Black Christmas (1974)

Posted: August 8, 2013 in Favorite Films
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50. Black Christmas (1974)

Director: Bob Clark

Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin

It’s extraordinary to think that the same man who brought us “A Christmas Story,” the 1983 comedy classic which gets its own annual 24-hour marathon on December 25th, can also be thought of as responsible for kick starting that most divisive of horror subgenres, the slasher movie. Indeed, it is debatable as to which movie can truly seen as being the pioneer for these types of films. Elements of the slasher can be traced back as early as 1932’s “Thirteen Women” which is set in a sorority house. 1960’s “Psycho” and “Peeping Tom” gave us shocking murder sequences and the POV shot from the killer’s perspective. The films of Herschel Gordon Lewis were our first real taste of horror movies with a more blood-soaked approach. In 1971, Mario Bava’s “Twitch of the Death Nerve” was one of the earliest “body count” movies, and several of its shocking murder sequences were copied shot for shot by some of the most popular slasher films of the 1980’s. But it was 1974’s “Black Christmas” which first took the elements provided by these earlier films and put them all together.

As the movie begins, right away you can see where John Carpenter got his inspiration for HIS opening shot of 1978’s “Halloween,” with the POV shot of the killer making his way into the sorority house. Inside, the sorority sisters are all making their holiday plans, either to stay at the house or to return home to their families. At the same time, they are besieged with obscene phone calls. Jess (Olivia Hussey) is the one who usually takes the calls from the one she refers to as “the moaner.” Olivia Hussey puts her Shakespearean method of overacting on full display when performing such a simple task as answering the phone (“HELLO! PARDON?! WHO?!”). After sharing one such call with her fellow sorority sisters, Jess surrenders the phone to Barb (Margot Kidder) who tells the creep off… and he doesn’t take too kindly to her insults.

Soon after, one of the sorority sisters goes missing, having been killed in her room and propped up in a chair in the attic, thus creating the film’s most iconic image. The girl’s father eventually comes looking for her when she fails to meet with him. Once at the house, he is horrified by the drinking, foul language and obscene posters on the walls. The House Mother (hilariously portrayed by Marian Waldman) plays it cool in front of the missing girl’s father, but makes fun of his prudish ways behind his back as she gleefully drinks from several bottles of alcohol hidden around the house. They go to the police who, after an amusing misunderstanding between Barb and the dimwitted Sargeant, finally get a hold of Lt. Fuller (John Saxon, ten years before once again playing a police lieutenant in “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) who sets up a wiretap so they can trace the obscene phone calls. Remember, no cell phones back then.

At the same time that the body count at the sorority house continues to mount, Jess is caught up in an increasingly heated argument with her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea), one that the police eventually get wind of, and Peter becomes the prime suspect. Before long, Jess is left to fend for herself without help from anyone, even the police.

The ending is ambiguous… as it should be. I applaud Bob Clark for taking this direction, as the scariest of monsters are humans whose motives, if they have any, remain unclear. John Carpenter would take this to heart, as Michael Myers was initially stalking babysitters for no apparent reason in “Halloween” before the sequels gave him reasons for his bloody rampage. In fact, a conversation between Clark and Carpenter once took place in which Carpenter asked if Clark had planned a sequel to “Black Christmas.” Although Clark had no plans to make one himself, he told Carpenter that he thought a potential sequel might take place on October 31st, with the killer being an escaped mental patient. In this way, it can be inferred that without “Black Christmas” there would be no “Halloween” and, as a result, no slasher genre either.

Gore fans will be disappointed, as the movie is virtually bloodless, but fans of atmospheric and psychological horror should tune in. The cast is excellent for a slasher movie. Margot Kidder is a standout. Olivia Hussey, who was possibly the most beautiful actress in the world in 1974, is also the PERFECT “final girl.” Her best moments are towards the end of the movie as she finds herself alone and vulnerable inside the sorority house. Many will watch Bob Clark’s other Christmas-themed movie over the December holiday season, but “Black Christmas” is an essential part of my regular Christmas movie rotation. You should definitely give this one a watch, if for no other reason than its importance in film history.

  1. Ian says:

    Awesome Chuck! Very well written! Can’t wait for the next one!!!!!

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