Bob Clark, 1974
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon
Black Christmas is one of my favorite scary movies of all time and possibly my favorite slasher film. The premise is simple, yet effective. A group of sorority sisters receives a series of creepy, prank phone calls and one by one, begin to drop dead during their Christmas break. The film was based on real murders that took place in Quebec in the early '70s and was also definitely inspired by one of the most terrifying urban legends of all time. HERE'S A SPOILER for anyone who hasn't seen Black Christmas yet: known as "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs," the legend tells of a babysitter alone in the house after she has put the children to sleep. She gets a series of disturbing phone calls which, of course, come from within the house. This was also used more literally in the entertaining but inferior When a Stranger Calls.
Black Christmas is one of my favorite horror films for several reasons. First of all, I love Christmas horror: Tales from the Crypt, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, etc. While the gimmicky aspect of centering a horror film on holiday festivities can give many of these films that “so bad it’s good” quality, the holiday season is of minimal importance to Black Christmas and primarily acts as a plot device. There is a built-in reason for the girls to throw a big party, for the town and sorority house to be abandoned, and it guarantees that all disappearances will go unnoticed for the time being. Plus, there are plenty of shots of the glorious Canadian snow.
Speaking of Canada, horror fans generally associate the slasher film with the release of Halloween or Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood. As a genre, slasher movies certainly expanded in the U.S., but Black Christmas was released four years before Halloween and – for my money – is a superior film. Director Bob Clark (famous for what is probably the most beloved Christmas film of all time, A Christmas Story) was American, but shot and financed a number of his films in Canada. His previous horror film, the excellent zombie-Vietnam war flick Deathdream was a Canadian production and he would go on to make Sherlock Holmes-themed horror-drama Murder by Decree there as well.
Black Christmas it is incredibly mean-spirited, certainly more so than any other slasher film from the period. (A few years later, nasty Canadian slasher Happy Birthday To Me would give it a run for its money, though.) Aside from the grisly murders, there are the perverse prank calls where the caller liberally uses the word "cunt" and instead of getting offended, the girls laugh about it and provoke him. There's a lot of inappropriate comedy, especially from Margot Kidder's (Amityville Horror) character, a horny drunk. The house "mom" (Marian Waldman, Deranged) is an alcoholic who cleverly hides flasks around the house. The main character, Jess (Olivia Hussey) is desperate to get an abortion, regardless of her unstable boyfriend's opinion.
The cast is wonderful and nice to look at, but not particularly sympathetic. Olivia Hussey (It, Death on the Nile) is fairly solid as the beautiful, but cold Jess. Her cruelty to her unstable boyfriend (Keir Dullea, 2001: A Space Odyssey) makes it seem like she will be a deserving victim of the mysterious killer. John Saxon (Tenebre) is a fabulous addition to the film, but then he brings joy to every movie he's ever appeared in, even the mostly irredeemable The Scorpion with Two Tails. Keep your ear out for a chilling score from Carl Zittrer, who was supposedly responsible for Saxon's involvement, and worked with Clark previously on Deathdream.
Black Christmas comes highly recommended. My only criticism, if I had to have one, is that the plot might be a little confusing for first time viewers. In a bold move on Clark's part, the killer is given neither identity nor motivation and isn’t really even seen throughout the course of the film. The movie received bafflingly poor reviews upon release that have improved over the years, but it is still entirely too neglected. You can help turn that around right now by picking up the nice special edition DVD from Somerville House that comes with interviews and a short documentary. And remember, if this picture doesn't make your skin crawl... it's on too tight!