ChristmasMargot KidderJohn SaxonAndrea Martin
Black Christmas (1974)
Remade as: Black Christmas (2006)
Also known as: Silent Night, Evil Night
Medium: film
Year: 1974
Director: Bob Clark
Writer: Roy Moore
Keywords: Christmas, horror, slasher
Country: Canada
Actor: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin, James Edmond, Doug McGrath, Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin, Michael Rapport, Leslie Carlson, Martha Gibson
Format: 98 minutes
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 12 December 2011
It's regarded as the first slasher film. (You could debate this, obviously.) Halloween's more famous of course, but John Carpenter didn't come along until four years after Bob Clark. It gets a lot of reverence from horror nerds and I can sort of see why, but to be honest I didn't think it was that great. "Solid" and "sincere" are good words for it, though.
Its problem, for me, is the main characters. I don't think they're that interesting. The core cast are unremarkable college students in a female sorority house, of whom only Margot Kidder stands out. She's tough, often foul-mouthed and could be argued to have got everyone killed by being obnoxious on the phone to a creepy caller who sounds as if he's murdering someone, which probably doesn't sound particularly likeable (and she isn't) but at least she has a definite personality.
The other characters are reasonable, though. There's a drunkard in charge of the house (Marian Waldman), a concerned father who happens to have a stick up his arse (James Edmond Jr.) and an uptight boyfriend (Keir Dullea) who at one point tries to beat his concert piano to death. I also liked the cops. John Saxon is competent and reassuring, while Doug McGrath manages to play an idiot without ever coming across as attempted comic relief. There's humour here, but it's on a tight leash and in the context of a realistic movie.
The story's only superficially similar to Halloween and its ilk. Instead of being centred around a mute killer who's basically a visual presence, this fruitcake (Billy) is largely a voice. Occasionally he'll murder people, but not as often as you'd think. Instead his favourite pastime is making disturbing phone calls to the girls, in which he's either doing different voices like Norman Bates or else killing people for the sake of background sound effects for his phone calls. Nobody ever suspects the latter, although they obviously don't like him. The girls go to the police and get a tap on the line so that the calls can be traced, but unfortunately this is 1974 and so tracing a phone call is easier said than done. What's interesting about these calls from a horror movie point of view is that they're not scary. It's possible to do scary phone calls, but Bob Clark doesn't. Instead he makes them merely rather confusing and disturbed, letting the audience creep themselves out with the knowledge that the girls are being phoned up by a killer.
This is arguably subtle. I like subtlety.
The film has a parent-child theme. I don't think it resonates as effectively as the different parent-child themes of, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street, but you can't deny its presence. It's almost more of a parent's horror movie, actually. The college girls are all in danger... because they're living away from home and in close proximity to booze and boys! One gets pregnant. Margot Kidder likes talking dirty and in her very first scene is trash-talking her mum over the phone. "You're a real gold-plated whore, mother, you know that?" Thinking about it, the one-dimensional characterisation of most of them actually fits quite well with this reading.
Meanwhile the movie's parental figures are all failures. Marian Waldman is a shameless wino and gets a scene where she grumbles at the mirror that she can't be held responsible for the moral failings of these sluts. James Edmond Jr. is a cock. You could stretch a point and regard the police as fulfilling a kind of parental role, if you wanted, but even there Doug McGrath is an idiot who's being shown to be inadequate both in his official role and in his knowledge of girls and sex.
Thus the low body count allows an unusually strong focus on the worries of the victims' friends and authority figures. We're accustomed to death in slasher movies, but less so to the sight of parents trying to find out what's happened to their missing daughter. A thirteen-year-old's murdered corpse is found in the park. (Significantly we never meet her, but we do meet her mother.) This theme explains all the screen time being given over to the subplot about the pregnant girl who wants an abortion and her disagreements with her boyfriend over this. Finally and most understated of all, there's the obvious fact that Christmas is a holiday to celebrate a mother giving birth to a baby. You'll have to notice this for youself, mind you. The film never mentions it for itself.
It's not a very Christmassy Christmas film, for what it's worth. The opening has lots of seasonal spirit and there's a memorable kill later on that's intercut with carol singers, but that's about it.
The film's convincingly acted, although I wouldn't have minded a bit more personality from the core girls. By chance it also happens to include two actors who'd go on to much bigger things in horror, in Margot Kidder (The Amityville Horror) and John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street, playing a similar role in another parent-child horror movie). In addition the uptight boyfriend is Keir Dullea, from 2001: A Space Odyssey. For no good reason I'd been assuming this would be a trashy film, to be honest, but it surprised me by being classier than I'd expected. It's sincere, not cheesy.
Would I recommend this film? Maybe. I think I'd have liked it better if I'd been unaware of its geek reputation and merely stumbled across it as a random 1970s horror film. It does the "killer POV shot" thing, but that's the nearest you'll get to a Halloween similarity and you'll be disappointed if you go in expecting more. It's more low-key than that. It also has an ambiguous ending (which is cool) and is based on a series of real murders that took place in Quebec around Christmas time. Its director, Bob Clark, has made some movies you'll have heard of (Porky's, A Christmas Story) and some horror ones that you might not have, but are well regarded anyway (Deathdream, about a zombie soldier returning from Vietnam).
It got an unpopular 2006 remake, but that's not its fault. I didn't lose my mind for it, but I can appreciate that it's serious about what it's trying to do and I can understand why a lot of people found it creepy. I'd be up for rewatching it, if that's any indication.