Canada (dir. Bob Clark)
Cast: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, John Saxon, Marion Waldman, Les Carlson, Marcia Diamond, Lynne Griffin, Robert Hawkins, Art Hindle, Doug McGrath, Michael Rapaport, Jack Van Evera, Robert Warner, Martha Gibson, David Clement, James Edmond, Les Rubie, John Stoneham, Tom Foreman
Synopsis: The few remaining residents of a Canadian sorority house are celebrating the onset of Christmas vacation when a thirteen year-old girl is found dead in the park. Soon, it is discovered that one of the sorority sisters is missing, which triggers a terrifying chain of murders within the house.
Review: It’s a lot harder for me to write a long-winded, scathing review of some terrible film (more often than not a Michael Bay-funded remake, as is the case these days) than it is for me to write a full-length review in praise of a film I genuinely love. It’s maddeningly difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for liking some of my all-time favorite films, and “Black Christmas” is no exception. What do I love about this film? Well absolutely everything of course! It’s got all the right ingredients to make a holiday-themed slasher really shine. There are some incredible actors and actresses (the drop-dead gorgeous Olivia Hussey, the wonderful Margot Kidder, handsome hunks Keir Dullea and Art Hindle, and perpetual town sheriff, John Saxon), fantastic set decoration, a simple plot that absolutely refuses to get complicated, and cinematography and direction which could at the very least be described as ground-breaking.
In fact, labeling this film as ground-breaking is really an understatement. Not only did this small Canadian horror film (from 1974!) birth the holiday themed slasher (hell, it was the first horror film to give slashers a theme) but it created the entire slasher sub-genre. Yes, “Black Christmas” pre-dates John Carpenter’s “Halloween” thus making it the first “proper” slasher film. And not only did it give rise to the slashers, but it created the whole POV (point of view) camera shot – something that was absolutely unheard of in the early 1970s, but was re-used by Carpenter for “Halloween” four years later with incredible results and then recycled by countless other horror films as the years went by. Simply put, today’s slasher films (heck, pretty all horror films) owe a lot to “Black Christmas”, a hell of a lot, in fact.
I like watching “Black Christmas” once a year, at Christmas-time of course, much like I pull out my copy of “Halloween” every time October rolls around. Why only once a year? Perhaps I’m just preserving the film’s ability to scare the shit out of me or maybe I’m just subconsciously trying to keep it a strictly seasonal affair, to be honest I’m really not too sure. It certainly is something I would love to watch any time of the year, but it may just be that there is something magical about watching it at Christmas time, when everything feels so safe and secure. Then again, it could also just be that I relish in the fact that I can watch it only once a year, thus preserving its ability to both scare and surprise me, because let’s face it, you watch one good movie way too many times and it’s specialness just sort of fades away.
Director Bob Clark truly couldn’t have crafted a better film, the execution here is absolutely brilliant. You get such a great balance between absolute horror and tense anticipation, akin to “The Shining”. The set design successfully makes the familiar and safe, a sorority house fully decked out in full Christmas regalia, look completely unfamiliar and frightening despite the cheery decor. All the tropes of what will become the atypical slasher film are here: a mysterious male stalker with a concealed identity, young victims in their early twenties, a secluded location cut off from adult supervision, graphic kill scenes, POV shots, and a final girl who is punished for indulging in her vices. And before you go ahead and say “yeah, well, this is like every other slasher I’ve already seen!” keep in mind that at the time, there was nothing out there quite like this, and some might argue, myself included, that there’s been nothing quite like it since. I mean, just look at this title card, it’s absolutely gorgeous!
Oh, and mark my words, as soon as I win the lottery, I’m buying the house this fine film was shot in. Yup, the house is a residential property not too far from where I currently live. It is an absolute beauty and it still looks as incredible as it did in 1974, albeit with a few improvements to the facade.
There’s a lot to commend this film for, and the gorgeous house it was filmed in coupled with the fantastic set design, is just barely scraping the surface. The sorority girls themselves are hardly the nameless, oftentimes forgettable victims you’ll often see in today’s horror films. These girls have spunk, personality, and unforgettable performances. Exhibit A: Chain-smoking, whiskey-drinkin’, potty-mouthed Barb, played by the wonderful Margot Kidder. She is as outrageously funny as she is undeniably sexy, and her character provides more comic relief than is warranted in such a dark horror film, prime examples include the “F, E, little L, LA, TIO” scene at the police station or the “there’s a certain species of turtle that can screw for three days without stopping” bit.
Even the vulgar, boozing housemother, Mrs. MacHenry, provides some wonderful bits of comic relief, until she is of course killed off by our heavy-breathing intruder in order to ensure the house is as free from adult supervision as the slasher sub-genre demands. Honestly, is it too much to ask for characters like Barb and Mrs. Mac in every slasher?
And the killer’s MO, as typical as it may sound (creepy late-night phone calls) is downright disturbing. Our mysterious killer is given no back story whatsoever despite what is revealed in his increasingly frightening and obscene phone calls to the sorority house. The mystery behind the killer’s identity is really all for the best because it prevents the story from being overly complicated. And with only one red herring to contend with, everything is kept real simple. In the 2006 remake, “Black Xmas” (the less said about that film, the better), an attempt was made to rectify the killer’s lack of an identity and back story and the results were, in my humble opinion, both ridiculous and disastrous. “Black Christmas” is truly the kind of film where a less is more approach really works to its benefit.
Two things that really stand out, in the sense that you’ll be haunted by them for quite some time after watching this film, include the eye behind the door scene (the only “reveal” of our killer, who may or may not be named Billy) and the image of a suffocated sorority girl propped up in a rocking chair. This is the stuff of nightmares people!
And could you really have asked for a better ending? Our final girl, Jess (not quite as virginal as her future American counterpart, Laurie from “Halloween”) is finally killed (presumably) by our mystery caller, the innocent boyfriend (presumed killer and red herring extraordinaire) is mistakenly killed off and the obscene phone calls resume as the credits roll! My only beef with this movie? Two off-screen deaths that should have really been included: the innocent boyfriend and afro sistah (seen below with matching afro brotha).
This is a solid film. I really can’t put many more words together to describe just how fantastic it is. Do yourself a favor this holiday season and check out “Black Christmas”. This is the kind of film that just keeps on giving.