Black Christmas 1974
Directed by: Bob Clark
Starring: Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Lynne Griffin
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Long before Jamie Blanks turned popular urban legends into a theme for his routine slasher, Urban Legend; director Bob Clark took one of the most vigorously touted of those fables and created a genre staple that would become the forerunner of the stalk and slash cycle. Comparisons can obviously be drawn between this and Halloween, including notorious but unconfirmed reports that Carpenter’s film was in fact based upon an un-produced concept that Clark had earlier initiated as a sequel to this 1974 sleeper. Both efforts certainly have a lot in common with one another, including two excellent steady-cam openings, which put the viewer in the killer’s shoes as he enters his ‘soon to be’ scene of a crime. On the ‘making of’ feature for the 25th anniversary of Halloween, perhaps one commentator is fairly unjust when he states that it was that movie alone that started the excessive use of point of view shots that are so often imitated in horror cinema ever since. Black Christmas was equally as effective with its application of first person cinematography and even though Carpenter had already endorsed the technique in an earlier short from his University days, he was most definitely influenced by what he saw here.
The story concerns a group of sorority sisters that are preparing for their Christmas celebrations in a remote house. They have been receiving bizarre and anonymous calls from what sounds like a group of insane people, although no one takes them seriously at first, believing that they’re just a typical prank from a few of the local town boys. However fears are ignited when one of the students, Claire (Lynne Griffin), doesn’t arrive to meet her father on time and is reported missing. Later a child is found butchered in the park, whilst the loony continues his demented ringing and terrorising the young women. Before long Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) realises that there may be a link in the occurrences and asks Jess (Olivia Hussey) to remain close to her phone so that he can trace the line when the lunatic next rings. But will there be anyone left alive when that happens?
Even though this movie is neither graphic, gratuitous nor particularly exploitive by today’s standards, it remains one of the most disturbing and chilling slasher movies ever made. Perhaps as mysteriously alluring as the exploits of Michael Myers and certainly far more alarming than any of its endless imitations could ever hope to be, the killer here simply oozes fear factor. It’s not by the use of the typical methods that have become somewhat old-hat in more recent efforts either. For example, this assassin doesn’t wear a mask, probably doesn’t possess any super-human attributes and may only be threatening towards the female of our species. But his enigmatic ranting and crazy excessive skips between multiple personalities that are portrayed superbly over phone calls, effortlessly allow him to become one of the creepiest wackos ever seen on film. Never has a telephone been implemented as a tool for creating fear so efficiently. There’s something really unsettling as this Jekyll and Hyde argues with his demented alter ego(s). In the midst of his outbursts, he changes his pitch from that of a high female to a deep and aggressive male and then back again, in a manner of pure and unadulterated insanity that really sticks in your throat. He perhaps reaches the most blood-curdling moment when he drops the wacky persona to adopt a civil yet curt voice and mutter once,`I’m going to kill you’. This proves to be the one and only direct threat that he makes in the whole movie.
Where as Michael Myers’ success was brought about by the mystery that surrounded the little that we knew of the true motivations of his character, a similar method has been used here. I won’t write too much in case that you haven’t already seen the film, but the script does a great job of maintaining a mysterious bogeyman. Bob Clark’s talents as a horror director certainly reached their peak with Black Christmas. Helped excessively by some great cinematography and neatly planned lighting effects that often evade the more recent slasher movies, he proved his worth as a genre legend. He used some creative methods to keep the killer obscured from view, whilst not forgetting the fundamental silhouette and shadow play. I am sure that the quality of his work here gave him the springboard to the latter success that he would find in other areas of cinema. If you do predict the twists in the plot, then it’s only because they have be copied so many times since this hit the shelves that they now feel second nature to any slasher fan. It’s important to remember that this was one of the first to use those elements and you must also note how perfectly this holds up against the majority of attempts that have been released up to three decades after.
Some brilliant actors whom themselves would make their own slight impressions on the genre (Margot Kidder: The Clown at Midnight, Lynne Griffin: Curtains and John Saxon: Nightmare Beachand The Babydoll Murders) offer support to a competent lead in Olivia Hussey. Aside from a couple of weak moments she carried the majority of the picture extremely well. Kudos also to the actor(s) that performed the terrorising calls, because their effort to sound as deranged as humanly possible gave the film one of the scariest ingredients of the cycle. We cannot forget to mention Roy Moore and Bob Clark’s dialogue; because without it, the movie certainly would not have been so fearfully memorable.
The slasher genre has gained a reputation over the years for being somewhat over populated by incompetent/amateur filmmakers. But efforts like this, Halloween and House on Sorority Row prove that the category is a necessary ingredient to cinema history when it’s handled properly. This has recently been re-released on DVD with minimal extras but maximum value for money and really does warrant a purchase. There’s not a lot more to be said to convince you, this is a true cult-classic and your collection is poorer without a copy. Maybe next time you are bothered by a crank caller, you’ll be a little more cautious as to how you handle the situation…
Final Girl √√√