Dracula. Frankenstein. Wolfman. The Mummy. Santa Claus… That's right. SANTA CLAUS. That jolly old fat man in the fuzzy red suit. His gaze beady as the black coal of a snowman's eyes. Sit on his lap, they tell you. Better be nice. You know what happens to naughty children, don't you..? Yes. Naughty children. Awake in their beds on a cold Christmas Eve. Waiting. Listening. Wondering when the tap tap tap of reindeer hooves will invade from above. Making their way to the chimney. Down the fireplace comes the fat man… Dirty footsteps up the stairs… Past sleeping parents… Into YOUR room. "Merry Christmas", the man will bellow. Drool coagulating on a yellowed beard. "Ho Ho HO!!!!!!!" A stained glove makes its way around your throat, stifling a cry for help. You kick, knocking over a hand painted Quasimodo model, the one Daddy said would rot your mind if you never outgrew. Daddy also made you write that letter to Santa. Made sure you printed your address in bright, bold Crayola red. Red. The color that used to shade this hulking man beast's velvet suit, now worn black from the soot of a thousand visits to ‘naughty' little boys and girls… Naughty. Yes. You remind yourself. That cookie you swiped when mom wasn't looking. The time you asked God to take that bully who slugged you at the schoolyard. You used the "F" word then. Only once… But once must have been enough. Enough to find yourself lifted by this Claus, this Kringle. This leering goon now stuffing you in a bag full of other Naughties… Your brother and sister. Their breathing ceased. A silent night for them for sure. As your head bangs against the stairwell, you muster one last bit of fight, reach out and tug whatever you can--- the bells of a belt wrapped round the widened waist. Expecting flesh, you grasp at feathers. The stuffing of a pillow. It falls, temporarily blinding you. But through the fluff, you see his face. The dime store beard now falling away. Unveiling surprise and anger at being recognized. A surprise which prompts your final gurgle this holy night… DADDY……..
Okay. Okay. Lurid thoughts, I know. Especially at this "most wonderful time of the year". But why should Christmas be exempt from a little shock and roll? It shouldn't, and in fact, it isn't. Great horror often achieves its effect and status when juxtaposed against its most unlikely opposite. What could more opposite of a fright flick than the Yuletide season? And yet… Think back on Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Arguably the greatest ghost story of all time. Scrooge, the 1970 musical version with Albert Finney, had some of the most frightening ghostly visions I had ever seen on screen as a young lad (Funny, I was not allowed to see Count Yorga or Dr. Phibes that year, but there was no problem with me seeing Jacob Marley traipsing round Hell…). Years later, after the influx of 80's holiday horrors (Mother's Day, New Year's Evil, My Bloody Valentine, April Fool's Day, Happy Birthday to Me, Halloween), the most infamous of all 80's slasher flicks would take place on 12/25; Silent Night, Deadly Night. Released in 1983, this flick would inspire me to make my NYU film school senior thesis, A Christmas Treat. Which, I might add humbly, won the Audience Award at the 1985 Fangoria Short Film Search. (Click HERE NOW to watch my little Xmas horror)
But before Christmas Treat, before Deadly Night, before the wonderfully bizarre must see recent holiday horror Rare Exports, hell, even before Halloween, there was a little Canadian horror made in 1975 that, for my money, is the granddaddy of all holiday horrors. That film is Black Christmas. Written and directed by the late, great Bob Clark, who later gave us the warmer side of the season with the classic A Christmas Story (not to mention Porky's), Black Christmas is a film that never got its due in its day, and is only now being recognized for the classic that it truly is. Recently, the Nuart Theater in LA hosted a sold out midnight screening that found its star, JOHN SAXON, in attendance. No stranger to shock and roll (he fought side by side with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and against Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street), John sat down with me for some egg nog and musings on why horror and Christmas often make such a perfect pair…
TIM SULLIVAN: Everyone cites Halloween as the first in the "slasher" genre, but really, it started with Black Christmas. The idea of taking a happy holiday and turning it upside down into a horror movie…. Shooting the murder sequences thru the POV of the killer… The use of young kids in a college setting… It really is the template for 80's slasher films, but also the most mature of that subgenre.
