A Yuletide chiller that is generally seem as one of the first slashers ( predating Halloween by a few years), Black Christmas has become a cult classic thanks to its setting up of genre trademarks( plus some breaking too), supreme atmosphere aptly set during a holiday known for cheer and general feeling of patient but unnerving terror.
Its Christmas time and the girls of a sorority house are getting ready to either visit family or stay for the holiday season. At the house there is the rational Jess(Olivia Hussey), extrovert Barb( Margot Kidder), cheerful Phyllis( Andrea Martin) and the timid Clare(Lynne Griffin) . They are watched over by the elderly head of the sorority, a woman with a fondness for booze called Mrs. Mac( Marian Waldman). The main party is winding down when a phone call interrupts things. It’s not the first of these calls, but it is the most alarming. A crazed man on the other end uses a variety of strange voices, yells obscenities and does his damn best to unnerve them all. The girls try to brush it off but are understandably freaked out. What they don’t realise is that the man on the phone is actually in their attic, watching them and waiting to strike. The innocent Clare is the first to meet death by his hand, though the sisters think she has simply gone missing when she doesn’t meet her father for her travels. News spreads of another girl being murdered and the police finally take notice, headed by the dedicated Ltd Fuller(John Saxon). Meanwhile, Jess is grappling with the fact that she’s pregnant with the child of her intense pianist boyfriend Peter( Keir Dullea) . He wants to keep the baby and marry, but she wants an abortion which puts them at odds. But as the uneasiness rises and bodies turn up, it falls to Jess to survive as the killer closes in on her at the most festive time of year.
Bob Clark, who would later direct a very different holiday movie in A Christmas Story, directs with finesse by cranking the ambience and terror up gradually and letting us get to know the principal characters. Clark just ups the This makes for very unnerving viewing as there are things the audience are aware of that the characters aren’t and then things we are purposefully kept in the dark about. Now while being termed a slasher, Black Christmas only has bits of blood in it. Not to say that the deaths in Black Christmas aren’t chilling( the first victim who is suffocated with a plastic dress bag then placed on a rocking chair in the attic will freeze your blood), but the fact that we only see parts of the acts makes the imagination run wild. I’m of the view that often what we don’t see can be more scary than actually viewing it. But it definitely qualifies as a slasher in many ways, most of which are very successful and indeed influential on the genre that followed in the ensuing years. The use of POV is inspired as it isn’t always clear cut; we see things from the perspective of the killer which is often at an angle or obscured by something. We sort of see events with the twisted way he does and the fact we aren’t really told what his motives are makes it all the more frightening for the audience.
There is also a welcome dose of humour in between the scares, which are mostly provided by either the naughty antics of Barb or the dumbfounded idiocy of the first cop in the case who really has no clue. Some may take Black Christmas for granted given the amount of films it has inspired with the genre tropes we know very well of, but that shouldn’t be held against the film. If anything, it is fascinating to glimpse these well known ideas and how they are used, which in the case of Black Christmas, is supremely well. Plus, it doesn’t always go by the formula either, slotting in neat diversions from the rules. For instance, in a lot of slashers, it’s the virgin who survives but here she is killed first. And it’s refreshing that the main characters actually have scope to them, rather than just cardboard cut out roles with no room for development. There is mystery to be found, stemming from the fact we never get a good look at the killer, who is mainly referred to as Billy. I enjoy slashers with mystery and Black Christmas ranks among them. A low key, ambient score is the cherry on top of an impressive cake; cloaking events when it appears in an ominous light.
The cast is largely impressive too. Olivia Hussey greatly heads things as the terrified but level headed girl grappling with her own turmoil while trying to stay alive. Although she’s frightened, Hussey projects a certain relatability and serenity to the role of Jess that is most refreshing. I liked her as a final girl it must be said as she seems like a proper person with a sense of resourcefulness and tenacity. A pre-Superman Margot Kidder excels as the foul mouthed sister who has an attitude and isn’t afraid to flaunt it. She’s very charming and often abrasively witty within minutes and her energy is hard to resist. Keir Dullea is effectively mysterious and unpredictable portraying the boyfriend of Jess, who may or may not have evil intentions. John Saxon is superbly stalwart representing the main cop on the case who takes his job seriously and isn’t messing around. Doug McGrath provides some comic relief among the horror as the dim-witted policeman, who is woefully bad at his job and constantly told it. He doesn’t take anything seriously which in turn angers his superior to no end. Marian Waldman gives other bits of humour as the often drunk house mother who isn’t as classy and respectable as she likes to think she is. Andrea Martin is suitably fine as another sorority sister feeling the stress under the horror. Lynne Griffin, though only seen alive for a short duration, takes the honour of having the most memorable image in Black Christmas. Her face locked in a stunned state of fright, wrapped with plastic on a rocking chair is the stuff of nightmares and will burn itself into your brain.
So if it is seasonal horror you are after, the chilling Black Christmas should be high on that list. Prepare for terror when you see this cult classic.