Written by A. Roy Moore and Directed by Bob Clark.
Considered by many to be one of the first slasher films, Black Christmas represents the beginning of what would come to be the most famous horror genre of the 1970’s and 1980’s and It would go on to inspire John Carpenter’s Halloween and many others. As a massive fan of the Friday the 13th and Halloween series’ I thought it was about time I went back to the beginning and watched the little Canadian cult classic.
The story of the film focuses on a group of sorority sisters on Christmas vacation that are slowly killed off one by one. Right away the premise gives you the same feeling the Halloween or Friday the 13th films did. A group of attractive young adults that are basically fodder for the mysterious killer. What this film does incredibly well is character. Each of the women in the sorority are completely individuals who they let you get to know. You feel for each of their stories and as they search for their friend you almost want them to find her, even though you know she’s in the attic. The humor is well paced and spread quite well through the film from a drunkard house carer to a cop coming in with an ass full of buckshot after a terrifying phone call. There are moments of true horror like the creepy and perverted phone calls they receive at certain points of the film that remind them and the audience there’s someone stalking the sisters. You feel genuine dread at the phone calls and the combination of strange voices and demented sounds snaps you back in to the terror of the film every time you think you’ve got a break. The film takes the slow burn and it increases the stakes because of it. The kills don’t come quick and savage but they come at a pace where it becomes scarier and scarier as the movie goes one. What starts as a lighthearted slasher that looks like it’ll be more along the lines of Friday the 13th adds character depth and genuine moments of terror.
The acting shines through in the film and every one of the cast gives fantastic and convincing performances. Olivia Hussey played arguably the main character of the film, Jess, with equal amounts terror and bravery as a girl going through the crisis of being pregnant with a child she doesn’t want and worry as her friends go missing one by one and she’s forced to handle the demented calls alone. Her performance is nuanced and it’s easy to sympathize with her. John Saxon (who is easy to recognize from Nightmare on Elm Street) plays the cop who helps them find the killer. He gives a great performance of a cop who’s genuinely smart in the film. He suspects Jess’ boyfriend from the beginning and he always makes strategic decisions that put the girls at ease. This is a cop you want to see in a slasher flick and Saxon makes him likeable and smart. You can see when he’s thinking and you know he thinks exactly what the audience does. The killer, a character without a name or face and only one freaky ass eye, is terrifying. Child-like and ominous he’s a winning combination of Jason and Michael Myers. With the voice of a child and the savage hand of an adult you feel like he’s a murderer you would not want to be in the same room as.
The rug pull of this film is amazing, and it gives the film one last feeling of dread before the credits begin to roll that leaves you with that fright you started it with. Through most of the film Jess’ ex, Peter, is the obvious choice as the killer. Most of the film they make sure you think that too and make Peter’s actions more and more suspicious as the Black Christmas Killer’s actions become more threatening. Seeing Jess kill him was satisfying and for a moment the fear was over… and then they reveal he wasn’t the killer. It’s shocking, frightening, and one brilliant move that solidifies Black Christmas in history.
Black Christmas’ story isn’t the only thing that shines as the directing and editing to the film is solid and helps to build the suspense of the piece. When the phone calls are happening Bob Clark cuts from Jess, to the cop, to the phone company as they try to trace the phone call and it builds up and every time it gets cut off I felt myself letting out a breath I was holding, hoping for them to find the killer. The use of shadows kept the killer shrouded but always announced his presence and made it feel like he could be anywhere. The use of first person with Billy made it all the scarier as we saw things from his perspective and the breathing made you feel uneasy. The music was slow and steady and quiet. There were no loud music cues, no sudden noises, all the scares were put in full frame with a calm string-instrument strum that, much like Carpenter’s Halloween score, scared you slowly and fully as things began to happen. The more I heard the strum the more dread I began to feel.
Black Christmas is a genuinely spectacular film. Not just as a slasher but as a horror film in general. With a slow build and a dread-filled ending it keeps you in its grips the entire time. The inspiration it gave Halloween, and every other slasher after, is obvious. As a screenwriter myself, watching something like this always gives me an appreciation for the genre I write in. History is important and it’s one of the reasons I started this marathon in the first place. If you haven’t seen Black Christmas and you’re a slasher fan I seriously recommend it. Creepy, frightening, and strangely funny, it’s worth every second of screen time.
So, have you seen Black Christmas? Do you agree with the massive cult following its garnered?
I’ll see you tomorrow for the next review. Stay scary, people!