Sunday, December 19, 2010

#135. Black Christmas (1974)

Directed By: Bob Clark

Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder

Tag line: "If this movie doesn't make your skin crawl... It's On Too Tight!"

Trivia:  The role of Mrs. Mac, the house mother, was first offered to Bette Davis

While John Carpenter's Halloween is widely regarded as the film that launched the 80's slasher craze, there are a few who feel the sub-genre's roots go back a few more years to another holiday-themed film, director Bob Clark's Black Christmas. Regardless of whether or not this is the case, one indisputable fact remains: Black Christmas is a very creepy, very effective horror film.

Set in the college town of Bedford, a local sorotity house is preparing for the upcoming Christmas break. With most of the girls already gone, the few who remain behind, including Jess (Olivia Hussey), Barb (Margot Kidder) and Phyl (Andrea Martin), do their best to cope with a frightening situation. For the past several days, the sorority has been terrorized by a mysterious caller, who rants uncontrollably about blood and murder. When one of the girls (Lynne Griffin) suddenly disappears, the remaining few go straight to the police, who prove less than helpful until the case is finally turned over to Lt. Fuller (John Saxon). Fuller senses there might be a connection between this disappearance and that of a young girl, which has just been reported, but what he doesn't know is the missing girl is actually still in the house, murdered by a psychotic living in the sorority's attic!

Despite its story of a mysterious killer knocking off young girls one at a time, Black Christmas is not a particularly bloody film. What it is, however, is ultra-suspenseful, and it's the sheer anticipation of the inevitable that makes the kills in Black Christmas seem all the more disturbing. Director Clark builds incredible tension throughout the film, sometimes to an almost-unbearable height. For starters, in the very first scene, he clues us in on one important piece of information: the killer has set up shop right above his potential victims, in the attic of their sorority house.  Just knowing he's there introduces an air of impending doom, which then rests over the entire film. Added to this is the fact that the killer likes to taunt the girls with some obscenely creepy phone calls (which he makes from a separate line in the house), ranging in intensity from mildly perverted to downright chilling. Then there are the point-of-view shots Clark throws in from time to time, during which we're looking through the eyes of the killer. Used as a device to show us where he is in the house, these shots are often distorted, sometimes jarringly so, as if we're not just looking through his eyes, but into his warped psyche as well. All of these elements come together brilliantly, working in unison to transform Black Christmas into one of the most imaginative, and most frightening, films of the 70's. 

As for the debate on which movie actually spawned the slasher frenzy, I don't think you can argue against Carpenter's Halloween being the true antecedent of the sub-genre. While both films do share plot points and structural similarities (young people stalked by a deranged killer, POV shots, etc), one thing Halloween had that Black Christmas did not was a big box-office return, and no film, regardless of how well-made or effective it is, can influence an entire sub-genre unless it's a proven moneymaker. But while Black Christmas may not be the granddaddy of slashers, it still deserves a place alongside Halloween as one of the elite, that rare breed of horror movie that combines shocks and suspense to deliver a truly memorable experience.


Anonymous said...

Watched the original Black Christmas (1974) before last Christmas, and I have to say it was much more enjoyable than the remake which came out a few years ago. The remastered print wasn't the best I'd seen, but it wasn't bad either. The film was scary, had some tense moments and the cast was good as well.

Dave Becker said...

Hello, and thanks for the comment!

I was not a fan of the BLACK CHRISTMAS remake. For me, it didn't hold a candle to the original (and the added back story, while interesting, was pointless). This, despite it's age, is the definitive version of the film.

$nake said...

Hard to believe it's the same guy who directed "A Christmas Story" (another one of my fave Christmas movies.) RIP, Bob Clark.

Dave B. said...

Snake: I know! About as far as you can get on the opposite sides of the Holiday film spectrum!