Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Review : Black Christmas (1974)



Bob Clark


Roy Moore (screenplay)
"Hardly anyone ever heard The Velvet Underground, but everyone who did formed a band..."

The same could arguably be said for Bob Clark's third and most accomplished foray into the world of Horror, BLACK CHRISTMAS. A film with such a wide reaching influence on modern horror, its a sin that its so often overlooked, underrated and pushed aside for the more user-friendly Horror that rode on its mighty wave. Its only now, in the years after Clark's death, (killed along with his son in a tragic, drink driving incident), that this atmospheric masterwork is beginning to invoke the love its so long been denied.

Four years before HALLOWEEN took the world by storm and redefined the Horror genre, introducing the Slasher sub genre to the world en-mass, Clark's twisted yuletide tale was blazing the trail in which Carpenter's admittedly stunning shocker would follow, and its no secret that Carpenter viewed, (and loved), this film. In fact, its rumored that he once asked Bob Clark if he had an idea for a sequel, to which Clark replied, 'I would have babysitters being stalked, and set it on Halloween Night'. Doesn't take a great jump in logic to see where Carpenters tale of little Micheal Myers was born. HALLOWEEN may have won the glory, but BLACK CHRISTMAS has the guts.

Everything that the Slasher genre would spend a decade and more replicating is right here. The killers point of view shot was born here, the 'dark holiday' scenario was born here, the 'killer on the phone' was born here, ( including the twist that made  WHEN A STRANGER CALLS a hit some years later). Its all here, and its all handled with a grace, style and artistry that only its closest kin, HALLOWEEN could ever hope to muster. BLACK CHRISTMAS is an essential film for fans of the Slasher. Not only as a curio or a historic piece that affords insight into the roots of the kill count movie, but as a flawless, genuinely terrifying film in its own right, that is as powerful, chilling and disturbing today as it was on its release.

We open here with an establishing shot of the sorority house in which most of the action will take place, and from the first seconds of this film, it becomes clear than this is one horror film that's playing for keeps. As the title card comes up and we hear the distant echoes of church bells pierce the darkness, we're treated to a discordant, utterly unnerving version of 'Silent Night', which plays more like a requiem than a Christmas carol. Its the first of many wonderful touches that elevate BLACK CHRISTMAS above any slasher I can think of. We follow the killer as he enters the attic that will become his 'spiders lair' if you will, and we can feel the cold, outwith the house and inside the man. The fear is palpable. It is, for me, the best use of first person camerawork Ive ever seen. The mood is immediate, the intent is obvious. The film is replete with such perfect moments. 

There is an atmosphere in this film that I'm at a loss to describe. Its perfect. I cant think of another film that uses so little to express so much. Between the icy winter visuals, and the perfect soundtrack, both musically and effects wise, it creates a dread filled winter wonderland in which even the most simple acts and scenario's are filled with the promise of doom, violence and creeping evil. At all times in the film, the howling wind can be heard pushing against the huge, labyrinthine sorority house our killer targets. Dogs can be heard barking in the distance, almost imperceptibly. It may seem like nothing, but the subconscious mind is put on guard by such sounds. The wind becomes encroaching hopelessness, relentlessly forcing its way in. The church bells a promise of mortality cut short. The barking of dogs....a warning of strange and unheeded danger in the night. Its fucking wonderful.

And what of our killer, the enigmatic and terrifying 'Billy'? We know nothing of him. And we have only his frequent phone calls to the girls to gain any insight into his psyche. The audience creates Billy's mythos, and there are many theories as to who and what this guy is all about. The calls themselves are among the most horrific moments in the film, and yet another shining example of Clark's expert sound design. We're aurally assaulted by the lunatic ravings of a severely damaged mind, that veers wildly from female screams to a child's laughter, and in one superbly chilling moment, a calm, considered voice, that after screaming maniacally, grunting like a pig and spitting sexual obscenities, suddenly quiets and simply states, 'I'm going to kill you'. Its as chilling as cinema comes. And its very believable. And Billy as a man who keeps his promises. The kills are relatively bloodless but extremely shocking, and tragic. The death of one central character, as yet another Christmas carol is sung outside the house, is among the saddest and most disturbing deaths I've seen onscreen in any horror movie.

We never see our deranged prowler either. Only in glimpses and shadows do we get a feel for his movement, his poise and his image. We see a hand trembling with the rage he carries, as he leans over a sleeping victim, (or is it sexual frenzy?), we hear a scream of rage that turns the stomach in its ferocity, and at one infamous moment, we see an eye peering from behind a door. Surely one of the most horrifying images in horror. That wild, staring eye will forever be tattooed on the skin of my nightmares.

