CULT CORNER: Black Christmas (1974)

The modern slasher movie started here in Bob Clark’s vicious Yuletide chiller. 

Who made it?: Bob Clark (Director/Producer), Roy Moore (Writer),  Film Funding Ltd. of Canada/Vision IV/Canadian Film Development.

Who’s in it?: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman.

Tagline: “Christmas is coming early this year. And it’s murder.”

IMDb rating: 7.1/10.

Time has been kind to Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. On its release, the humble Canadian production was regarded as exploitative filth, and it quickly fell between the low-budget cracks. Yet historians have since recognised it as one of the slasher film’s most influential works. It’s also one of the greatest entries in a genre sneered at by most. Black Christmas is a marvellously well-shot thriller that has survived four decades of plundering by lesser works, and has aged like a fine malt wine. It also functions greatly as bloody Yuletide viewing for those who can’t stand the camp of Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984).

The importance of Black Christmas becomes obvious when you consider the genesis of the slasher film as a sub-genre. Peeping Tom and Psycho (both 1960) had opened the doors to filmic serial killers, a niche that Wes Craven toyed with in The Last House on the Left (1972), and Tobe Hooper perfected in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). The latter, which had taken the grisly neo-horror of Craven’s effort, featured a screen bogeyman in a mask. This soon became the norm, as we know, but I’m not going to give Hooper the credit for fashioning the slasher archetype. Chain Saw wasn’t made to fit into a mould, and it certainly didn’t allow the audience to have fun. Horror cinema was moving out of realist hostility and into the gruesome firework displays of Friday the 13th (1980). Splatter was becoming digestible and mainstream, and 1974’s Black Christmas is the most overlooked entry in that development.

It is also haunted by the worldwide success of Halloween (1978). The revered John Carpenter classic stole liberally from Black Christmas, and many wrongly consider it to be the point when the slasher film came of age. It remains somewhat of a masterpiece, but its adherence to Black Christmas‘ formula is criminal. Put them side-by-side and you’ll be amazed by how Halloween rips off a picture made four years earlier. Both films even begin with the killer’s P.O.V., which Friday the 13th stole from Carpenter who had stolen it from Clark (funny how that works, isn’t it?). Both films also focus on unwitting, virginal (for the most part) teenagers who are picked off one-by-one by a madman who might as well be the devil’s offspring. The fiend here has no supernatural slant like Michael Myers, however, making it all the creepier. For much of its running time, Black Christmas feels authentic without becoming gruelling, remaining entertaining in spite of its grisly genre credentials. That’s a real feat.

Reportedly, Roy Moore’s screenplay was based on a series of murders in Quebec around the holiday season, making the now-generic plot somewhat forgivable. In a small town that is never named, a sorority house is terrorised by a “prank” caller on Christmas Eve. The collegiate targets include Jess (Olivia Hussey) and Barb (Margot Kidder), who slowly realise that a killer is stalking them. Little do they know that the calls are coming from inside the house…

As fashioned by director Clark, who went on to make teen sex “classic” Porky’s, Black Christmas is riveting from the get-go. Before we even meet our protagonists, we are observing them from the psycho’s perspective, giving the material a voyeuristic nastiness that Peeping Tom could only dream of. The feeling of dread is only exacerbated by the first telephone call from the killer, which effectively cools the blood. The murderers from the Scream franchise could learn a thing or two from the self-proclaimed Billy, who uses the “C” word like its going out of style and exhibits a frightening case of multiple-personality disorder.

The kills are realistic and chilling, beginning with the famed suffocation, which gets the horror off to a bold start. Like Halloween, there is also a pleasing lack of gore. Shocks come from careful camera composition and the effective music by Carl Zittrer. We know the killer can pop out of a dark spot at any moment, giving each scene a tension that most slasher films lack. It’s just a matter of time before Jess, the film’s prototypical heroine, comes face-to-face with the murderous Scrooge. Like any self-respecting genre film, Black Christmas is also a guessing game as to who the killer might be. There are a few red herrings, including Jess’ neurotic boyfriend Peter (2001‘s Keir Dullea), keeping the bare bones plot ticking along.

We ultimately persevere with the clichés because the film is blessed with above-average performances. The well-spoken Hussey (known to millions of schoolboys for her assets in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet) is an atypically strong lead who succeeds in being likeable as well as convincingly terrified. It’s hard not to notice the seeds of Laurie Strode and Sidney Prescott in Jess. She is also supported ably by the future Lois Lane, Kidder, who manages to wring a great deal of humour from her scenes as the sorority’s token slut. There’s also their housemother, Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman), who is constantly drinking from bottles scattered around the sorority, and the great John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street) as a police lieutenant alerted to the house’s missing residents. Black Christmas is a well-cast picture across the board.

Clark’s film isn’t perfect by any means, weakened by a slack pace in the midsection and a conclusion that is a bit too tidy, but it pushes all the right buttons. Black Christmas manages to be fun and disturbing in equal measure, making it the creme de la creme of Yuletide horror. It’s certainly hard to believe that it was produced by the same man who made A Christmas Story almost ten years later…

Best Scene

I’ll take telesalesmen over this guy any day.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • When NBC showed the film during prime time (under the title “Stranger in the House”), it was deemed ‘too scary’ for network television and was pulled off the air.
  • According to Bob Clark, there were three voices used for the frightening phone calls, including actor Nick Mancuso, an unnamed actress, and himself.
  • Keir Dullea worked only for a week on this film, never meeting Margot Kidder and barely meeting John Saxon, but the film is edited in such a way that he appears to be present throughout. The role of Peter was originally offered to Malcolm McDowell, but he turned it down.
  • In 1986, Olivia Hussey met producers for the film Roxanne, since they were interested in casting her for the title role. Co-star Steve Martin met her and said “Oh my God, Olivia, you were in one of my all time favourite films.” Thinking it was Romeo and Juliet, Olivia was surprised to find out it was actually Black Christmas. Martin claimed he had seen it over twenty times.
  • Cinematographer Albert J. Dunk created Billy’s P.O.V. shots by rigging up a camera harness that would mount the camera on his shoulder as he walked about the house and climbed the trellis and attic ladder himself.
  • The film was shot in 40 days.
  • A remake directed by Glen Morgan was released in 2006. It sucks.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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