JOHN SAXON: Well, you're more of an archivist on that than I am (laughs)! But, yeah, absolutely. Films like Halloween and When A Stranger Calls seem to have ripped Black Christmas off. But they only were able to do that because Black Christmas was so obscure. "Oh, let's do our version of that." But the film is a classic and it does endure. And I think that's because there were things in the film that were a little bit ahead of the time. The realistic, albeit vulgar way the kids speak. The idea that Olivia Hussey is pregnant and wishes to abort the child. Then you have her guy, Keir Dullea, flipping out about the idea. These were unique elements back then. Also, more importantly, the movie ends with everybody very satisfied that they know who the killer is, and they're all wrong. The killer doesn't get caught. He's out there, and we don't know who or what he is. That kind of ambiguity is most unusual and it really resonates. You know, when Warner Brothers assumed distribution for it, their publicity department immediately said, "We've got to change the title. People are going to think this is about black people at Christmas."
TIM: You gotta be kidding me…
JOHN: So they called it Silent Night, Bloody Night, and they changed the whole ad campaign and it went out late April. At that point, Bob Clark was furious. He vowed to get Warners to change it back to the old title and campaign. And he actually presumed upon them to do that. And it did much better. But it got a lame start.
TIM: What is it about Christmas and horror films? Why do you think they pair so well?
JOHN: Well, you're touching on something that I think is really potent. Christmas time is this thing we all long for, but in fact, as statistics generally confirm, Christmas and New Year's can sometimes become the most sad and sorrowful time in a person's life. If ever you don't have what you want over Christmas, to be with a lover or your family, say you're away in Afghanistan or whatever, it's the goddamned worst. We long for the belief that it's the most warm, wonderful time where everyone's in harmony and caring for one another. But life is never what we want it to be. People get murdered on Christmas. It happens. So the idea of Black Christmas reflects this. It is a dark joke. You know (singing), "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas…" This is a black Chirstmas. And dark black.
TIM: Perhaps that is the key to the film's longevity. Anytime you take what's supposed to be positive and good and turn it upside down, that's when you get some very successful and lasting horror cinema…
JOHN: Yes. The ideas of dealing with intense social issues under the guise of a horror entertainment. I was thinking about that at the screening the other day. want to be scared by a horror movie, but they also want it to relieve them of any real involvement in the matter. So I do think a horror film has to be somewhat disguised.
TIM: Make a toy out of the monster that you can wrap up and put under the Christmas tree and you can't be afraid of him anymore.
JOHN: That's what always bothered me about Freddy. He's supposed to be something fearful but he became a hero, in essence. But maybe the public was never ever convinced he was a bad guy. Maybe that had to do with the marketing, because once Freddy became shtick, he became unscary. And there you see the bones getting exposed of the underlying desire not to fulfill what is potentially serious about what you start with
TIM: The human horrors.
JOHN: Yes. In Black Christmas, there's nothing supernatural about that film. To me, that is an inroad into what I think would be as close as you can get to a real horror film. Something lives in a person if it doesn't see the light of day. If it's not released. And it could live forever. It could be an animosity. It could be hatred. A quest for revenge handed down from generation to generation. If it sees the light of day, meaning exposure, it does what vampires do. They crumble. When I see these horror movies with explosions, CGI, preposterous situations, these slick highways of commercial product, I see something potentially damaging. In reality, as in movies, violence is an expression of the incapacity to deal emotionally with a feeling that is unbearable. What probably is the hardest thing for the world to sell is sorrow. The sorrow of dealing with something of which you can do nothing other than suffer. The culture is so good at hiding sorrow and helping everybody else hide, and inevitably, there's gonna be a fucking emotional explosion. Maybe that's what the "War on Terror" is all about. So the best of the horror films bring these feelings out to the surface in a way that allows us to face our inner darkness so that darkness can crumble rather than explode.
TIM: So what scares you, John?
JOHN: Finding out that something you believe in is not what it appears to be. When I saw Alien, it didn't scare me. It was just a movie about a rat trap. It was a mechanical device. What I'm saying is when there's an investment of human emotion, say trust, then you have the potential for fear that what you trust is not trustworthy. "I may be betrayed". Now THAT is scary. Also, perhaps more importantly, one of the really scary things is when we recognize that our parents are maybe not so smart, not so competent or that they can't protect us. That's what I was going for with my character of Nancy's father in the Elm Street films. Not only are the parents unable to protect the kids from Freddy, indirectly, they created him. They created the monster! So when you have real life horrors like that, Dracula, Freddy or Santa Claws just doesn't cut it. It's got to be dosed out in symbolism and metaphor so that people aren't frightened away from hearing the message. In order to deal with the real horrors, we have to dose them out in horror film metaphors.
So now, speaking of (as worded so eloquently by Mr. Saxon) parental betrayal and the horrors of finding out something you believe in is not as it appears to be and here once again for the holidays, my first ever foray into celluloid mayhem- the NYU student film that won me the Fangoria Fantastic Film Search Audience Award back in 1985---- A Christmas Treat!