Saturday, April 3, 2010


Black Christmas
Director: Bob Clark
Year 1974

Christmas, the time of year for giving.. a large handful of death. This classic 1974 Canadian horror classic, directed by Bob Clark the person who brought us Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, Deathdream, and A Christmas Story, has a spectacular atmosphere that hangs thick throughout this moody and stylish holiday slasher flick.

The story is set in a sorority house during christmas break, when the girls suddenly start receiving creepy and disturbing phone calls from an unknown caller. The central character of this film is a young girl named Jess Bradford played by an innocent and vulnerable Olivia Hussey. This was Olivia's first foray into the horror genre and after starring in this film, she eventually branched out into other obscure roles such as her parts in Virus, Escape 2000, and the Stephen King adaption of IT. She always does a tremendous job in every film she's in and she brings that very faultless innocence to her role here in Black Christmas.

The first of many creepy phone calls.

This is a very classy slasher film that takes its time to build up each kill. It's very heavy on atmosphere and uses the yearly event of Christmas with great effect. Much like how John Carpenter did a few years later for the season of halloween in his film, Halloween. In Black Christmas, you really get the sense of the holiday and all the atmosphere that comes with it. That cozy feeling that you have during this time of year is thrown at you with help from the music, the sights, and the general spirit of christmas time. The lights are all strung up and the itchy wool sweaters are in abundance. Bob Clark was able to capture the imagery of the season spot on and he uses this radiant time of year to spin a tale that could make you possibly a little uneasy during the holidays.

Now kids, don't you try that at home.

We are given many shots of the point of view of the killer as he stalks the outside of the sorority house. We even follow him up a trellis as he climbs into the attic window, making this location his home-base throughout the entire film. When we are shown the point of view of the killer, we are always only seeing part of the screen. There is mostly something obscuring our view as he hides behind bushes or peeks out from around corners. It's a very voyeuristic feeling that the audience is given, while they play the role of the killer, so to speak. This technique was also later used in the 1978 film Halloween with great effect, and many argue that Halloween wouldn't have been as great as it was without the help of Bob Clark and his tremendous efforts in Black Christmas. I'd have to agree with them there. Black Christmas set up so many great moments that would eventually evolve into some of the most legendary sequences in Halloween just a few years later.

Killer: So what are you wearing?
Olivia: A pink bathrobe.
Killer: Oh. Sexy.

The kills that Clark has set up in the film are all well done and nothing too gory is ever shown on the screen. Most of the kills are all implied, happening somewhere off the screen or obscured by some random objects that are resting in the foreground. Normally, I like to know what's going on when a kill is happening, but for this film and the voyeuristic tendencies that they give the killer, it kind of fits. There's also something really creepy about keeping the shot on some glass swans as the owner of those delicate figurines is stabbed repeatedly in the background out of the shot.

A weird and creepy shot of someone getting stabbed to death.

One of the main recurring shots in this film is of Olivia Hussey's character on the phone listening to what the killer is saying. You would imagine that after the third time of watching her holding a phone to her ear, that this would get a little boring, but the way that Olivia reacts to each phone call is acted out so well that you buy the scene every time. Her acting is so impeccable that you're right there with her listening to the filth that comes out of this guys mouth. To spice things up a bit, they let another one of the sorority sisters named Barbara, played by the always entertaining Margot Kidder, answer the phone. She is the exact opposite of Olivia's character. Rather then silently listen to what the creep has to say, Margot throws in some wise cracks and gets just as down and dirty as the mysterious caller. Her character has plenty of great moments throughout the film and Margot brings an outstanding element to the overall cast. 

Killer: So what are you wearing now?
Olivia: A yellow collared shirt and a fur coat.
Killer: Oh. Sexy.

The actual sorority house also lends a great deal of atmosphere to the movie. Lit up by christmas lights in an otherwise dark neighborhood, it really exudes a special kind of presence. Also the long shots they use showing the attic window with a dead girl in it is an especially haunting moment. The inside of the house is also quiet creepy, especially during the scenes when Olivia's character is alone in the house and she gets a call. There is always something unsettling about a large expansive house that is void of life. The silence in those scenes is so deafening that it really boosts up the tension and amps the risk factor of Olivia being the next victim.

