Black Christmas (1974)
Directed by: Bob Clark
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, James Edmond, Doug McGrath
1/2 (out of 4)
The antithesis of Michael Curtiz’ White Christmas, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas has a few firsts in it (as far as I can tell). It’s the first Christmas horror film (I think) and the first modern slasher film (predating Halloween by four years). What about Bay of Blood, you ask? Well, I guess you could make that point, but Black Christmas is so very different in tone from Mario Bava’s picture. To start with, there is tremendous restraint on the gore and great attention is paid to establishing an atmosphere of general creepiness that hangs over the whole thing. Bay of Blood could be considered a major influence on 80s slasher cinema (like Friday the 13th) but Black Christmas influenced 70s slasher cinema, specifically John Carpenter’s Halloween (with the killer-in-the-house and killer-point-of-view motifs) and Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls (a film that blatantly rips off a huge plot point).
The plot is simple: just before Christmas break, girls at a Canadian sorority house start receiving menacing phone calls from a psycho killer who stalks them. When one of the girls disappears, they contact the police, who don’t seem to express much concern. Meanwhile, our main character Jess (Olivia Hussey) is planning to get an abortion, but her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea – yes, Dave Bowman), a somewhat unbalanced music student, is very much against it. While Silent Night Deadly Night used Christmas and Santa Claus as a gimmick, Black Christmas is deadly serious about its holiday proceedings. Snow falls heavily, darkness sneaks in from around every corner, the the use of the old sorority house with low-light sources allows a pervading dread. The claustrophobia of the movie is accompanied by great performances, especially by Margot Kidder (who plays a fun drunk while looking sexy) and John Saxon (a believable police detective – this role probably helped get him A Nightmare on Elm Street).
Black Christmas has recently been remade (as every movie is destined to be, these days) and is to open on Christmas Day, 2006. My guess is that it will betray its origins in crappy modern horror, especially when it comes to handholding the audience. The original Black Christmas gives no explanations for its killer, save for a few snippets of obscene dialogue which gives us clues that his name is Billy, and that somebody named Agnes is involved. In fact, we hardly even get to see what Billy looks like, although a brief flash suggests that he looks like Peter. By the end, it is obvious whether Peter is the killer or not, and that revelation is the key to a parting shot that lingers long after the credits have rolled. A model of restraint and focus, Black Christmas shows us that even during the joyous holidays, bad things are happening. Required viewing for horror fans and Holiday Scrooges.
- Bill Gordon
PS: Yes, Bob Clark gave us that other fun holiday movie – A Christmas Story.