Now this is what a slasher flick should be and exactly what I always want from the slasher movies these days but never get, hence my huge interest in the older slasher movies from time periods like the 80’s and 90’s. Four years before the unprecedented success of John Carpenter’s landmark American horror film “Halloween” in 1978, there was this little gem from Canada called “Black Christmas,” directed in 1974 by the late Bob Clark, and was arguably the first true slasher film (1974 was also the same year that American filmmaker Tobe Hooper directed the landmark “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”).
“Black Christmas” is an expertly directed horror film, there’s no question about that. The story is incredibly simple, yet stylishly executed. It’s deliberately and excellently paced by Bob Clark, who skillfully injects the film with a wicked sense of dread from the get-go, undercut with some slickly timed dark humor (a lot of which is actually quite hilarious). Said humor is appropriately biting and deserves some well-placed laughs but unlike most movies to mix comedy and horror, “Black Christmas” doesn’t sacrifice one for the other. In other words, what starts out as a serious thriller doesn’t devolve into a mindless, gore-filled slapstick comedy (like “Evil Dead II,” which I love by the way). First and foremost, this is a horror film – a seriously effective and scary one at that.
Upon having watched “Black Christmas,” there’s no doubt in my mind that John Carpenter and company watched this film at least once (and took some very, very good notes) and it most definitely played a hand in influencing the directorial style of “Halloween” (although it’s widely known that Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark 1960 thriller “Psycho” had the most influence on “Halloween”).
What makes “Black Christmas” such an important staple in the horror genre is that a lot of the slasher movie elements that most likely first appeared in this film were later used, and popularized, by “Halloween” just four years later down the road. Most importantly, is the fact that many times throughout the picture, the film is shown from the point-of-view of an unseen killer. We many times see his actions as he goes about the prowl for potential victims, in this case the residents of the Pi Kappa Sig sorority house. We also hear his breathes as he stalks the house sisters, and he is always that unseen-but-always-felt presence in the room, like something horrible is lurking just out of sight in the shadows.
The women of the Pi Kappa Sig house are preparing to leave for the Christmas holidays, but a few – Jess (Olivia Hussey), Barb (Margot Kidder), Phyl (Andrea Martin), and house mother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) – decide to stay behind. However, someone has been making obscene phone calls to the house and scaring the living daylights out of the women. And it isn’t long before the unseen presence begins to systematically eliminate the women in some particularly gruesome and creative ways. It’s up to the police, led by Lt. Fuller (John Saxon), to try to find this psycho before he kills anyone else.
Even though “Black Christmas” does feature some particularly gruesome and shocking scenes of murder and mayhem, it actually contains very little gore (it’s possible that it, like “Halloween,” took a few cues from “Psycho”), the film still works largely through the power of suggestion – like what you don’t see is far more terrifying because your mind allows you to fill in the gaps. Additionally, there’s also a very low body count.
It’s entirely possible that Olivia Hussey was probably the original scream queen, although, like the actress has said herself in interviews included on the 2006 special edition DVD, she actually doesn’t do any screaming in the movie. All the characters in this film are three-dimensional and likable, especially Margot Kidder’s drunken party-girl Barb. She was probably my favorite character. Kidder, who is probably most famous in the cinematic world for her work as Lois Lane in the “Superman” series films – “Superman II” (1980) saw her at her best, in my opinion – gets some of this film’s best lines and also provides some of the best comedic moments. This is another aspect of “Black Christmas” that I find so ingenious: to create so many likable characters so it’s much more tragic when the Unseen Killer begins offing them. It’s just a shame that its many, many like-minded imitators (or even its 2006 remake) over the years didn’t follow the same pattern.
This is one scary fright flick that helped give birth to a new sub-genre of horror, and later influenced “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” (1980) and my favorite slasher flick of all time, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984). It’s also pretty funny, which admittedly, I was unprepared for, and made my appreciation for this film even greater. But make no mistake, the first order of business in “Black Christmas” is horror, and scaring the living daylights out of you, which it does in spades with suspense, easily identifiable and memorable characters , Bob Clark’s sharp direction, and minimal gore. So don’t let its imitators fool you.
I give this one a solid 8/10
Stay tuned for my next review of the Black Christmas Remake!