What a beautiful house of death.

Another thing this movie does is bring an original concept to the slasher genre. First with a killer tormenting his victims with incessant phone calls and second for actually making the phone calls come from inside the very house their in. Now this isn't a spoiler since we see the killer in the first few minutes of the movie enter the house and we are then presented with our first phone call, but the fact that we know he is in there before the calls start coming, is an unorthodox situation that was way ahead of its time. This is a really interesting concept that is ripe with tension. There are scenes when you can see a shadow moving in the background of the room or up the stairs as the girls casually walk through the house. This idea was later used in the 1979 film When a Stranger Calls, where the killer is calling from inside the house. They to did an excellent job with that concept giving just another example of how this little Canadian film has influenced so many of horror's most prestigious films.

Olivia looks rather worried as her boyfriend, suspect number one, watches on.

To round out the stellar cast, we are blessed with John Saxon as Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller. This veteran actor of such wonderful films as Enter the Dragon, Cannibal Apocalypse, Tenebre, and Nightmare on Elm Street, brings the clout that is needed to play the long arm of the law of this sleepy college town. He plays his role straight and serious as he investigates the case of the phone calls and the missing girl.

If anyone can get to the bottom of this mystery, John Saxon can.

Another interesting choice that the filmmakers made, was to not show the identity of the killer. Every time his face appears on screen it is blocked off slightly so we aren't able to get a clear view on his features. There's one scene where he is standing over his victim ready to deliver the final blow and a shadow lies directly across his face blocking our view. In another scene we are just given a single and demented eyeball to look at, as he peers at the main character through a crack in a closet door. You really have no idea who has committed these heinous crimes at the end of this flick. We are given a red haring throughout, but we are never truly shown who committed the murders leaving the film very open ended and left to interpretation in our minds.

Our only shots of the killer. Who is this mysterious perverted killer?

For a slasher flick, the body count in this film isn't the highest that has ever graced the screen. Actually it is rather low by slasher standards, but I think it makes up for it with its overbearing atmosphere. It has a very macabre vibe when the killer collects all of the dead bodies and stores them in various places in the house that are later stumbled upon by our poor traumatized Jess. This is yet again a perfect example of how Black Christmas has influenced another legend of horror, the 80's slasher spectacular Friday the 13th series. Could this be where Jason Voorhees came up with the idea to scatter his victims in various places only to be found by a unsuspecting camp counselors as they proceed to crap their pants? It really is amazing how much Black Christmas has brought to the table, yet does not get the recognition that so many copycats have garnished over the years.

Now that's where I misplaced those dead sorority girls.

The influences from Black Christmas has probably spread to films that I haven't even seen yet and that is quite an accomplishment for Bob Clark. In this one film, it seems like he has set up the basic rules and standards that every slasher film has abided by since his film first debuted. This is definitely a film that needs to be given respect and appreciated for building a genre up from its simple beginnings when Mario Bava first lensed the film, Bay of Blood in 1971. The genre has come a long way since then, but the originators should never be looked over because for the most part they produced the better films of the slasher movement, during an era that I'm sad to say might never be seen again in the cinemas life-span.

The end to a horrible Christmas. Or is it?

Black Christmas is a gem of a slasher flick and it is considered the first proper slasher film that started the whole phenomenon. I would have to agree to an extent and more importantly it's an engaging film, be it slasher or not. The elements and set up for this creepy tale show that Bob Clark had a knack for telling a story and knew how to make it look good. It's simple in theory, but make no mistake, it is told so well and the execution is so perfect that it is one of the single best slasher films to be made and really deserves its spot at the top of such a bloody heap of films. This is a slasher film done right, brought to us by one of the originators of this sick genre. Watch it next to a stocking laced chimney, a brilliantly lit christmas tree, and some delicious egg nog and pray you don't get a phone call from a sneaky pervert with an inclination for murder. 

5 out of 5 stars        Originated and Often Imitated Slasher Classic!

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