Studio: Scream Factory
Director: Bob Clark
Writer: Roy Moore
Producer: Bob Clark
Stars: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin, Art Hindle, James Edmond, Lynne Griffin, Douglas McGrath, Michael Rapport, John Saxon
During Christmas break, a madman stalks a sorority house while terrifying the residents with disturbing phone calls.
Appreciation of “Black Christmas” as a first-time viewer benefits from a helping hand of background perspective. Anyone going into the 1974 classic with the jaded mindset of someone overfed on years of knife-wielding murderers and bloody body counts might wonder what all the fuss is about.
A killer on the loose in a sorority house. A first-person camera putting the audience behind the killer’s eyes. And a phone tap by the police tracing a climactic call to inside the house. Can a horror movie possibly include any more clichés? But realize that “Black Christmas” either redefined or outright invented such tropes and the reasons for its influential legacy crystallize.
About the only thing not ripped off by imitators is the movie’s unique presentation of the Greek lifestyle on a university campus. “Black Christmas” may be the only horror film where sorority girls are not mere bubble-headed bimbos disrobing and dying purely for the pubescent pleasure of teenage boys.
The girls of Pi Kappa Sigma drink, swear, and party, but these personality traits are overshadowed by adult tones seldom seen in stereotypical portrayals of this age group. Olivia Hussey’s character in particular is smartly developed and is involved in some surprisingly complicated relationship drama for a film of this variety. The very mention of abortion in an early seventies film, much less making the issue a chief facet of the heroine’s backstory, is a daring choice. And it is one that gives a mature depth to a roster of college kids that can be considered in a serious light for a change.
“Black Christmas” is neither shy nor afraid to tease controversy. The script daringly uses the word “c*nt” at a time in film and in society when the term still carried a shock value of atomic proportions. In spite of regular doses of comical levity, this is a film that delivers tense terror in brutal bites with all the subtlety of a suddenly deployed airbag.
Remarkable still is how much mileage is squeezed from a minimalist approach to suspense. Director Bob Clark leans heavily on the iconic image of a young woman with a dry cleaning bag pulled over her suffocated face. Yet each time he cuts back to her corpse cradling a creepy doll while slowly seesawing in a rocking chair, the gruesomeness is still there. The accompanying score is less of a music composition and more of an unmelodic thump on piano keys, but it is precisely the right tone for tightening the mood one more notch.
Often repeated yet never equaled is the famous phone trace sequence inspired by the “Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” urban legend. Entire movies like “When a Stranger Calls” based complete stories on premises that “Black Christmas” only needed for a single scene. Watching a police officer race around switchboard banks at the phone company while searching for a particular wire may seem snicker-worthy 40 years later. Consider though that there is at least some physicality given to the action. Contemporary versions of phone trace scenes are now limited to one guy watching a computer screen while shaking his head yes or no.
Even though that scene is outdated, albeit still effective, little else about the movie is tied to the era. “Black Christmas” is barely even tied to the holiday in its title. Without a killer Santa Claus or anything else seasonally specific, “Black Christmas” is a rare holiday horror film that can be enjoyed just the same outside the month of December.
A languid middle act flirts with tarheeled pacing while setting up red herrings via Art Hindle in a fur coat and Keir Dullea sweating at a piano recital. “Black Christmas” never really goes for a full-on murder mystery despite these setups, though the purposefully unresolved conclusion can leave modern audiences scratching scalps in frustration.
Expecting a final payoff from a movie that deliberately has none misses the point of why threads dangle loose as the final phone rings are heard. “Black Christmas” comes from an era in horror cinema when slasher movies focused on the mania instead of on the maniac. Besides, how could Billy’s origin and the killer’s motivations ever be more satisfying than the disturbing nonsense of frightening phone calls and the threat of unknown deaths occurring behind closed doors?
Review Score: 80