Black Christmas (1974)

When discussing films that established the standard structure & tropes of the slasher genre, Black Christmas is the one that most often slips through the cracks. Arriving more than a decade after proto-slashers like Psycho & Peeping Tom and just a few years before full-blown American slashers like Halloween & Friday the 13th, the Canuxploitation classic is somewhat of an island as a genre pioneer, disconnected from the movement that followed in its wake. That’s not for lack of cultural clout or stylistic specificity either. If nothing else, the cast of Black Christmas is incredibly stacked for a low-budget horror movie, especially considering Margot Kidder & Olivia Hussey’s central roles as sorority-girl victims. The film is also significant as an early adaptation of the “The call is coming from inside the house!” babysitter-murder urban legend, which would prove to be a significant influence on the genre. All the standard tropes & techniques of the typical slasher are already present too, especially in the first person POV shots of the killer stalking his sexually active teen-girl victims. Black Christmas is as much of a foundational text of the slasher’s DNA as any other that you can cite, yet its status is considered more “cult classic” than household name.

Because this is a genre template that’s since been set in stone, there isn’t going to be much in Black Christmas’s basic premise that surprises anyone who’s seen a horror movie or two since the 1980s. A mysterious killer makes threatening phone calls to a sorority house & methodically offs a series of victims therein. The killer’s identity remains hidden and we often see victims through his weaponized gaze while heavy breathing overpowers the soundtrack. Like with most genre films, Black Christmas’s premise is only interesting in where it deviates from the norm. The Christmastime setting might have been repeated in subsequent slasher franchises like Santa’s Slay & Silent Night Deadly Night, but I’m sure it was a novelty at the time. Black Christmas also deviates from what would eventually become the traditional slasher by resisting devolving into a bodycount film, spending most of its runtime investigating the murder of one sorority house victim instead of letting the corpses pile. Our de facto Final Girl protagonist (Hussey, laying on her posh British accent as thickly as possible) is also far from the naïve virginal cliché that would soon become standard; she spends most of the film refusing to be swayed from her decision to have an abortion. She also cedes a lot of screentime to Kidder’s mean-drunk sorority sister, who would normally be a two-scene archetypal annoyance before being killed off. In as many ways as Black Christmas resembles a typical slasher, it’s also freer than most to defy that genre’s conventions, since they had not yet been fully established.

As interesting as the film’s cultural context might be as an early pioneer of its genre, Black Christmas is just as notable for its in-the-moment effect. The urban legend of the murdered babysitter that ends in the punchline “The calls are coming from inside the house!” may seem too overly familiar to scare horror audiences without subversion or embellishment, but its in-the-moment tension is still horrifically unnerving as told here. The lewd phone calls the college-girl victims receive in Black Christmas are grotesquely unnerving. The killer gargles, shrieks, and moans in sexually explicit menace over the phone while the girls cower in disgust around the receiver. The effect is anguished & inhuman, an unholy assault of aural discomfort. The kills, although infrequent, have an unseemly nastiness to them as well. The killer has no known motivation or weakness, like a Michael Myers prototype. He strangles victims with dry-cleaning bags & phone cords with a cold, uncaring brutality, leaving corpses to rot without purpose or emotion. He hides in closets, attics, and basements – the exact nightmare environments that are relatable enough to feel genuinely threatening but are also oddly otherworldly. The film’s camera work is also off-puttingly crass, stumbling through the sorority house in search of victims as if it were in a blind drunken rage. Its unconformable angles & up-close split diopter framing are nearly as unnerving as the lewd phone calls from the killer – a high bar to clear.

It’s difficult to make sense of Black Christmas’s place in the cultural zeitgeist. Horror nerds hold it in high regard as a foundational text for the slasher genre, but it’s unclear whether that status has amounted to wider recognition & respect. Director Bob Clark’s larger catalog is no help, as attempting to make sense of any career that includes this film, A Christmas Story, Baby Geniuses, and Porky’s only results in pulling out your own hair. Regardless of its larger cultural context, however, Black Christmas remains perfectly potent as an isolated work. The kills are brutal, the soundtrack & camera work even moreso. The characters are more complex than what we’ve been conditioned to expect in this low-budget end of genre fare, resulting in more than just a skyrocketing bodycount. The drive-in era tagline warns “If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl . . . t’s on TOO TIGHT,” and it’s one of the few films that lives up to that kind of carnival-barker grandstanding. You could likely find a better example of an early slasher pic that colors within the lines set by its genre and there are certainly ones that are more willing to exploit the novelty of their Yuletide setting. There’s just very little chance they’ll offer anything as eerie or as unnerving as a single phone call made in this proto-slasher gem.

