Black Christmas- 1974
Dir. Bob Clark
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, Andrea Martin, Marian Waldman and John Saxon
The girls of a sorority house have been receiving highly disturbing phone calls from a sick-minded prank caller during the Christmas season. Unbeknownst to them, they have an uninvited guest hiding in their attic, who slowly and meticulously starts to murder each girl in increasingly brutal and terrifying fashion.
Ah dear reader, so you’ve chosen to draw yourself away from the comforting glow of your Christmas decorations and the empty expectant space beneath your tree to join us here for the recounting of the macabre tale of Bob Clarke’s ‘Black Christmas’ this cold Christmas Eve? Very well, let us begin…
I can still remember the exact feeling I had after watching this film for the first time, mainly because it is still the very same feeling I get as I watch it every year as a Christmas tradition! This is a film that, aptly to coincide with the season, chills you to your very core, leaving you frozen rigid in fear as the terrible endless and empty ring of the sorority house’s telephone haunts the end credits.
The first American slasher film (sorry ‘Halloween’) is special for 2 reasons, firstly, it was filmed in Canada and secondly, it is darkly amusing that director Bob Clark is most fondly remembered in the American psyche for a VERY different Christmas film, namely ‘A Christmas Story’. Now whilst the quirky whimsy of ‘ACS’ is all good and obviously infinitely more popular in the public eye, ‘Black Christmas’ is the director’s greatest Christmas film, as important a traditional viewing in my household as ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ and ‘Fireman Sam’s Christmas Special’. Now there’s some good, varied company.
It seems odd to gush and feel full of the seasonal spirit over a film that is incredibly bleak and downright scary, but that is ultimately ‘Black Christmas’s greatest achievement. In a way, it is modernising the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas, it perfectly off-sets the optimistic and cheery mood associated with the season with whilst still, somehow, intrinsically linking the two polar opposite moods together. If ‘Black Christmas’ was nothing more than a slasher film where a bunch of sorority girls get brutally murdered, no-one would really remember it or care, also it would be called ‘Sorority Row’ ba boom tish.
What really sets the film apart is that it somehow manages to balance the responsibility of having an awful lot of characters and yet somehow gives them a perfect amount of screen time each and develop their characters. Obvious ‘final girl’ Jess (Hussey) is the shy, reserved and good natured one who provides the perfect mid-point between the bright and cheery Phyl and the drunken, brash hellraiser Barb (Kidder). It may seem an obvious final trio to some as these three get the most screen time, however the real joy here is that they’re all incredibly likeable and realistic characters, doing away with hedonistic stereotypes of bitchy and sex-obsessed sorority girls as represented in just about every other film ever made, including one certain remake. We do NOT want these characters to die and therefore it’s much more of a tragic shock, when the film cold heartedly dispatches them without mercy.
Whilst they are pushed into the background, the importance of the brilliance of some of the male performances must not be ignored. John Saxon plays the gruff but loveable police chief (thank God he was never type-cast in that role, eh?) who so expertly conveys great concern and determination without ever going overboard. More interesting and intensely creepier is the role of Peter as played by Keir Dullea. The senior boyfriend of Jess, Dullea is weird and skin crawling without ever being too OTT from the minute he first turns up on screen. I know exactly what you’re thinking, right, duh? He’s so obviously the killer! He’s weird and she leaves him so, yeah! Obvious! Well, no. This film is far cleverer than that and like a very twisted magician, this is the film’s chilling piece de resistance of misdirection and sleight of hand. Don’t ask me how, but somehow Clarke is subverting the genre’s boundaries at the same time as creating them in truly magnificent fashion!
Don’t go thinking that the film is nothing but oppressive atmosphere and morbid murders, it does have a surprisingly strong funny bone that at least goes some way to keeping the festive cheer. This is primarily embodied in the sorority’s sozzeled house mother, Mrs. Mac (Waldman). Merrily cursing her way through her life and hiding a hearty supply of booze in some truly novel locations, it’s rare that her time onscreen isn’t leading up to some hilariously sharp piece of dialogue or boozy antics.
This is superbly counter-balanced by the incredibly straight-laced and proper performance of James Edmond as Mr. Harrison, a father of one of the girls. His sour lemon face when enduring the vulgar chatting of Mrs Mac or Barb is painfully funny and eventhough he comes across as a miserable character in relation to the plucky youngsters, it must be remembered that tragically the audience all know that his daughter is already dead and in the attic above him.
It may sound odd to say, but the reason why the killings in ‘Black Christmas’ remain so harrowing after many a re-watch is because they feel incredibly real. I appreciate that sounds daft and keep repeating ‘It’s Only A Movie’ however the objects used and the manner in which the deaths are filmed, often totally without the irritating accompaniment of screeching instruments, leaving nothing but the groans and crunch noises of the victims. This is infinitely more terrifying and like all truly great horror films, it invades that dark space in your mind and opens the terrifying door that suspends your disbelief. The fact that Claire Harrison’s ( Lynne Griffin) corpse with a plastic bag over her head in a rocking chair simply does not move for the whole film is absolutely skin-crawlingly uncomfortable. It’s the film’s most iconic image, but still one that induces dramatic shivers just by looking at it.
When the killing takes place, we always see it through the murderer’s perspective. It might sound simple, but this remains a brilliantly unnerving trick that has been assimilated by many other horror films, such as ‘Halloween’ and more recently the ‘Maniac’ remake. This remains devastatingly unsettling as it is making the audience feel that they have become part of the mindset of the killer, associating with them and carrying out these horrible acts themselves. The ‘voyeuristic’ element makes you feel unclean and even guilty and Clark has absolutely mastered its power here.
It always saddens me that the antagonist, ‘Billy’ (it’s still debateable who on earth it ‘really’ is) does not get the credit they deserve for being one of horror’s all time scariest boogiemen. We NEVER see what he/she/it looks like but for two shots of a terrifyingly crazed eyeball, leaving their appearance to our own terrifying imagination. On top of this, those blood-curdling telephone calls and grunts always stay with you long after seeing the film, making you distinctly untrustworthy the next time yours should happen to go off (as a fun bit of trivia, it was in fact a combined effort of director Clark and an assistant making those awful noises together). They are both human and inhuman, there seems to be several voices and it is through these phone calls that arguably the most intriguing element of ‘Black Christmas’ comes through.
There is some sort of back story here, possibly involving a baby called ‘Agnes’ and we presume ‘Billy’ has done something to her. What? Who knows? Crucially, we don’t ever want to know, thank you very much 2006 remake! It can be a risky game to play when withholding information from an audience. It can either backfire, leaving people scratching their heads in annoyed confusion, or as it is here, leaving them shivering and alone in the dark, totally unaware of what’s coming up behind them. Why is ‘Billy’ doing this? We’ve no idea, it’s just cold, remorseless murder. I don’t know about you, but that always puts the frighteners on me!
The scariest part of the entire film is THAT ending. There is no stinger or final “BOO!” just pure concentrated fear as we see that “Billy” is still muttering away in the attic, Claire’s corpse still sits by the window and the death-knells of the phone ringing is the only sound to accompany the end credits. Upon a first viewing, my family and I just sat there, as still as the grave, 100% blown away. Seldom ever do horror films end properly and but my word this one stands amongst the greatest ending of all time!
Snuggle up with your loved ones, turn off all the lights but for the twinkly ones that adorn your Christmas tree and enjoy one of the very scariest films ever made…just remember to lock your attic door…
Merry UKHS Xmas!
Verdict: The very coldest in winter chillers. The perfect festive horror film that will never be bettered. 10 out of 10 Glasses of Finest Bloody Mulled Wine.