The cast is brilliant too. Our main character, played by Olivia Hussey, is surrounded by a colorful and loveable ensemble, whom you loath to see suffer. Margot Kidder is at her very best ,playing a permanently trashed wreck, Barbara, who through sheer power of personality, elicits a great deal of compassion and goodwill from the audience. Maria Waldman, as the house's keeper, steals every scene shes in, as a gin-loving, foul-mouthed mother figure, (it's easy to see Kidder's Barbara in this role in later life), for the girls under her care. And lets not forget the mighty John Saxon, playing the stoic and capable police chief, (a part he would practically recreate, beat for beat, in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET). All brilliant.

Olivia Hussey plays Jess, at perhaps the peak of her ethereal beauty She's perfectly cast as arguably the worlds first 'Final Girl', (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was released the same year), and for my money, the best we've yet seen. Jess is no virgin. In fact, shes carrying a child and looking to have an abortion and get shot of her intensely creepy boyfriend, ( a brilliant Kier Dullea ). She garners our sympathy through being so believable and level headed. And she may represent one of the films many mysteries. Is her predicament the catalyst for Billy's rage? His lunatic rants hint at a past when a child may have been hurt, or killed, under his supervision or care. Could this relate to her? Did he lose a child to abortion perhaps? But then what of the other girls? Is Olivia even his target at all?

Who the hell knows, and that's all part of the fun. BLACK CHRISTMAS will be talked about and theorized on endlessly in horror forums and sites across the globe, and it puts a spring in my step knowing that we will never know for sure the who, what, why or even the name of the man we've all come to know as, 'Billy'. Clark has took these mysteries to the grave. And to know that the only finality we will ever have with his masterpiece is that there is no finality, is simply poetry.

Welcome to my idea of a perfect Horror movie. BLACK CHRISTMAS wrote the rules, and created the techniques that would be so abused as to become cliched. It gave us a brilliantly taught tale of senseless horror and mental torment. It gave us a killer that will remain perhaps the most mysterious in the annals of horror history. It gave us a drunk Margot Kidder in her best role ever. It gave us one of cinema's bleakest endings. It gave us our favorite Christmas Eve tonic to the family friendly shite the season is so awash in, and it gave us, (for my mind), the greatest slasher, and most likely, the greatest horror movie of all time. Just see it already, and if it's for the first time......I envy you.

10 Obscene Phone Calls out of 10

(Authors Note : Please, if you haven't yet seen this film, don't watch the 'remake' that was released a few years ago. Its not just a terrible film, its actually deeply insulting to Bob Clark's vision. By all means watch afterwards, but you'll be doing yourself a huge disservice by watching it first, and I'll take it personally, hide out in your attic, and fuck you up first chance I get. Your warned!)


  1. Such a classic. I always try to listen close to those phone calls cause there so disturbing. Everything in this film worked and can always pop this on and enjoy it. It is a film that you show other people to let them see what great original horror films can be.

  2. Fantastic review! This is one of my classic fav's. You could almost feel it in When a Stranger Calls, but no one executed it the way this film did.The remake wasn't horrid, but like Hills Have Eyes and Texas Chainsaw remakes, it depended on the gore and over the top dramatics instead of the psychological fear. Truly one of the best of genre.

  3. Just realised a section of the review has went missing, where i talked about the cast.anyone else had this problem, as ive had it a few time and had to rewrite.
    I agree about the calls.Used to think teh first was the most disturbing, but i think as they go on he becomes even more deranged, if thats possible :D
    @autumnforest I can enjoy the 'remake' as a film on its own, a cheesy fun little slasher, just wish it didnt have BC's name on it. It turns billy into a yellow eyeball fetishist and whats with the sister???lol Good kills tho.

  4. I'll rewrite the missing section in the morning, for anyone who's confused as to who Olivia Hussey Waldman is ;)

  5. Great review :) The section about the cast is there. I like Olivia Hussey in Romeo and Juliet. Great movie :) SO not horror lol :) Keep up the great work and I look forward to the next review.

  6. Fantastic review for a great movie!

    You can't hide out in my attic. I don't have one.


  7. haha..I'll go with the basement. Im an open minded prowler! ;)
    Gld you enjoyed, Blaze. I managed to fix the errors, hopefully with for good.

  8. @Coral, yeah I was planning to rewrite this morning, but it bugged me, so I had to remedy the problem there and then.

  9. The original is such a classic they people seem to forget about it. I loved the movie and thought it was well made with great deaths. The actresses in it did a awesome job too.

    LOL @ your warning.

  10. @ RQ, thats not a warning, its a PROMISE!!! :D

  11. I've never lost a whole section before but I have noticed that occasionally words get left out when I post a review. I think it's how the Blogger editor buffers things and doesn't save properly. You think you've made the changes but they don't stick. It's really annoying as it means reading through the published post again and editing again.

  12. @ Dr B : Yeah its a pain. Im gonna start backing up reviews before i post em, on hard drive in case it happens again.

  13. I love the film, too. You have to love a movie that forever after made Silent Night sound sinister.

  14. The original slasher, love this movie.

    Movie Memorabilia