-Brandon Ledet

The Late Great Planet Mirth III – Tribulation (2000)

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twohalfstar

Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!

Hoo boy, this is a weird one. The back of the box for Tribulation, the third film in the Apocalypse series, claims that the film is roughly 101 minutes long, but the movie really clocks in at less than 90, in the low eighties if you discount the overlong opening credits. Revelation also had a similar problem, as that film started with a long pan through Thorold Stone’s house while a cover of Rapture anthem “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The difference is that Revelation picks up from there and goes the distance (…mostly), while Tribulation is too down to earth, despite paradoxically also being absolutely bonkers. It takes a risk by crafting (for lack of a better word) a Rapture story that includes elements from sources other than Hal Lindsay’s Premillenial Dispensationalism™, but the more ostentatious features of the movie are at odds tonally with the previous films. It also feels like something you’ve seen in any DTV conspiracy thriller because, despite taking place in the world created by the first two films, Tribulation barely bothers to include the Antichrist, instead playing out like a bargain basement pod people movie interspersed with televangelical talking heads.

Tom Canboro (Gary Busey; yes, that Gary Busey) is a cop in Anytown, USA. His lovely wife Susie (Sherri Miller) is some kind of television producer. Busey says at one point that life isn’t like her show, where she finds “the most romantic angle” for a story; this, combined with the fact that she is friends pre-Rapture with Helen Hannah (returning champ Leigh Lewis), is all the information that we really get about her. Tom has remained close in adulthood with kid brother Calvin and their older sister Eileen (Lois Lane herself Margot Kidder), who’s a bit of an overbearing Bible-thumper. The Canboros also share their home with Susie’s younger brother Jason (Howie Mandel), who is interested in the philosophy of rising European Union figurehead Franco Macalusso (Nick Mancuso).

That’s right! Macalusso is just a minor politician at this point. Tribulation doesn’t start during the Tribulation at all; half of this movie’s runtime takes place pre-Rapture, spending nearly 45 minutes establishing character relationships that won’t matter in the back half. In fact, this film doesn’t feel like it has multiple acts, instead feeling like two parts of a TV two-parter. It is established that Jason is mentally unstable, although it’s apparent that he’s written by someone who has no concept of how mental illness works. Jason is frequently manic, excitedly telling the small family gathering about Macalusso’s idea that if all the people on earth were united in their ideas, man could essentially become like unto a god. Jason is also stated to have a past history of psychological hospitalization and an interest in the occult, which are explicitly linked. He uses a non-copyrighted ouija board, which somehow gives him the clue that Macalusso’s ideas are related to Genesis 11:6, which is in the middle of the story the Tower of Babel. You can look that up in whichever translation suits you, but they’re all essentially a variation on the idea that the builders of the tower could perform any feat they imagined because of their unified language and intention. Don’t let it surprise you that the film ends up having the villains treat this verse like the loophole in a contract with God, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Jason ends up wreaking havoc in the family kitchen while explaining how one group of monkeys spontaneously learned a skill that another monkey group (from which they were isolated) learned independently; this is definitive proof, he says, that Macalusso is right about the boundlessness of human potential. Jason and Eileen argue about their perspective worldviews. I wouldn’t even mention it, but it leads Busey to utter one of the greatest lines ever committed to film while he puts on his badge and gun (I gave the movie an extra star for this alone):

“I gotta go. There’s a whole lotta people in this city who don’t take much comfort in God or a clean banana.”

Elsewhere, a group of Satanists (led by a guy who intentionally looks like Anton LaVey) are standing around under a pentagram, focusing on a model of the Tower of Babel and, well, babbling about how God himself admitted in Genesis 11:6 that mankind is capable of overpowering him. Because the movie needs a scene to drive home how dangerous they are, they possess the sleeping body of a guy who teaches a night course in parapsychology,which is hilarious for a few reasons. First, the fact that the screenwriter specified that this was night school in order to capitalize on the creep factor is adorable. Secondly, after revealing this fact, one of the Laveys hilariously says “This guy’s mind is wiiiide open,” because the Laveys share the same ironically dismissive attitude about New Age concepts that Evangelicals do. The possessed man starts attacking his Christian wife, screaming that she is a “Hater” (thereby establishing that this term for Christians predates the Rapture in this world, answering a question that nobody asked). Tom responds to the domestic disturbance call and confronts the possessed man, who threatens his wife and then leaps through the window of their 14th floor apartment. Intercut (although that word implies a mastery of editing that is not on display here, which I’ll get to in a bit) with this are a couple of scenes showing Jason confronting Susie and demanding to see Eileen, calling her a “hater.” Although we only see the aftermath, Tom is called away to the hospital because Jason also jumped out of a window, but was luckily only on the first floor.

At the hospital, the Canboros learn that Jason will likely be remitted to a psychiatric facility, much to his distress. Lavey Prime astral projects into the room and uses Force Choke on Jason, as he had picked up on broadcasts that weren’t meant for him. Lavey Prime is repelled by the presence of Eileen, like a vampire with the weirdest weakness of all time. While Tom goes to check on the body of the man from the domestic disturbance in the morgue, Susie decides she’s just going to kidnap her brother from the hospital. Eileen is on board because she totally believes his ramblings about the cabal of Laveys and their murderous ways, despite the fact that a psychic Babel cult plays no role in the Hal Lindsey PMD™ beliefs that she is seen to espouse. A couple of minor Laveys brag to each other about having killed the night school instructor, and Tom overhears; he flees the hospital right behind Susie and the others, but the Laveys cause him to crash his car. If this really were a TV two-parter, this is where the ominous “To be continued…” would appear.

We flash-forward to the post-Rapture world established in Revelation, where Tom wakes from a coma in a world he doesn’t understand, presaging similar plot developments from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, except that those narratives don’t spend an inordinate amount of time in the pre-crisis world. The hospital room in which he awakes is shared with an amputee, who warns him not to let anyone know that he is awake, as he will then have to put on the VR glasses and choose death or Macalusso’s Mark. Tribulation doubles down on Revelation’s weird ableism (the amputee seems genuinely panicked that he will be forced to don the goggles but acquiesces to take the Mark almost immediately after realizing that doing so will restore his missing arm), and Tom barely escapes detection before taking heart when he sees that one of Macalusso’s broadcasts is interrupted by archive footage from Jack van Impe’s TV show. We learn that these hacks are being perpetrated by Helen and Susie, along with Jake (Patrick Gallagher, who was also a member of Helen’s underground in Revelation), operating out of a broadcast van and staying on the run. We also learn that Thorold Stone was captured and executed between the previous film and this one.

Tom struggles to comprehend the Tribulation in which he has awoken and seeks out Eileen. Every person he encounters turns on him after learning he is not Marked, and the Laveys almost capture him in a disturbing scene in which they murder a group of homeless people hanging out in an alley through which he escapes. Eventually, he makes his way to his and Susie’s old house, where he encounters Calvin, who has taken the Mark and does not remember Eileen; she no longer even appears in photos from their childhood. Calvin attempts to force Tom to take the Mark, but Tom bests him and flees to a sentimental place: a tree that Eileen had designated as a meeting place for them as children should they ever get lost in the woods. There, he finds Jason, who has successfully avoided taking the Mark but still refuses to accept that Eileen’s warnings are playing out exactly as she predicted. Meanwhile, Helen is captured by the Antichrist’s forces after the latest broadcast. Tom sets out to find Susie, hoping that they can reunite before the end of the world.

Tribulation is by far the most bizarre entry in the canon of Rapture flicks, using decidedly non-PMD ideas like the concept that humanity might be capable of defeating God if united in one purpose in an attempt to build a conspiracy thriller. Ultimately, however, it fails to be as engaging as Revelation, which hit the ground running relatively quickly. There’s also a step backward in regards to production value this time around, as the editing in this film is utter garbage. There are splices that are so random that at first I wondered if the DVD was skipping before remembering that I was watching a VHS; in the kitchen scene that establishes character relationships, there is a sudden jump to Jason’s upstairs room, where he is accidentally tapping into the Laveys’ transmissions, a shot that lasts ten seconds before jumping back to the kitchen below. Later, when Tom is confronting the possessed night school instructor, there are similar splices to a seemingly random scene in which Jason is screaming at Susie about his need to find and kill Eileen; we cut back to the domestic disturbance site, see the possessed man leap to his death, and then a quick cut back to the Canboro house, where Jason is lying on the ground outside, seemingly with no cause. It’s only in retrospect that the audience is led to the realization that Jason was receiving the same psychic orders as the dead man. This happens again and again throughout the plot, and it makes for a distinctly disorienting viewing experience. This could be forgiven if it seemed at all to be an intentional ploy to put the audience in the same headspace as Tom, but the only way that could work is if these scenes started after his awakening, which they don’t.

There’s another issue with the narrative, which is what we could call the Problem of Eileen. After Tribulation was released, Margot Kidder famously claimed that she had no idea that the film was meant to be a Christian propaganda piece, and Howie Mandel has made similar statements. Viewing their contributions to the film in isolation, Mandel’s statement is more difficult to believe, given that his character endures the Tribulation and ends up becoming a believer by the end. I’m more inclined to give Kidder some credit, though, for a few reasons. Firstly, her character is taken in the Rapture, meaning that she only appears in the first half of the film and may not have been given a complete script, which lends some credibility to her claims. Secondly, Eileen as presented in the film isn’t the best representation of Christianity; she comes across as obsessive and overbearing, and although these are not uncommon character traits among some believers, Kidder seems to be playing Eileen that way intentionally, as if the viewer is supposed to find her at least somewhat disagreeable. Although her drug use problems have rendered her the butt of insensitive jokes, Kidder’s not a bad actress, and I think that if she had known that Eileen was supposed to be the voice of reason (rather than a fundamentalist with kooky views that she won’t shut up about, the way Kidder plays her), she would have given a more nuanced performance. Finally, given Kidder’s own troubles with mental illness, I doubt she would have agreed to play a character who treats Jason’s instability as something that can be prayed away if she had realized that the filmmakers intended her to be right. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in Christian families in the real world who do not get the professional help they desperately need for this same reason.

There are myriad problems here above and beyond those noted in the plot synopsis. All of the Laveys dress like Charmed warlocks, which severely undercuts the menace of their presence. Their wanton murder of a dozen homeless people adds some of that villainy back in, but the tone deafness of that scene (which follows the shooting of an unarmed black Christian man named Ronnie by the police) and the film’s apparent lack of consideration for the real world implications lacks social awareness. The film would have been better served to illustrate the parallel between the Tribulation and our present and how both worlds are in need of redemption, but blind support of police and blanket privileging of Christianity in our society are both tools that support and reinforce the status quo, so no criticism of the violence and fascism of contemporary America can be made. As a result, this sequence is nearly as offensive in what it doesn’t say as Apocalypse was in its appropriation of footage of real world violence, just in reverse.

As always, this film is not without redeeming features. Busey gives a good performance here as well. Not for an actor, mind you, but for a Busey, he’s quite good. It’s too bad that what could have been a decent outing for him in the twilight of his career takes place in such a shoddily constructed movie. Lewis continues to outshine the material she is given to work with. The sequence that works best is when, post-capture, she is taken into the VR world to confront Macalusso. Lewis plays the internal war between faith and fear admirably, giving a powerhouse performance, and Mancuso’s Macalusso shines more brightly here than in Apocalypse, despite that he never actually appears, being seen only in the VR world and giving addresses on television. Still, there’s not enough here to make up for the poor scripting, inconsistent performances, and overall feeling of cheapness. This movie is only marginally better than Apocalypse in the end, even once you factor in Lewis’s performance. Skip this one.

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Final Thoughts

  •  It’s inconceivable that the Laveys have nothing better to do in this film than spend the entire second half trying to track down one wayward Busey, who isn’t much of a threat. If anything, it only further serves to highlight Tom’s irrelevance to the plot. In Apocalypse, Stone actually had a purpose in the narrative other than to find salvation, since he had the disc that was smuggled to him by the underground; here, it’s Helen who makes the ultimate sacrifice (although she will reappear in Judgment, the final film in the series) in order to get Macalusso’s confession on tape and expose his lies. Tom does nothing to contribute to this plot, as Helen is captured before he even makes contact with the resistance
  • This introduces yet another problem, which is that the ending implies that those with the Mark can somehow overcome their brainwashing, as Macalusso’s television address following the broadcast of his Engineered Public Confession finds him angrily demanding that his flock return to him. Up to this point, those who take the Mark are treated like vampires from Buffy: you are no longer yourself, instead surrendering wholly to a new being that inhabits your body and has your memories but isn’t you. This further cements the fact that this is a body snatcher film, not one about possession.
  • It’s also worth noting that Tom’s escape from the O.N.E.-controlled hospital takes so long that Lavey Prime is notified he has awoken and disappeared but still has time to get to that location before Tom even makes it outside. It’s just one more plotting problem on top of so many that have come before.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond