“Black Christmas” (1974)
Studio: Ambassador Film Distributors
Starring: Olivia Hussey, John Saxon, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, Andrea Martin, Art Hindle
Directed by: Bob Clark
Running Time: 98 min.
Synopsis: Sorority girls are being harassed by disturbing phones around Christmas time and one of them winds up missing.
Not only is Black Christmas the best Christmas horror film, it is one of the scariest movies ever and one of the greatest horror films of all time. Before there was Halloween, there was Black Christmas. A film that basically started the slasher genre and perfective it and also set the bar for other films to follow. It has tons of scares, suspense, and thrills throughout and has a good story and a great cast of characters. Directed by the late great Bob Clark, who went on to direct mostly comedies into the 80’s and beyond, but is most remembered for his contributions to horror in the 70’s.
First thing I want to point out is the great cast of characters that features plenty of genre favorites. Olivia Hussey from the 1968 film Romeo and Juliet and later starred in Stephen King’s It and Psycho IV where she played Mrs. Bates. John Saxon from Enter the Dragon then later on starred in many different horror films like Blood Beach, Cannibal Apocalypse, Tenebre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Keir Dullea from 2001 and 2010 fame, Andrea Martin from Cannibal Girls then went on to star in the comedy series SCTV, and Canadian actor Art Hindle who was in several TV series throughout the 70’s and up until now also starred in the film. Before she was Lois Lane in Superman, Margot Kidder was one of the leads in this film. She’s also no stranger to horror, being in Sisters and then later The Amityville Horror. This is some excellent talent to grace this awesome picture.
From the start of the first frame of film, sets the tone. A wide shot of a sorority house decorated for Christmas with a Christmas song playing in the background. It’s a dark cold night and all the girls of the house are having a party. Suddenly a peaceful holiday surrounding turns very dark, when the camera becomes the point of view of someone stalking the grounds and looking for a place to get in. The person makes their way up the side of the house and into the attic. The P.O.V. is almost a fish-eyed lens of sorts and a little distorted looking, which makes it very eerie looking as the intruder wanders through the attic and then climbs down to the upstairs. As we’re the eyes of this mysterious person, we also hear them breathing heavily, which is very creepy. We see them looking downstairs and they can hear the girls laughing and having a good time. If only the girls knew what kind of horror awaits them upstairs.
Harassing phone calls are also plaguing the girls and one of them comes in while their party is happening. All of them gather around the phone and listen. Most of it is heavy breathing, but they start to get very intense and start to shout out perverted things. There’s a great scene where the camera pans around the room to these shocked and frightened faces of the girls while they’re hearing these nasty disturbing things this person is saying. One of the girls, Barb (played by Margot Kidder), who doesn’t take shit from anyone, it seems, first plays along with the creep, but then tells them off. The caller’s tone changes from playfully twisted to very serious and threatening as he says, “I’m going to kill you” and hangs up. A stand out scene in the movie and there’s more thrilling scenes yet to come.
The horror begins, when one of the girls, Clare, is in her room packing for her holiday trip. She notices something moving in her closet. We sudden switch to the P.O.V. of the intruder, who is looking at her from the closet. Clare moves towards her closet and we’re just waiting for something to happen and we’re on the edge of our seat. Then the moment happens while Clare is sucked into the closet by the unknown intruder which they wrap her head with a plastic dress cover and begins the suffocate her. She is later placed up in the attic and is propped up in a chair by a window. This is an iconic sight in the film, where Clare’s face is almost frozen in fright with the plastic over her head.
The next day, Clare’s father is waiting for her outside her school. I always remember this scene. It’s nothing big, but it’s a stand out. It starts on a wide shot of the father waiting around. Camera zooms in slowly until we are at head and shoulders with the father. After that, some little kids strike him with a snowball in the face. Along with the big horror shocks of the film, they are little moments like this that catch you by surprise.
Clare of course doesn’t show up and her father is worried about her. He gets the help of her boyfriend, Chris (played by Art Hindle) and her sorority sisters Jess (Olivia Hussey) and Phyl (Andrea Martin) to find his missing daughter. They also go to the police and Lt. Fuller (played by John Saxon) starts a search party to look for her and also a missing teenage girl. Little do they know that Clare’s body is up in the attic of the sorority house and the terror has just begun.
Meanwhile there’s a sub plot going on with the lead character, Jess and her boyfriend Peter (played by Keir Dullea) where Jess is pregnant with his baby, but doesn’t want to keep it. Peter wants her to have the child and gets upset with her even thinking about getting rid of it. Peter ultimately becomes one of the main suspects and police have a watchful eye on him.
This instant classic is a good and very scary film. Many horror films have borrowed from it like Deep Red, Halloween, When a Stranger Calls, and Scream. Some of these imitators are great and some are not, but still to this day Black Christmas is one of the scariest movies ever. Just the fact that there’s an obscene caller harassing the girls is creepy as hell. Just the sound of the phone ringing makes you jump. Then there’s the disturbing noises the caller makes and the things he says. It sounds like two different people talking. Then the name he always mentions, Billy, in this creepy voice, it’s freaky. Also, this is a time way before caller ID and cell phones, you didn’t know who was on the other end until you answered the phone. There’s some great suspense when the police have the phone tapped and while Jess is keeping him on the phone, the phone company is trying to trace the call.
Other stand out moments is the thrilling music throughout the film, which are these sharp cords that hit now and again at the right spots. The sorority house is creepy as hell. It’s a big old house and even though is decorated for Christmas with lots of bright lights, it still has this dark eerie vibe to it. Just knowing the killer is lurking around all day and all night and no one is wish to it is scary. Also, the attic where he often stays has a creepy look to it. It’s dusty, dark, and has lots of old toys and antiques up in there.
Clark also throws in a little humor in the film, which I usually don’t like when there’s comedy mixed in with horror, but Clark does it in a way where it doesn’t over shadow the horror and the comedy isn’t over the top or stupid. It’s mostly crude humor like when there’s a college kid dressed as Santa and says, “Ho, ho, ho, shit!” and “Ho, ho, ho, fuck!” and he says this while little kids are sitting on his lap. The college student just has this great I don’t give a shit attitude. There’s also a cool poster of an old lady flipping off someone, this is in Clare’s bedroom when her father comes looking for her and the head mother of the house is trying to tell him that she’s a good girl. She even tries to cover up another poster of a couple forming the peace sign from their naked bodies as they have sex. The housemother and a goofy cop at the station are characters mostly there for just comic relief.
Another stand out is the editing, especially when they cut from one scene to another. They also do some great sound editing as well. Some examples are; the scene where Clare is killed and she is being suffocated. As she tries to scream out they cut to the housemother opening her Christmas present and there’s a big roar from the girls as she opens it. Another is when the housemother dies in the attic. As she screams it cuts to a cab driver yelling and knocking at the front door. Another good one is when they find the body of the teenage girl in the park. They show the mother looking over towards it and before she lets out a scream it cuts to the phone ringing in the house.
One of my favorite scenes is when Margot Kidder’s character, Barb dies. It happens when Jess is downstairs listening to Christmas carolers and the killer enters Barb’s room while she’s asleep. He stabs her to death with the horn of a clear glass unicorn head that Barb had on her dresser. All you see is a dark figure repeatedly stabbing her with only light on the killer’s eye for one shot. The scene cuts back and forth to close ups of the carolers singing and Barb being stabbed. This really builds up the tension of the scene and has a great parallel action with something happy and peaceful to something brutal and horrifying. At the end, there’s a great shot where Barb’s hand knocks over these clear glass swans she has on the dresser as well. They knock over as she dies and as the carolers finish their song.
SPOILER ALERT: Not to give too much away, but the very ending of the film always stands out to me. This takes place right after the killer is caught or who they thought was the killer. Jess is lying in her bed surrounded by police officers, Clare’s father, Chris, Clare’s boyfriend, and a doctor. All you hear is chatter from the bunch while Jess is out. The police leave the room to run off reporters who our downstairs. The doctor was going to stay with her, but Clare’s father, faints and Chris, helps the doctor carry him downstairs to get him to a hospital. Once everyone is gone someone unknown walks in the doorway. It turns out to just be a cop turning out the light in the room, but that moment is kind of creepy, because you don’t see their face. Now, Jess is alone and it’s a very eerie feeling because of what just happened all night in that house. Camera pans over to all the other rooms where the girls were killed. Then it tilts up to the attic and we see the bodies of the housemother and Clare still there undiscovered. We also hear the strange voice of the real killer, who is alive and well and still in the house. There is a cool shot of the scene coming from the attic window with Clare’s body still propped up in a chair and the camera slowly zooms out to a wide shot of the house. Then we hear the phone ring and the credits roll with the ringing getting louder as the credits roll on.
Black Christmas is a masterpiece and a huge staple in the history of horror. It captures all the great elements you need for a horror film. The film has stood the test of time and is often imitated. If you are looking for a horror film to watch at Christmas time, this is it. It’s also a great film to watch anytime of the year and will scare the hell out of you. A classic horror movie that is a must to have in your collection.