BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), AYIF Review.

Posted by Brian Salisbury - July 27th 2009 @ 10:30 am

Directed by Bob Clark, 1979
Written by Roy Moore


Welcome back to AYIF.  Today’s film epitomizes why I started this project in the first place: to mine obscurity and strike paydirt!  I love horror films and have since I was a kid.  While I have grown to be picky, even a bit snobby, on the subject, it is a genre with which I find a comfortable familiarity.  Horror is the gateway drug for my full on film addiction.  I moved to Austin because I wanted to expand my horizons and find my new favorites.  BLACK CHRISTMAS will definitely occupy one of those spots.

BLACK CHRISTMAS takes place just after Labor Day.  Not really, just making sure you’re paying attention.  In lieu of spoilers, enjoy this hopelessly vague synopsis.  It’s the holiday season and we follow one local sorority preparing for their Christmas break.  Some are packing to go home, others are decking the halls, and still others are simply drinking spirits right.  But amid all the festive frivolity, the girls receive numerous phone calls featuring disturbing voices and threats.  They don’t think much of it until unexplained sounds and shadows find their way inside the house.  Who is the mysterious figure lurking outside?  Will our sorority sisters be slaughtered before sunrise?This film is great.  And when I say great, I don’t mean in the esoteric realm where only my warped mind would enjoy it.  BLACK CHRISTMAS is nuanced and technically accomplished from start to finish.  It is subtle and understated but with the competence of execution to make it comparable to some of the greatest horror films of all time.  It’s horrifying and disturbing but not afraid to explore moments of black comedy.  The movie is undeniably entertaining but borders on artistic on more than one occasion.  The characters are not so much “over-the-top” as they are slightly more pronounced versions of regular folks; making them entirely believable and amiable.

These are all stunning achievements for a horror film of the slasher subgenre, but equally as impressive is its historical significance.  BLACK CHRISTMAS was released in 1974, which effectively trumps the theory, held by some, that John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN is the original slasher flick.  While HALLOWEEN was the most commercially successful slasher at the time of its release (actually one of the highest grossing independent films of all time), BLACK CHRISTMAS establishes a lot of the standards for the subgenre.  The threatening phone calls and killer’s point of view shots are just a couple of the now-familiar trends Bob Clark’s film showcases.

And still others balk at awarding primacy to BLACK CHRISTMAS by citing films like PEEPING TOM, PSYCHO, and the early Italian Giallo.  While this is divergent from my review, I always love a good discussion so I offer to you my perspective:  PSYCHO is a fantastic psychological thriller, but it offers very little of what we now recognize as slasher fodder.  PEEPING TOM, as the entire movie is told from the killer’s perspective, uses P.O.V as an extension of the metaphor about the safety of the fourth wall in art and it is not used to hide the killer’s identity or show him lurking; not slasher material.  But I can buy the Giallo argument, seeing as Giallo is undeniably slasher.  So bearing that in mind, I will credit BLACK CHRISTMAS as being, if not the first, one of the very first (North) American slasher films.  Feel free to disagree, I do not claim to be the end-all-be-all expert.

While no one in the movie really gives a bad performance, I would like to highlight a pair of standouts.  John Saxon plays the sheriff of this little hamlet.  Horror fans will remember Saxon playing this same role a decade later in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.  He is charismatic and witty.  I also buy him as a cop, which sounds odd but how many times have you seen a horror film cop who seems like he would be better suited for a career in breakfast sandwich assembly than law enforcement?  No, Saxon is a fantastic character actor (one of my favorites) and he boasts a great deal of authority on screen.  He seems legitimately concerned for his town and decisive enough to put a bad guy in the ground when called for.  I desperately want to see a movie where Saxon and Tom Atkins are two feuding cops in a town facing the threat of a serial murderer; dare to dream kids!

The other performance I really enjoyed was that of Margot Kidder.  She plays the sorority sister who is happily flirting with full-blown alcoholism.  The thing I love about her is that she is so hilariously crass! She doesn’t give the first bald fuck about what anyone thinks of her or who she may be offending.  Despite her appearing to be the oldest sorority girl in history, she is very believable.  She also pulls off one of the funniest pranks I’ve ever seen on some gullible cop involving fake area codes.  Kidder is responsible for most of the exploration into black comedy in this film; her and one very vulgar Santa Claus who had me shooting egg nog out of my nose.  Not to be crass myself, but isn’t it possible that having Kidder play the drunk/crazy chick was a glorious piece of typecasting?  She was so committed to the role that she never gave up method acting, continuing several decades after the film was released. (Too soon?)

BLACK CHRISTMAS makes every correct choice.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but there is a moment where the film reaches a clear crossroads.  It could favor finality and disclosure or it can uphold that which makes the best horror villains iconic: ambiguity.  The movie can end traditionally and relegate itself to standard horror (delivering all pertinent exposition about the killer when it does) or it can leave the scariest details to the imagination of the audience.  The latter is the stronger choice, and BLACK CHRISTMAS employs it even before it became commonplace to choose the former.  Amazing!

In keeping with the style and tradition of Horror’s Not Dead, I will be implementing a letter grade system from here on out.  To wit, I submit:

Brian’s Rating: A

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rss 8 comments
  1. July 27th, 2009 | 10:35 am | #1

    “So bearing that in mind, I will credit BLACK CHRISTMAS as being, if not the first, one of the very first American slasher films.”

    Except for it being Canadian and all…

    (Maybe “one of the very first North American slasher films”?)

  2. July 27th, 2009 | 10:36 am | #2

    But yeah, having only seen it for myself within the past two years, BC ’74 holds up surprisingly well.

  3. July 27th, 2009 | 10:49 am | #3

    Silly, Will, when it’s convenient, Canada is America. When it isn’t, Canada is a slovenly country of lumberjacks where it takes 45 months to schedule a physical with your doctor/butcher.

  4. July 27th, 2009 | 10:58 am | #4

    Then why’d I even bother bringing a passport?!

  5. adam charles
    July 27th, 2009 | 11:58 am | #5

    PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM I would categorize more as psychological thrillers. Both focus as much on the killer’s personality disorder as much as they do the suspense of the kill. PEEPING TOM may be more a character study, like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

    BLACK CHRISTMAS and HALLOWEEN are more traceable as the beginning of what we’d consider the modern-day slasher film. The killers are either motivated by revenge, or are just insane killers with no real explanation for their actions other than they just want to kill.

    I also haven’t seen enough giallos to judge their legitimacy as slashers, at least not enough pre-1974 see if they can stake the claim of being the “first.” Argento had, I think, 3 or 4 films before ’74 that may qualify, and Bava had a shit-ton of stuff throughout the 50s and 60s.

    Regardless, it doesn’t matter if it’s the first. It’s one of the best (I’d say top 3) of its kind that I’ve seen, and the fact that it appears to be ahead of its time is just icing on the cake and makes the achievements more impressive.

  6. July 27th, 2009 | 12:48 pm | #6

    Goss is correct. That’s embarrassing guys, truly sorry. I had thought it was Canadian. But then the Internet source I checked incorrectly listed it as American. Lesson learned: have multiple sources because the Internet can actually mislead you…..shocking!

    Peter,
    Can we change that to North American slasher? Thanks

  7. July 27th, 2009 | 1:20 pm | #7

    Also, my mistake was enough to warrant not one but TWO comments from the William Goss!!! Thanks for keeping me sharp Goss.

  8. July 28th, 2009 | 12:25 am | #8

    Well, the second one, I made sure to be affirmative, lest I only came across like a typo-jockey a-hole.

    (Which has happened before.)

    (And could happen again.)

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