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Thursday, December 17, 2020

A Slasher Classic in Print: Unwrapping the ‘Black Christmas’ Novelization

Over the course of time, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas has become a quintessential holiday horror movie. A chilly atmosphere, an efficacious use of the killer’s perspective, and agreeable characters are just some of the reasons why this 1974 proto-slasher is now a yuletide tradition. Roy Moore’s outstanding and oftentimes rattling script can’t be forgotten, either; the writing is largely why this is such a distinct and indelible movie. While most of that ingenious screenplay made it into the final product, certain parts were left out in the cold for one reason or another. 

It used to be and to a lesser extent, still is custom for movies to receive a tie-in novelization. Their past popularity specifically refers to a time before the emergence of home video, but eventually, they became integral to a movie’s marketing. In the case of Lee Hays Black Christmas, Popular Library issued the paperback in 1976 long before a VHS release was available. So, if you wanted to relive the dreadful events that transpired at Phi Kappa Sigma one fateful Christmas Eve, either this mass-market book or random TV airings were your best options back then.

Something readers appreciate about these novelizations is the potential inclusion of “new” material that isn’t in the movie. This is standard practice for these books, but some writers go beyond the call of duty when padding out or expanding the story. Black Christmas is regretfully not one of those cases as it follows the course of the film rather faithfully; it doesn’t even break 200 pages. At the very least, it’s a breezy read that neatly sums up everything without straying too far from its cinematic counterpart. Much like the movie it supplements, Hays’ novelization follows a sorority house coming under attack by an unseen intruder around the holidays. Because it follows Moore’s screenplay (originally called “Stop Me”) as opposed to what unfolds on screen, there are minor yet notable differences between the movie and the book.

Hays introduces the infamous sorority house with a smidge more backstory; he mentions the previous owners “provided fresh paint each year and inside the walls, chandeliers, furniture and rugs had been immaculate, fashionable and even faintly suggestive of ostentation.” That’s a far cry from the domicile’s current state. Still, the festive lights add enough artifice to offset that sad fact as well as emphasize the story’s general theme of something ugly creeping out from underneath. Like in the movie, it doesn’t take long before the uninvited guest makes his presence known to the holiday stragglers. Black Christmas fans generally agree the killer’s first heard call is his most disturbed and unhinged, but the book (much like the screenplay) doesn’t explicitly detail what he says that makes the women so scared now after being amused by his past messages. Instead, Hays describes it as “a stream of invectives, so graphic and so vulgar that even Barbara was nonplussed.” Nevertheless, he ends the call with that iconic and straightforward threat of “I’m going to kill you.”

Adding unused lines from the script fleshes out the prominent supporting characters of Barb (Barbara Pollard in the book) and Mrs. (Maude) MacHenry. The latter is that colorful housemother who hides booze in not-so-secret places like toilet tanks and hollowed-out books. While Marian Waldman provides a fair share of the movie’s humor and sight gags, we get a greater sense of her eccentric character’s affection for Jess and the others in the novel. Based on the movie alone, we already realize this as Mrs. MacHenry goes to great lengths to hide the more questionable content in the sorority house when showing Clare’s prudish father Mr. Harrison around. In the book, more about her past as a “third-rate vaudeville act” with her sister Myrtle is brought up; the duo steadily worked “before motion pictures successfully retired them.” Interestingly, Hays referred to Myrtle as deceased, so it’s unclear if Maude has another sister she’s spending Christmas with, or she has some other macabre holiday plans in mind. 

Later on, Phyl asks Mrs. MacHenry to look in on an inebriated Barb before she and the others vacate the house. This scene is never shown in the movie, but Hays lifts it from Moore’s screenplay in detail. As she struggles to change her fellow drunkard’s clothes, Mrs. Mac has a lengthy conversation with herself: “Hardly in the line of duty, undressing drunken broads. I must be the best goddamn house mother on campus. Come on, you little bitch, roll over.” Mrs. Mac’s ire doesn’t end there as she starts to go on about her (dead?) sister: “Boy, I should have been smart like my sister. She snored. But she married a man with money. Smart girl. Didn’t let him find that out, that she snored, until after she hooked him.” Her monologue suggests bitterness, but we know better as Mrs. Mac tells Barb, “It’s okay, honey. Mrs. Mac is here. She’ll take care of you.

An upsetting personal call immediately endears audiences to Barb, whose initial excitement about spending Christmas with her mother diminishes before us in real time. She quickly recovers by asking Jess and Phyl to go skiing during the break; the house’s resident goody two shoes Clare succinctly declines her invitation with a “No thanks, Barb, I made some other plans” in the movie. Yet in the novelization, Clare thoroughly explains herself so much that Barb can’t help but resent her. The mention of how Clare’s family wants to spend all two weeks with her just rubs Barb the wrong way and she later lashes out at both Clare and her father. Again, that’s evident in the movie; so is an incredibly humanizing bit where Barb blames herself for Clare’s disappearance after boozily trying to scandalize Mr. Harrison at supper. It’s a stunning turn in tone all thanks to Margot Kidder‘s astounding performance.

