BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
While I still believe it was the success and impact of John Carpenter’s Halloween that was responsible for the 80s slasher film era, it may very well be this holiday themed Canadian horror flick that came out 4 years earlier, that is responsible for inspiring Carpenter’s classic… though it has never been acknowledged, there has been talk of it inspiring the Halloween producers to make a horror of their own, and Bob Clark has made comments that Carpenter was a fan of his film. We may never really know. As it is, Black Christmas is perhaps the first horror to use what is recognized as the modern slasher film formula by presenting us with a serial killer stalking and killing the members of a sorority house during the Christmas holiday. With most of the girls away on vacation, those remaining at the Pi Kappa Sig sorority start getting obscene phone calls from some unknown but obviously deranged individual. Also unknown to them but, made fully aware to the audience, is that this individual is actually in the house and one by one he starts to gruesomely claim his victims. Will any of the young women of Pi Kappa Sig survive?
Directed by A Christmas Story’s Bob Clark, Black Christmas is a stylish and sometimes very creepy little horror that has earned its place as an inspirational film and a horror classic. It’s not a personal favorite, as certain aspects of the movie don’t quite click with me but, there is also much that does. Clark makes really good use of some very unsettling POV shots of the killer entering the house and then stalking his victims. He also has the killer using inventive ways to dispatch his victims which would become a trademark element of slashers to follow. The film has a really nice visual style as lensed by Reginald H. Morris… it sometimes evoked the style of Dario Argento’s more classic work, thought it predates his breakout film Suspiria by 3 years… and oddly one can see where the look of Clark’s other Christmas classic evolved from. Clark gives the film a moderate pace and takes his time between the bloody killings, the best of which involving a glass unicorn… one of the Argento-ish scenes I was referring to… but, does maintain the atmosphere of dread throughout. What takes this film down a few notches for me is that the killer’s phone calls with their multiple voices and bizarre rambling, in my opinion, are more silly than scary as are some lighter toned sequences peppered throughout, that seem to shadow the offbeat humor that would make the adventures of Ralphie and family such a delight. There are those who aren’t bothered by some of these borderline silly sequences, but I find them a little jarring in the context of the more serious and unnerving tone of the rest of the film. I also think it’s hard to swallow that with people gone missing and later in the film when the police realize the killer was in the house, that at no point does anyone ever search the attic. Not buying it. But credit where credit is due, Clark really brings it home in the goose-bump inducing last act and we get an ending that… much like Halloween years later… makes us look over our shoulder after the film is over.
The acting is a mixed bag. Lead Olivia Hussey is a little wooden at times and despite that fact that we should like her, she comes across as very cold in a subplot involving getting pregnant by her musician boyfriend (Keir Dullea). And while on the subject of Dullea, his Peter is a little ‘off’ but since he becomes a suspect, that was probably intentional. Future ‘Lois Lane’ Margot Kidder plays the feisty bitch Barb with some gusto but while it appeared she would be the lead, the focus shifts off her to Hussey’s Jess who becomes our main character. We also have SCTV vet Andrea Martin as one of the sorority girls and genre legend John Saxon, who is solid as always, as the cop investigating the case, Lt. Fuller. Rounding out the leads is Art Hindle as the boyfriend of missing girl Clare (Lynne Griffin), whose character Chris fades in and out of the story and wears one of the most obnoxious and out of place fur coats seen in movies.
So, the film is a classic and I certainly agree, especially as it may be the first true modern slasher… Peeping Tom and Psycho are highly recognized as ancestors to what we refer to as the slasher film and certainly were inspirations to some now legendary horror film directors who emerged in the 70s and 80s. It may not be a favorite of mine but, I give it the respect it deserves and am thankful for many of the films it helped inspire. Another must watch for those later generation slasher fans who aren’t yet familiar with it and are interested in how this sub-genre evolved.
Rated 3 (out of 4) Christmas trees.