Black Christmas (1974) starring Olivia Hussey and Keir Dullea
What’s it about?
Black Christmas is largely set around a Toronto female students’ sorority house during the Yuletide season. The girls there are beset by a series of creepy and obscene phone calls from a mysterious stalker. Things rapidly take a more dangerous turn when one of their number - Clare Harrison, played by Lynne Griffin - suddenly disappears. She has been murdered via suffocation and her killer is storing the body where he is hiding out: in the house’s attic.
When Clare’s father (played by James Edmond) arrives to meet her to pick her up for their family Christmas reunion and she doesn’t turn up, the girls and their alcoholic housekeeper Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) take the matter to the police. Lieutenant Ken Fuller (John Saxon) leads the investigation.
Another of the girls named Jess (Olivia Hussey), meanwhile, is having troubles with her piano student boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea). She is pregnant with his child but wants to abort the foetus. Peter, however, is furious about the idea, especially when she makes her announcement just as he is about to undergo an examination of his pianist skills. When he fails the exam he flies into a rage and smashes the instrument to which he has dedicated eight years of his life.
When the bodies start to pile up and Jess receives further calls from the stalker - which begin to make reference to her baby - Peter becomes the prime suspect.
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Why is it significant?
Black Christmas is considered to be the prototype of the “special date in the calendar slasher flick” which was popularised 4 years’ later by John Carpenter’s Halloween and went on to encompass such films as Friday the 13th and Happy Birthday to Me. Some have also labelled it as a Canadian attempt to emulate the Italian giallo thriller. The film’s writer Roy Moore has claimed that it was inspired by a series of murders which took place around the Christmas season in the Westmount district of Montreal. However, there is no obvious evidence available via Google search to suggest that these actually occurred (if any readers can verify whether or not this is true I would be very grateful)!
It was the first of a string of films that US-born director Clark would make, partially or fully, with Canadian funding. While the $620,000 budget was low, it was still considerably larger than any of the films he had made up to that point. Most of the budget was spent on a surprisingly distinguished cast. Olivia Hussey is an Argentina-born actress who spent most of her life living in the UK and shot to fame playing Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet. The American actor Keir Dullea also rose to prominence during the 1960s in films such as Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968). Margot Kidder was an up-and-coming actress at this point, having acted alongside Gene Wilder in Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970) and starred in a dual role as identical twins in Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973). Brooklyn-born John Saxon is a talented actor who became best-known for his various genre film roles; just before this one, he acted alongside Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973).
It’s one of those films whose reputation has steadily improved over the years despite the fact that it only made a relatively minor impact during its release. It made just over $4 million worldwide which was enough for it to make a profit on its modest financial outlay but not enough for it to be considered a major hit. Contemporary reviews were hit-and-miss. However, it started to become more popular some years later after appearing on video shelves alongside other post-Halloween slashers. It is now regarded as a classic of the genre to the extent of getting its own (inevitably maligned) remake in 2006.
The uncut version of the film is currently rated 18 in the UK but unlike other films of this ilk, it hasn’t been given for gruesome violence (the murders are depicted in a restrained, largely gore-free manner). The BBFC took issue with the dialogue during one of the obscene phone calls due to it containing some lewd sexual references and repeated usage of the word “cunt”.
Director Clark later helmed another paean to the same holiday season in the form of the more family-friendly A Christmas Story in 1983. Funnily enough, as with Black Christmas it wasn’t a big hit at the time but its reputation has grown over the years. If Black Christmas is now regarded as one of the finest Yuletide horror films, A Christmas Story is now regarded as one of the best Yuletide films full-stop.
How does it hold up?
It’s no wonder that Black Christmas retains its popularity over the years with horror buffs. It holds up incredibly well after repeat viewings - even if it does feature a silly twist at the end that points to the police making an incredibly glaring oversight in their investigations.
Director Bob Clark displays an adroit handling of the all-important tension and atmosphere required of a horror film. He makes great use of prowling POV shots, placing him somewhere in a cinematic continuum of terror between the early “Animal Trilogy” Argento films and John Carpenter’s Halloween. However, the most effectively tense scene is the piano exam sequence, a succession of tight cuts between the stern, unimpressed faces of the examiners and the increasingly strained and frustrated one of Peter, played by Keir Dullea. It’s an entirely wordless moment where everything is communicated via expressions and the increasingly chaotic dirge produced from the musical instrument.
Clark is aided and abetted via the excellent cinematography by Reginald H. Morris, who neatly contrasts the warm twinkle of Christmas lights with the cold, dark nighttime winter exteriors. The film also derives much impact via sound - from a breathy avant-garde soundtrack provided by Carl Zittrer and the wide variety of disturbing, animalistic noises made by the phone pest (courtesy of an uncredited Nick Mancuso). The sound, incidentally, has considerably more impact when experienced in a cinema than it does via TV speakers.
We care who gets slashed here
Most importantly, unlike a lot of later slasher films (when the craze was at its height), the characters here are easy to care about. A lot of them do initially seem like stock stereotypes: the landlady who is a secret alcoholic (she stows hidden bottles of spirits in all sorts of cunning locations throughout the house), the “nice girl” female protagonist, the somewhat overbearing boyfriend, the prudish father, the lewd and drunken “ladette”, the tough and determined cop leading the case, his rather dumb deputy and so on. However, the script does a great job of both playing the characters for laughs (which help to provide some relief between the moments of terror) and providing enough nuance to make them click as believable human beings.
Even if Peter is on the creepy and arrogant side it’s possible to feel a bit of sympathy for him when he’s trying desperately to follow his dreams of being a musician. While the boorish and perpetually drunk Barbs (a hilarious performance by Margot Kidder) is the kind of obnoxious university “friend” whom you are unlikely to have particularly fond memories of, it is possible to feel sorry for her later on when she does finally obtain a flash of self-awareness.
As I mentioned before, the one weak point here is the ending. Admittedly it goes out on an ambiguous note which could be read in a variety of ways but it certainly left me thinking that it could easily have been cleared up had the police done their jobs properly. Still, that moment notwithstanding, Black Christmas is a dark horror gift that keeps on giving.
Runtime: 98 mins
Dir: Bob Clark
Script: Roy Moore
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin, James Edmond, Doug McGrath, Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin