Released in 1974, the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas was one of the first slasher movies, not to mention the first sorority-set horror film predating The House On Sorority Row by a decade or so. Directed by Bob Clark (who was also responsible for the classic A Christmas Story) this is one of the first Christmas-based horror films and it therefore, set a precedent for all the ’80s festive horrors including Christmas Evil, Silent Night, Deadly Night, and Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas. Possibly inspired by Canadian serial killer and rapist Wayne Boden (whose victims included three women who were killed during the winter months of 1969 and 1970) this film also borrows from an urban legend involving a babysitter and a man upstairs (which was later turned into a full-length 1979 movie titled When A Stranger Calls – also worth a watch). The plot here involves a pervy nuisance caller, a sorority house, and a serial killer set during the Christmas holidays which was quite a unique storyline back in the early ’70s and is still highly enjoyable in the present day. The film stars Olivia Hussey (The Cat And The Canary, It), Art Hindle (The Brood, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers), John Saxon (Tenebrae, A Nightmare On Elm Street), Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey, Bunny Lake Is Missing), and the late, great Margot Kidder who starred in a few other classic horrors in the ’70s including The Amityville Horror and Sisters.
Black Christmas is a horror but it’s all quite subtle; there’s no gore, it’s not graphic, in fact it feels more like a thriller than a typical horror movie. There’s also quite a lot of humour including the hilarious “you can’t rape a towney” line spoken by Margot Kidder’s character, and the drunkard house mother Mrs. MacHenry, brilliantly played by Mirian Waldman (who has a stash of booze secreted around the property) is also a very entertaining character. MacHenry has a jaded yet slightly jolly personality and along with the poster seen on the wall in one of the bedrooms (the 1971 “Express Thyself” poster with a grandma flipping the bird) this role challenges stereotypes of old people. I imagine that Santa Clause (SPOILER ALERT: if he exists) is very similar to Mrs. MacHenry, in fact he is depicted in exactly this way in Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas. But I digress.
Black Christmas is an important horror film. Aside from essentially inventing the Christmas horror sub-genre, as an audience member, being able to see from the killer’s perspective (let’s ignore Peeping Tom for a bit) predated John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years (although Halloween is a much better film). The voice of the nuisance caller (at least one of them) in my opinion, also influenced or was at least referenced in Wes Craven’s Scream. It’s also interesting that the P.O.V. shots from the killer’s perspective and the split diopter shots were traits of Brian De Palma who coincidentally, was in a relationship with Margot Kidder at the time.
In terms of direction, Black Christmas is not the most visually distinctive film around but it conjures up the feeling of Christmas despite the lack of snow on the ground. There’s also a well-shot and well-edited scene involving the hymn “O Come, All Ye Faithful” being sang by a choir whilst someone is killed with a glass statue of a unicorn.
Written by Canadian TV writer Roy Moore, the film aside from the humour, includes some riveting moments which have been copied by many horror-thrillers since (namely the mysterious and threatening phone calls). It’s also very interesting to see how calls were traced back in the ’70s. There is a pointless side-plot about Peter, a boyfriend of one of the sorority girls, who is feeling broody or is yearning for a baby (in an obsessive and creepy kind of way). This I assume, is intended as a red herring, but it’s revealed approximately 30 minutes before the finale that the perpetrator can’t be him. The ending does leave the identity of the killer unknown which was and still is quite unique, the only problem with the movie is that it’s not particularly scary, either in terms of jump scares or atmosphere (this problem also plagues the remake).
Given the lack of terror along with all the violence-free goings on, this is a perfect film to broadcast on the television. And whilst on that topic, when Ted Bundy killed two female students at a university in 1978, this film was pulled from TV broadcasts which shows that reactionary morons (both in the management of television as well as the public) were alive and well in a relatively free decade.
Black Christmas isn’t a perfect film; it does lag a bit in the middle but it picks-up toward the end. The relatively mysterious plot about Billy (the killer) was expanded upon in the 2006 remake, although some of this backstory was inferred in the various phone-calls in this original. In my opinion, the subtlety and the ambiguity works in this film’s favour, although as a viewer, you’re still left thinking: why did Billy start killing at that particular time in that particular house?
So no, the original Black Christmas is not the best horror film by a long stretch but compared to the remake (or remakes – watch this space) it’s a much better film. Amongst the blood and murder there’s wreaths, fairy lights, poinsettias as well as the utterance of “pussies”, “cocks”, and “cunts” making for a very unique Christmas film!