In the film, that dinner scene is the last we hear of Barb other than her telling Jess, while recovering in bed upstairs, she thought she saw someone in her room. What the novelization reinserts is Barb, through sincere tears, insightfully confessing, “God, sometimes I really wonder what I’m doing, what the hell I’m trying to prove. I don’t know why I act like that. The girls here are the only family I’ve ever really had and all I do is drive them away. Always some loud-mouth, smart-ass remark, and usually dirty, too.” Jess tries to coax Barb, but her friend continues this rare occurrence of genuine remorse: “You think I don’t know why you said you’d go skiing with me? You knew I was going to be alone for most of the holidays. So you said… And just because Clare wouldn’t, or couldn’t. Why do I always drive people away? That’s not what I want to do.” It’s a very heartbreaking admission that only makes her eventual death even harder to experience.

Where Hays diverges from the script is Jess’ pregnancy; he creates dialogue unique to the novelization. When Olivia Hussey‘s character goes to tell boyfriend Peter Smythe the news, their argument is far more detailed and heated. Peter repeatedly communicates his disapproval regarding Jess’ plans for an abortion by saying such flagrant statements as: “For God’s sake, Jess! I’m willing to have it. I want it. This is like some absurd futuristic movie where the man wants the baby and the woman doesn’t. We’re the ones who are supposed to suggest abortion while the woman weeps softly in the corner.” Their argument only becomes more intense when Peter shows up at the house in hopes of changing Jess’ mind. Unwavering, though, Jess maintains her stance, which isn’t easy considering Peter’s acerbic condemnation of her choice (“Merry Christmas. How do you like your present? A dead fetus.”) and her aspirations. In light of 1973’s landmark ruling of Roe v. Wade, hearing Jess openly proclaim she’s having an abortion — without the use of euphemisms, mind you — remains an important bit in both the history of cinema and women’s rights. Moore is rather compassionate towards Jess’ predicament, whereas Hays is more inclined to voice Peter’s case so acrimoniously.

The death scenes are, more or less, depicted as they are in the screenplay. We know Barb is stabbed by her unicorn figurine in the movie, whereas Hays uses a knife. And Andrea Martin’s Phyl, who was ultimately killed off screen, runs into Billy as she enters Barb’s room. Bob Clark expressed his dismay over Mrs. Mac’s killing in the movie; he wanted to have her only get knocked out by the grappling hook. Instead, it looks as if she was caught by and then hoisted up by the hook. In the book, though, Billy captures and hangs Mrs. Mac with just a noose. Other renowned moments are lost in the novelization, notably when Jess discovers Barb and Phyl’s corpses and spots the assailant behind the bedroom door. That frightful shot of the killer’s isolated eye peeking through the crack in the door is replaced by him merely staring at Jess from the closet. In addition, there is no startling yank of Jess’ hair.

The misspelling of names — on occasion, Jess’ last name is Bradley rather than Bradford, and “MacHenry” is spelled as “McHenry” at one point — is a source of amusement if you love literary goofs. Something else Hays could have fixed had he been advised to or was simply more alert is also an instance of discontinuity in the movie that viewers might have missed. In the particular scene, Phyl brings home John Saxon‘s Lieutenant Ken Fuller and another officer to bug the phone. What’s wrong is Jess and Fuller being introduced to one another regardless of the fact they already met at the police station. And like so many of us, Hays didn’t catch that mistake.

The 2006 remake came under fire because it added an excessive origin story for the antagonist Billy. Then there are certain viewers who dislike the sheer lack of clarification over his homicidal motives in the original movie. Clark keeps the killer in the dark as much as possible; that intentional vagueness is why his actions are so terrifying to so many people. Even so, we get a hint of Billy’s past when he cries “Where did you put the baby Agnes?” and “Don’t you tell what we did, Agnes!” in the movie. What seems like throwaway lines is truly crucial to Billy’s madness, something more visible in the novelization. Hays spells out Billy’s incoherent thoughts with more frequency and awareness in internal ramblings like: “Please don’t tell. Agnes? Promise now. I won’t do it again. I just didn’t know. I wanted to. There now, don’t worry. It didn’t hurt. There’s no need to be upset. Don’t tell, Agnes. I won’t do it again. I couldn’t help myself, but it wouldn’t be fair for you to tell.

The author starts to penetrate Billy’s unstable psyche and his need to be caught (“Oh, God! Stop me! Please! Please stop me!“), but he also never explicitly puts into words what triggered that rage. He upholds enough of the same ambiguity that makes the ‘74 Black Christmas so absolutely disconcerting. Glen Morgan’s lurid depiction of the villain’s formative traumas in his remake divides people, but knowing what we know based on the source material and Hays’ extension, his curiosity makes sense.

Like any novelization, Hays’ Black Christmas doesn’t replace the movie in spite of convincing writing and sporadically clever descriptions. The book restores missing bits and pieces of the screenplay, fattens up characterization, and gives some indication of the madman’s history. A solid appreciation of the film will greatly improve chances of enjoyment when reading, too. While this out-of-print novel isn’t easy to come by, it randomly pops up on sites like eBay; only avid collectors will likely pay the steep price, though.

For everyone else, Bob Clark’s seminal movie — easily the overall superior adaptation of Roy Moore’s singular script should cover any need for an extraordinarily dark tale about a Christmas of another color.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/books/3645326/slasher-classic-print-unwrapping-black-christmas-novelization/

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