Black Christmas (1974)

*. Without giving it credit for launching the slasher genre I think it’s still fair to say that Black Christmas was the first of its kind. The reason it’s less well known is that it was the unbelievable box office success of Halloween that really launched the genre properly. It is profitability that leads to imitation in the film business, and Black Christmas (released in the U.S. as Silent Night, Evil Night, which I’m sure didn’t help) pretty much sank without a trace when it was released (they had trouble getting the title right: on television it premiered as Stranger in the House). It did turn a profit on its modest budget, but not enough for anyone to notice. Halloween would break the bank four years later. Then we were off to the races.
*. An aside: Director Bob Clark always said that he’d been friends with John Carpenter and had told him about his thoughts for a sequel to Black Christmas, which he didn’t want to do. It was to be called Halloween. He also said that Carpenter was a fan of the movie and had been influenced by it. I understand that Carpenter has said that he hadn’t seen it before making Halloween. Go figure.
*. Many of the separate ingredients we get here had been tasted before, most notably in the Italian gialli, but Black Christmas gave us the whole package of what would become a formula: the POV shots (perhaps first done in The Spiral Staircase), the calls coming from inside the house (actually done a year earlier in The Severed Arm), the threatened young people, the killer with one name (Billy) who strikes on a holiday, the scene where the last girl runs around discovering all the bodies at the end, even the business where she finds out that the front door is locked from the outside! How does that keep happening?
*. There are some variations on what would become the standard script. The last girl is no virgin but is actually thinking of getting an abortion. And in fact the women in this particular sorority-house massacre aren’t sexualized at all. We’re also in a transition zone from the mystery plot of the giallo, with various suspicious types and red herrings thrown in to the mix, to the lone psycho slayer who is basically a killing machine and, what’s more, is still alive at the end. (Kim Newman makes an interesting point: “The most heavily criticized aspect of Black Christmas — the transformation of the unknown psycho villain into a quasi-supernatural presence — would be seen as Halloween‘s strongest suit.”) But I think these just go to show how the genre hadn’t reached its final form yet.
*. Its claim to be the first slasher movie is what most people know about Black Christmas. But I don’t think that would be enough to have kept interest in it going, and even growing, for nearly fifty years. The fact is, this is a pretty good little horror movie. Halloween is scarier, but after that and maybe Nightmare on Elm Street I’d rate Black Christmas ahead of almost any other early slasher I can think of.
*. I realize that such comparisons aren’t saying much, so I’ll drop them now. What else is to like here?

*. Quite a lot. Bob Clark’s direction is solid if not overly stylish. He goes to the well maybe a bit too often in making jarring cutaways from violent action to something else going on at the same time, but not so much as to be annoying. I think what impresses me the most though is the treatment of space, meaning the wonderful interior of the house. The layout, and especially that old horror stand-by the staircase, are put to very good use. Moving up and down, and through the different floors and rooms, is quite effectively handled.
*. The cast is great, belying the low budget. Olivia Hussey is a cool and credible scream queen. Keir Dullea looks properly unbalanced. Maybe it’s his hair. John Saxon is typecast in a role he’d reprise in Nightmare on Elm Street. Andrea Martin, a comedian, is entirely believable in her second Canadian horror vehicle (after Cannibal Girls). But best of all is Margot Kidder. She’s playing an original character and pulls it off. Here’s a talent we never really saw enough of, for different reasons.
*. The script, which spent a lot of time in development, is both very simple (a killer, who remains unseen, is hiding in the attic of a sorority house), and quite complex in the manner of one of those later Hammer psychothrillers. I think this latter point is what Newman is adverting to when he calls the film “over-plotted.” But these two tendencies don’t work against each other.
*. Another disjunction is the absence of gore, while creating shock value out of some very explicit telephone calls. Those are really quite daring by the standards of 1974. As is the matter-of-fact way Jess’s decision to have an abortion is handled. Clark wanted realistic college students and I think he got them. These aren’t stereotypes of nerds or bimbos but seem like real people.
*. Sticking with the telephone messages, they did a lot of work on them, but it results in an odd mix that doesn’t sound like anything a single person’s voice (because it wasn’t).
*. The ending. Yes. Well. No, I don’t know what to make of it. It seems odd to say the least that Jess is left to recover from these traumatic events alone in the house. And did Jess kill Peter? Why was she screaming? Did she just faint? As for who Billy and Agnes are, I have no idea. The 2006 remake presents a grotesque backstory, which I think is irrelevant for appreciating this film. Billy is meant to be an enigma. That’s one reason we never see his face. If you find that frustrating, I understand. But this isn’t a movie that was ever going to tie things up neatly.
*. “If it doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight!” One of the great thriller ad lines of the time. Up there with The Last House on the Left (1972): To avoid fainting, keep repeating: “It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie . . .” and Phantasm (1979) “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!” Are there any great taglines anymore? I can’t think of many.
*. This is one of those rare movies where I can identify with many of the locations. It was shot in Toronto and there’s one scene shot at the foot of Soldiers’ Tower at Hart House. I walked underneath that every day for years. It’s a different kind of movie nostalgia.
*. Not a bad movie at all in absolute terms, and a very good one given the genre it did a lot to define. Why wasn’t it successful at the time? The American marketing didn’t help (it did very well under its original title in Canada). The lack of gore and general sense of restraint probably held it back. Carpenter just needed to tweak things a bit. A catchy jingle. Girls in underwear. And a killer that would be a physical presence (credited as “The Shape”) while at the same time less of this world. A hero, in other words. Not a Billy.

11 thoughts on “Black Christmas (1974)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Great review; nails the best thing in Halloween, ie the killer’s transformation into something more…I’m not a mad slasher fan, but Black Christmas I really like, great atmosphere, cast and effective concept, even if Halloween took it further….and NOT a Xmas movie, please! Right?

  2. Tom Moody

    Thanks, you’ve stimulated my interest in this movie. Quite a career for Mr. Clark, to go from this one and Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things! to A Christmas Story and Baby Geniuses (by way of Porky’s).

    And let’s not forget:

    “There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby… It’s alive.”
    “Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water…”
    “Man is the warmest place to hide”

    and groaning into the new millennium:

    “Whoever wins… We lose.”

    1. Alex Good Post author

      This is actually a decent little movie, especially if you black out all that came after it.

      Those other ad lines really underline the point about how the golden age has passed. Larry Cohen played aces with the marketing for It’s Alive (I think it was only on that film’s re-release, when he came up with the line you quote, that it really took off). Meanwhile, Alien vs. Predator . . . is that the best they could do?

  3. scifimike70

    I remember learning from a Black Christmas documentary that John Saxon was a replacement for Edmond O’Brien (who had to be let go from the film when he developed Alzheimer’s). For the best cast that this kind of horror classic may be given, particularly Olivia Hussey and Keir Dullea a few years after their big breaks in Romeo & Juliet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was quite fascinated to know that SCTV’s Andrea Martin was in the case after knowing her as an iconic comedienne. But then I had already seen John Candy in The Clown Murders.

    Thanks, Alex, for your review.

  4. Tom Moody

    Watched this on Tubi last night. It’s pretty tense and I liked Clark’s use of zooms and closeups to build claustrophobia. It’s no fault of the movie, but I kept expecting Andrea Martin to do something funny, like burst into song or adopt a crazy accent.


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