Running time: 98 min.
Release date: December 20, 1974
Box office: $4,053,000 (domestic)
When you and your friends discuss the slasher sub-genre of horror, you probably mention Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, and all of their subsequent sequels. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers are the icons that you remember, most likely because there have been so many films in each series that it is hard to forget about them. However, not many will throw Black Christmas into the mix. Perhaps because it preceded all of them during a time when VHS was exploding and there was also never any sequel. Black Christmas is considered to be the granddaddy of the slasher genre, seemingly inspiring John Carpenter when he was filming Halloween. Many of the genre's tropes were original elements in this film. Black Christmas sets the tone within the first few minutes of the film and lets that tone hang over the entire sequence of events. The current horror movie scene has the false belief that the scares are in the gore, when in actuality, it is knowing what is in the shadows before it jumps out that is the real scare.
The film takes place in the snowy days just before Christmas at a sorority house, where a party is just wrapping up. While the sounds of laughter and cheery voices are in the background, an unseen heavy-breathing figure approaches the house, peers through doors and windows, and then climbs a trellis to an attic window and climbs inside. It is curious how the unseen person knows that there is a window to the attic, and once inside the house, knows how to move around without being seen. Meanwhile, the girls have been receiving obscene phone calls. These are not just "Is your refrigerator running?" calls. The person on the other end is clearly disturbed and quite vulgar and disturbing. With the voice on the phone coupled with the unknown stalker in the house, the chills are ramped up even before the residents of the sorority house are killed off one by one. Meanwhile, one of the girls, Jess (Olivia Hussey), is having problems with her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea). This is a clever attempt at keeping the viewer guessing at the identity of the killer, who is never facially visible on-screen. The police get involved when the father of one of the girls reports her missing. Lt. Fuller is played by horror movie stalwart John Saxon. The police make attempts at tracing the source of the calls, as we catch a glimpse of a phone tap in action in an interesting bit of direction. The plot is filled with false scares and people investigating noises that they shouldn't. Of course, now these are common tropes, but if you time travel back to 1974, these were still novel plot elements that helped turn the tension up to eleven.
Director Bob Clark takes the less-is-more approach for the most part in relation to the gore. Save for one scene, there is a distinct lack of blood, as Clark opts more for the tension and atmosphere that he has created since the opening trellis climb. The obscene calls combined with the first-person point-of-view of the killer have really created a chilling atmosphere, which is only broken up by a few light-hearted moments provided mostly by the police characters. The use of angles and shadows in order to keep the killer's identity ambiguous throughout is such a masterstroke. If there is any complaint about Clark's work it is with the pacing of the film. There is a dull stretch after the killer takes his first victim that is devoted to characters reacting to one of their own going missing, as well as the handling of the relationship between Jess and Peter. Once that hurdled is cleared, the film crackles with manic tension.
The ensemble cast is quite effective, with the standout being Margot Kidder as Barb. The character is quite unlikeable in a cast of "nice girls". This is by design due to the fact that the rest of the girls in the sorority appear to be a bunch of do-gooders. Olivia Hussey's Jess is troubled by her very private and personal situation, and Hussey conveys that fact quite convincingly. The house-mother, played by Marian Waldman, is depicted as a booze hound, which I suppose could be comedy, but it also could be a tragedy, as she desperately searches for any bottle of the elixir she has hidden around the house. John Saxon as Lt. Fuller appears to be a good cop with genuine concern for the girls. Saxon has made a career out of these roles and is always dependable. Keir Dullea as Peter is quite possibly losing his sanity due to the pressures of school and relationships. His character was the hardest to sympathize with as he has an air of arrogance in the way he makes demands of Jess. Dullea appears to be holding back, and indeed, the character cries to Jess off-screen during a phone conversation rather than on-screen face-to-face. The screenplay doesn't really flesh out many of the supporting characters, but the cast makes the most of it with their own charm, just enough to make the viewer like them.
Another creative spark for Black Christmas is the score by Carl Zittrer. Filled with warped piano, the music gives the appropriate background for a killer who is nowhere in the vicinity of his right mind. There are plenty of films where the score is so unnoticeable but here Zittrer has taken piano, distorted it, slowed it down, giving the chills provided by Clark their very own soundtrack. If the score was composed in any other manner, then something would be taken away from the threatening shadows on-screen.
So it is that the grandfather of the slasher flick sets the tone for those to follow. It all begins with the atmosphere and tone established at the beginning and with director Clark maintaining that tone throughout. A mostly-likeable ensemble cast, a few dabs of humor, and an invisible antagonist all complement a screenplay that is simple and straightforward. Despite a lull in the middle, the rest of the film surrounding it is quite remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that director Bob Clark is responsible for one of the more endearing Christmas films of all-time: A Christmas Story. Based on the hair-raising chills in Black Christmas, our minds and hearts are glad he turned to more light-hearted fare. This film needs to be mentioned in the slasher conversation and should be shown at film school as an example of building suspense in a horror film.