a brilliantly wry observation by Romero. In this film the living dead have a very aesthetically pleasing blue tinge to their skin. Within the film the blood is redder than red making the film fully realise it’s comic-book vision. But it’s more than this. The film looks like a series of Pop Art paintings come to life. Andy Warhol had plenty to say about consumerism and mass production (his studio was called ‘The Factory’). It’s almost like he was art director on this opus.

But aside from all of the insights and allegories, this film is just great, great fun! The kills are innovative, disgusting and completely brilliant (Tom Savini returns to make-up and special effects duties and this film is probably the best demonstration of his work). Savini also stars as the members of a biker gang who try to take over the mall and seize it from the main four characters.

Wanna see a custard pie fight between bikers and zombies? Wanna see a zombie Hare Krishna, nurse and nun? Wanna see John Amplas (the lead from Romero’s earlier ‘Martin’) as a Pop Art Hispanic dude? It’s all in this film- and much much more.

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A zombie gets a custard pie in the kisser

I also love the character arc for Francine and the bromance between Peter and Roger.

This film has it all. Seriously.

5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 28- The Legacy (1978)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 28- The Legacy (1978)

Katharine Ross plays a woman going to London with her partner (played by Sam Elliott at his homoerotic best) for a job interview.

Whilst riding on a motorbike in the countryside surrounding London they are almost crashed into by a Rolls Royce. The owner apologises and, as their bike has been damaged, they are put up for the weekend at his huge country mansion. But then things start to turn weird. Very weird.

There seems to be a fair few films from the 70’s which prompt me to think ‘What the…’ when I see them. The pinnacle of this sub-genre (lets call it ‘Cocaine was involved’) is The Exorcist 2: The Heretic.

Whilst The Legacy doesn’t reach that film’s dizzying heights of coke-fuelled weirdness (and no other film does), it does still deliver to such as extent that viewers’ eyes will be popping out of their skulls at some scenes. Wanna see Roger Daltry get a trachioctomy on top of a banquet table? Wanna see the guy who played Blofeld (Charles Gray, not Donald Pleasance) being supernaturally burnt to a crisp? Sure you do! And lets not forget the demonically possessed swimming pool and shower.

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If you don’t believe me about how fucked up this film is then just look at this still. Like a bad acid flashback.

It will help to be stoned whilst watching this movie. The film will only make perfect sense this way.

2/5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 25- Bug (1975)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 25- Bug (1975)

An earthquake uproots cockroach-like bugs that can set fire to things and, more importantly for a horror film, also to animals and humans. But never fear, a biology professor played by Bradford Dillman is on the case.

This great little 70’s B movie is directed by Jeannot Szwarc (who would go on to make the hugely enjoyable Jaws 2 and the brilliant campfest that is Supergirl) and produced by William Castle (no introduction needed). Gorgeous Californian locations, bugs setting cats alight (is it un-PC to find this hilariously entertaining?) and also crawling into huge teased 70’s women’s hairdos and letting rip. This is a great popcorn movie.

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But then the movie changes course and gets all metaphysical as the film’s designated bug expert starts to research the incendiary insects in greater depth and even starts to communicate with them!

This is the kind of film that you could stumble upon on a late night TV channel and absolutely love. A low-key joy.

4 out of 5 stars

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31 Days of Halloween- Day 21- Beware The Rapist (1979)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 21- Beware The Rapist (1979)

When I was growing up I loved the Nanny State Public Information Films. They were akin to state produced horror shorts extolling the dangers of everything from playing near rivers to mixing different types of tyres on the same vehicle.

Beware The Rapist is an American PIF (called Public Service Announcements or PSA’s over there) made in 1979. Produced at the height of some of the most prolific serial killers being at large (Ted Bundy is obviously the inspiration for the preppy looking Christmas card salesman, the balaclava wearing perverts could easily be based on The Golden State Killer) this film offers common sense advice to vulnerable women so that they come to no harm.

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Telephone terror

This advice sometimes comes across as extreme (‘once you get home, lock yourself in!’) but this is shown to be better than becoming another victim. This film holds up a mirror to society at that time and the ghoulish events happening with shocking regularity. But it also reflects the somewhat doom-laden advice from American authorities. Protect yourself- or else!

This is a treat for horror and exploitation fans. Gritty, nerve-jangling and based on fact. Truth is stranger- and more brutal- than fiction.

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Beware The Rapist depicts many different scenarios and locales that can suddenly turn nightmarish. Every setting is here- the laundry room, in the supposed safety of one’s car, the late night walk home. In many ways this film reminds me of the ‘urban horror’ situations depicted in the opening credits of the mid-80’s crime series The Equalizer.

The music used is library based. The same library music used for Dawn of the Dead or the genius Australian women’s prison drama Prisoner Cell Block H. And if that isn’t enough of a recommendation then what is?

An amazing time capsule. You can watch it here.

5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 13- Martin (1978)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 13- Martin (1978)

Martin is by filmmaker George A Romero and was his favourite film from his oeuvre.

