Black Christmas (1974)

Author: Josh G.
Submitted by: Josh G.   Date : 2008-12-22 13:34

Directed by: Bob Clark
Written by: Roy Moore
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, John Saxon, Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin

Reviewed by: Josh G.

‘If this movie doesn’t make your skin’s on too tight!’

It’s a movie now recognized as a Canadian horror classic… Black Christmas. It was a profitable hit in Canada, but fortune changed quickly when it was released in the United States. The film underwent a title switch because filmmakers didn’t want it to be confused with the numerous blaxploitation films that were becoming a habit. Thus, the studio that distributed it in the states gave it the much less interesting title, “Silent Night, Evil Night”. It performed poorly at the box office and critics were less than forgiving. With a cast of then unknowns, direction from the man who would later bring us Little Ralphie and his Red Rider BB gun in A Christmas Story, and an inferior remake, this suspense chiller is often (but not often enough) credited as being the premature birth of the slasher genre. Others may argue that Mario Bava’s gore-soaked cult film Twitch of the Death Nerve from 1971 is the true origin of the sub-genre as we know it or that 1960’s Psycho, though low in kills, has that specific feel that a slasher should have; remember Silent Night, Bloody Night of the same year has many similarities. It’s not quite clear who started these slew of movies. 1978’s Halloween usually takes the credit, but didn’t more knock-offs come in the wake of Friday the 13th? Whatever the case, Black Christmas is a masterpiece of cinema.

Somebody approaches a sorority house. Someone dark. He’s watching the decorated house, where the drunken sorority sisters and their boyfriends are having a little fun before the holidays. The figure moves up the side ladder, crawling through to the attic window of the house — no one is the wiser. A phone rings downstairs. It’s him again! The moaner! All the girls, including key characters Clare (Lynne Griffin), Jessica (Olivia Hussey), Barb (Superman’s Margot Kidder) and Phyllis (Andrea Martin) are listening in. The caller is intense, holding nothing back. In an eerie, distorted falsetto voice, he calls the girls “Pigs” and threatens to “lick [their] pretty piggy cunt[s].” After being challenged by one of the girls, he ends the call with a simple, monotone threat (as if using his regular voice: “I’m going to kill you.” But how could it be one person? There were so many voices! Who was that pervert? Clare walks up the stairs to her room to pack. She is going away with her father for the Christmas holiday. Little does she know, somebody is watching her in her room, and she’s about to die. The dark figure places her corpse in the attic’s rocking chair, where she remains unnoticed in the large window, suffocated by a plastic bag.

Thus, the wheels are in motion for one of the all-time great slasher movie mysteries. We’re soon introduced to more characters, as Billy dispatches more victims (accompanying each kill with another bizarre phone call full of threats). The police are called in (portrayed by Douglas McGrath of Porky’s and genre vet John Saxon). The mystery deepens further when Jessica meets up with her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea), an aspiring pianist who is happy to learn that Jessica is pregnant. Only, he becomes enraged once he finds out her intention to have an abortion. Later, the killer uses the abortion talk in another unnerving phone threat. Will Jessica and her friends survive the holidays, or is this a killer that is never to be caught?

Character development sets this one apart from other slasher films. Olivia Hussey is angelic as the film’s resident Scream Queen. Her character, Jessica, is thinking about having an abortion; she's definitely not your modern day leading lady for a slasher film, which usually involves someone pure at heart, innocent and virginal. These troubles that Jessica goes through add depth to her character, making her impossible not to like and adding the reality of character flaws to the whole picture. Her scream while running down the stairs of the sorority house is fantastical! Barb, the drunk, is rude and ignorant, and still, she is the life of the party. There’s no one in this film that you hate to watch, because they all bring a little something special to the dinner table. Black Christmas is very well written and is a riot too. The house mother tries to be a good example for the girls by never having a drink in front of them. Instead, she hides her booze all around the house – in the ‘B’ encyclopedia, in the hamper and even in the toilet tank. It’s madness, I tell you! She even mouthwashes with the stuff! Comic gold. But don’t get the wrong impression. The comedy is dark and doesn’t detract from the horror at all. This movie is straight up evil here.

Black Christmas affected me greatly as a younger horror fan. It was one of the first films that I watched (or, at the time, half watched) that truly went above and beyond coarse language. I had no clue of the vulgar expression “piggy cunt” at the time of watching one Christmas Eve years ago, but I definitely knew what attitude the angry man dressed up as Santa at the sorority house was portraying when he said “Ho, ho, ho, fuck!”...“Ho, ho, ho, shit!” I didn’t understand the ‘fellatio’ scene either. My, how far my knowledge has grown from my innocent childhood. Black Christmas has a way of cutting down your high festive spirit by taking you to a place of silly real life horrific occurrences, and invading the good fuzzy feelings with the violent deaths of its townspeople, which is one of the reasons why it stays with you until far beyond the end. For all the holiday films out there that feature miracles and fantastical magical events, this movie could really happen.

As a kid, growing up with the memory of Black Christmas, I’d remember specific scenes quite clearly. The killer upstairs enters one of the girls' rooms, picks up her glass unicorn, and plunges it into her body viciously, mixed with clips of a band of child carollers singing in high voices. The mix of creepy children’s voices with the dark murder in the upstairs room makes for one of the best kills in any horror film. You don’t see the horn stab her, but you hear the impalement, and you hear her wail. It’s ghastly in the spirit of Christmas. It takes a lot to scare me, but the scenes in the movie have such a crazed, grim and atmospheric punch to them. Adding in constant slow panning around the bright orange and dark brown framed house, you feel like this is a home anybody could live in. At the same time, you have this unexplainable reaction to the screen. You know something dark and sinister has entered this house, and you feed off of what the killer is thinking by the human-like way Black Christmas moves down the halls and up to the attic.

Music, much like Halloween, is just as important of a factor as any horror classic. Perhaps it has to do with Peter, Jessica’s boyfriend, being a pianist, that the scoring is a low and aggressive piano set. It’s the part of the film that makes your creep bone crawl. Jessica receives a phone call from the killer, who shouts out “Billy!” “Agnes!” “What your mother and I must know is...” and other disturbing, seemingly meaningless quotes. His voice is dark, almost demonic, and uses multiple high and low tones that sometimes overlap each other. The question often comes up of whether or not the killer, now called “Billy”, is possessed, or just very talented at what he does. The 2006 remake of Black Christmas, sometimes called Black X-Mas, tries to answer every single question of what “Billy” is saying in the original, and explain his background. To do so kind of destroys the purpose of Bob Clark’s film, as the scariest aspect of Black Christmas is all of the things that you don’t know. We like to wonder who the killer is? What is his motive? Where did he come from? Do we know him already? Why does he speak in these weird voices? The film gives us just enough information and clues to chew on without providing concrete answers. This allows the film to linger in our minds as we try to figure out what our own opinions are as to its many mysteries. It’s all in the mind, which is where the best creativity can come from. Who was Billy? I have my theory, and I’m sure upon viewing the film, you too will have yours.

Black Christmas was made before the many clichés of the slasher genre became the norm, and has impacted American slashers like few others. Halloween has the mystery of who the killer is nearly down pat (remember, a lot wasn’t revealed until Halloween II); it was a holiday horror with a stalker and anonymous phone callers. When a Stranger Calls from 1979 took the nerve smashing concept from Black Christmas and used it for the opening act, in which “the calls are coming from inside the house.” Many slasher films to follow would use Black Christmas’ “Is that you?” line when a character would wonder who is lurking about behind a shed or in another room. Today, the creepy caller often gets spoofed (Student Bodies) or updated in the form of a less effective cell phone (Scream). This Canadian terror has unknowingly influenced so many artistic gems that it feels like a crime that it is rarely seen as the powerhouse it deserves to be acknowledged as. No doubt, if Bob Clark could’ve copyrighted the slasher movie concepts and clichés that he created, he would’ve left this world a much wealthier man.

Halloween and Black Christmas are often compared with each other, so I thought it would be best to do it at Oh, The Horror! as well. Acting from both is above average. Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween takes the cake over Olivia Hussey as an actress, but scream-wise and looks, Olivia feels more relatable and real. Scoring for both is amazing. Halloween's score suggests unrelenting suspense. It’s eerie and probably the main success of the film. Black Christmas works just as well at being moody and atmospheric, using aggressive piano strings. It’s hands down the more vicious of the two scores. Annie from Halloween is a mean one, but she, like everybody else, has an exciting quality. Black Christmas, as mentioned, is full of problematic characters whose lives just don’t work out the greatest for them, but they are more entertaining by a longshot. Michael Myers, the killer in Halloween, is a definitive ‘shape’ with a mask to shriek from. Billy in Black Christmas is hardly seen at all. All we know of him is that he has shoulder length hair, wears a denim jacket, and mutters shocking, unpredictable lines. This works out even better. Unlike Myers, he doesn’t feel human, and is undoubtedly unstable. The kills, no contest, are better and more effective in Black Christmas. The atmosphere, which really depends on the viewer, is stronger in Christmas land, where decor is to an excess, and the holly jolly spirit is everywhere. Halloween has a nice fall feeling, but it doesn’t try as hard, or work as an end result as Black Christmas. Both are exceptionally well made, though neither are perfect. However, both can and should be enjoyed to their fullest. Coming to a close, it’s Black Christmas who comes out the stronger film, but that’s not written in stone. Yes, because Halloween has had a part in evolving the genre as well, and such classics like Black Christmas and Halloween should not constantly be rivaled, but experienced together as a wonderful force of ultimate horror achievements.

Black Christmas isn’t your typical slasher, yet in a way, it is the ultimate typical slasher. This tense showing has a few subplots which make it stand out in the crowd, offering wrapped up presents of imagination to the genre that is loved by so many. Even so, it's simple (like Halloween) and doesn't require any additions to make it stronger. The scene where Billy looks at Olivia Hussey through the crack between the doors is a stunner, as is all that comes in Black Christmas. It’s the best Christmas horror film ever made. The ending leaves almost at a cliffhanger. We never do find out all the answers to the killings at the house. This may be frustrating to some, but it’s a concept of genius, keeping the evil untouched and ready to haunt our minds on the night of December 24th. There have been a few DVD releases of this in the past. The one used for this review is from the grainy but clear 2006 DVD by Critical Mass Releasing Inc., where a 1.78:1 aspect ratio is used. It sounds fine too. There are interviews, two original scenes with new vocal soundtracks, a documentary featurette, and a Q&A session with the late Bob Clark and John Saxon. There has been a trailer for the film on other releases, but sadly, this one does not have it. Oh well. ‘Tis STILL the season to be merry, and Black Christmas will make sure of that. It amazed me in my childhood, and is no less eerie today. Make sure you ask Santa for this one. Essential!

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