Saturday, October 22, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #13 - Billy

Black Christmas is, famously, one of the films that set the template for slasher movies. While great directors like John Carpenter built upon the techniques director Bob Clark uses here - scenes shot from the killer's POV, a Ten Little Indians-style story structure in an isolated setting, the use of a holiday as ironic backdrop - and other, less creative filmmakers simply imitated them, what's remarkable is how fresh Black Christmas still feels. The characters, young women living in a sorority house, are well-drawn and sympathetic; we feel they have lives outside of waiting to get killed in a horror movie (I'm partial to Margot Kidder as the boozy, raunchy Barb). The house itself is a marvelously gothic location, the lighting is cold and ominous, the (often handheld) camerawork and editing and atonal score work to keep us on edge. And Clark does an excellent job of creating a menacing atmosphere from the chilly underside of the holiday; Christmas carolers have never sounded so grim.

The prototypical slasher here is "Billy," a maniac who has been making obscene calls to the sorority sisters for some time and, as we see in the opening scene, is actually hiding in the attic. I'm not sure if this is the first movie to play on the old "the calls are coming from inside the house" story, but it predates When a Stranger Calls and it's certainly the best variation on that old campfire tales. We learn little about Billy during the movie; from his calls, we hear fragments of Billy adapting the voice of "Agnes" and other family members, wanting to know what happened with "the baby" - the clues we're given are more frightening because they remain unanswered (actually, there's a lot of Billy in Session 9's Mary Hobbes). And we barely see Billy, save for a few terrifying close-ups of his eye. He remains a complete mystery to us, even as the end credits roll; as Carpenter and other directors would later grasp, the scariest monsters are often the ones that remain beyond our comprehension.

Speaking of incomprehensible, Bob Clark's career went on to include A Christmas Story (where the only monster is Scott Farkus), Porky's I and II, the Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton vehicle Rhinestone (the only film he made that is scarier than Black Christmas) and Baby Geniuses 1 and 2 (scratch that last parenthetical remark). At least Clark, who died in a car accident a few years back, will forever have two Christmas-themed classics to his name. I haven't seen the Black Christmas remake; reading about the plot on Wikipedia, apparently Billy is given an elaborate back story that is, in part, about his being abused by his mother due to his severe jaundice. Yeah, that's clearly what the original lacked.

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