Martin is a young man who we see travelling by train to Braddock in Pittsburgh to live with his elderly cousin, Tata Cuda who seems convinced that Martin is the latest in a long line of vampires (‘the family curse’).

The film centres around whether Martin is actually a vampire or if he is just a very confused young man suffering from a severe neurosis and only commits his bloodthirsty acts because of a self fulfiling prophecy.

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In fact the film constantly makes reference to Martin proving that there is ‘no magic’ in the world and that the conventions surrounding vampirism (many inherited from books and films) are untrue and so disproving the myth.

On the train journey over to Pittsburgh we see Martin sedate a woman, making love to her naked body before slashing her arm and drinking her blood. This very sequence shows how Martin accomplishes his ‘vampiric’ impulses. Instead of the well established tropes of hypnosis, fangs etc we see Martin use modern implements such as injections, chemical suppressants and razor blades. He has more in common with a rapist/serial killer than a ‘Nosferatu’. The woman as she is becoming subdued even refers to Martin as a ‘rapist asshole’.

It’s just before Martin enters his victim’s train compartment that he has a vision (in black and white) of how his prey will greet him- reaching out to receive him whilst looking beautiful and seductive. In reality when she is seen leaving the bathroom after being sat on the toilet, her face grotesquely covered in a green face pack and blowing her nose- the exact opposite of the vision Martin had just prior. Martin has a few of these visions throughout the film- are they actually age-old memories (suggesting that he is a vampire) or are they imaginings that he has gleaned from books and films but has confused with memories as part of his brainwashing?

There are other examples of Martin disproving the conventions of the vampire legend. When he arrives at Tata’s house he sees that there is garlic nailed to both Tata’s and Cuda’s granddaughter’s bedroom door. Martin rips this off and takes a bite into a clove to prove to his cousin that this myth isn’t real. He also takes a crucifix from Tata’s hand and rubs it against his own face to prove the same thing- ‘there is no magic. Not ever’.

After Cuda employs an older priest to carry out a makeshift exorcism, Martin appears in front of Cuda dressed as a vampire resplendent with cloak, fangs and make-up. He then spits out the plastic fangs and wipes the white pan-stick from his face to show that this is just a costume. Again, the reality disproving the illusion.

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After interactions with people who treat Martin as a human being (the bored housewife he makes deliveries to, Tata’s granddaughter), instead of some kind of age old Dracula from ‘the old country’, he seems to curtail his bloody excursions and finds that instead of murdering he ‘just lets people go’.

Another aspect of reality that Martin observes is the truth beneath the illusion of the all-smiling American family that permeates advertising. It’s the couples in the film that have the most affluence and comfortable lives who seem the unhappiest and are either having affairs (the couple Martin invades the home of- only the female inhabitant of the house isn’t in bed with her husband) or completely alienated, misunderstood and unfulfilled (Mrs Santini).

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Braddock also provides a harsh reminder of reality. It’s working class, shabby and down at heel. The once active steel mills that were the town’s bread and butter have long since closed down leaving a town to slowly die and rot.

Far from being the villain or monster of a horror film, Martin himself earns nothing but the audience’s sympathy. He’s more like a victim of circumstance, even when we see the crimes he commits.

As you can guess, theres so much to analyse and, in fact, cherish with this film. This is a film with many layers that presumes that it’s audience have the intelligence to make up their own minds as to whether Martin is a vampire or not.

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Original newspaper ad for the Leeds cinema release of ‘Martin’

I first saw this film when it was shown on Channel 4 here in the UK in the mid-80’s. It’s so poignant that it has stayed with me ever since and even with regular viewings it loses none of it’s charm, brilliance or innovation. In fact, with every viewing theres something new that I missed previously.

This may be a small budget film but it feels like Romero gained from this rather than letting it detract from the film and it’s production. Romero and crew just used their ingenuity to overcome any limitations and work around them and it works beautifully. Martin feels intimate and personal as a film.

Romero’s original cut of this film was significantly longer, clocking in at 2 and a half hours and was completely in black and white. Only one copy of this version ever existed and mysteriously went missing from Romero’s office many moons ago.

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This film should be readily available on Blu ray but apparently there are, ahem, ‘rights issues’ that prevent a definitive version of this or Dawn of the Dead being issued on a restored Blu ray. Criterion or Scream Factory could give this masterpiece the treatment it richly deserves. Let’s hope these ‘issues’ are resolved soon so that these glittering jewels of the horror genre can be widely accessible and enjoyed further.

Another great component of the film is the soundtrack by Donald Rubinstein. A few years back this was reissued on CD and is currently on iTunes. The music is just as haunting as the film itself.

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The pop group Soft Cell wrote a song (also called ‘Martin’) based on the film which is very faithful to the movie’s narrative and is just as brilliant as the film. There are even snatches of the film’s soundtrack used on the song. Check it out here.

Martin is a peach of a movie. In fact, it’s a masterpiece just like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.

5 out of 5 stars