Black Christmas (1974)
Dir. Bob Clark (1974)
Sorority girls are stalked by a mysterious stranger.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
It’s impossible to truly quantify both the importance and the weirdness of Black Christmas. As much as Halloween is often classified as the first slasher, and it truly did originate many (or even most) of the tropes inherent to the genre, it was not, of course, the first slasher. Sure, you can trace the lineage, and a lot of the features, of slashers back into the 50’s, but it was Bob Clark’s Black Christmas that really started the slasher craze as we know it in America. In fact, Halloween likely would not have ever been made had it not been for the success of Clark’s film, as it was the desire to capitalize on the holiday horror craze that inspired Carpenter, Hill, and their producers to make their legendary addition to the genre in the first place. It’s also a damn fine addition to the genre, a standalone film that inspired countless others despite never receiving it’s own franchise, a film that sought to terrify its audience but contained enough frathouse humor to serve as a singular entry into the horror genre as a whole. There are scenes that are genuinely scary, but audiences today simply cannot understand the impact that this film must have had when it came out, as most of the people in the crowd had more than likely never seen anything even close to what Clark chose to show on-screen.
And speaking of Clark… After making Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Clark made two classic Christmas films that literally could not be more different. First, he made Black Christmas, a film that ranks very highly in many people’s “best horror movies ever” list. This, alone, is an accomplishment that most directors can’t claim, even those who have been making horror movies for decades. He followed up this film with A Christmas Story, that movie where young Ralphie wants a Red Ryder bb gun more than anything in the world but somehow manages to make a mall store Santa prophetic when he shoots his eye out. Somewhere in between, he made both Porky’s and it’s sequel, closing out his bizarre filmography, of course, with 1999’s Baby Geniuses. If there is a director with a more bizarre list of credits, I’d love to see it, but Clark has to rank right up there with anyone. To make a string of cult classics is insane, and with two of them revolving around one snowy holiday, Bob Clark may be the best ever at making niche holiday movies for the entire gamut of filmgoer.
Now, as for the movie… I gotta be completely honest, I’m not really a fan of Black Christmas. I know that’s sacrilege to a lot of folks, and that’s fine. The performances in the film are varied. Margot Kidder does her best Margot Kidder impression, hamming it up as the dirty drunk who makes inappropriate jokes to police officers and insults creepy obscene callers. Olivia Hussey is bizarre, the British-accented sorority girl who has perhaps the worst phone manners of all time. Marian Waldman, who plays the den mother Mrs. Mac, is the comic relief, hiding bottles of alcohol in random places around the house while maintaining an unhealthy obsession with her cat. None of the characters are particularly compelling, serving as cannon fodder, despite the heavy-handed attempt at character development, for the killer, who is never revealed.
Which leads us to our next point of discussion. The film has often been praised for its attempt to discuss abortion from a feminist perspective, as Olivia Hussey’s character Jess is pregnant and insists that she will have an abortion even when her lover Peter tells her its selfish to consider such actions without talking to him. I get that perspective, I do. It was 1974, after all, just a year after the decision of Roe v. Wade. The problem, as I see it, is that it really has no place at all in the movie. Jess needs no more character development than “she’s a sorority girl with a boyfriend.” Does it give her character more depth, or is it simply an appeal to the time’s pop culture? Is there ever any point to her revelation other than to make one character not seem shallow? The same can be asked about Kidder’s Barb, whose tenuous-at-best relationship with her mother seems to fuel her drinking binges. That’s all well and good, but the fact that nothing at all is done with this information shows a lack of foresight by the writer, or at least a lack of desire to flesh out anything more than the most hollow references to the characters existing outside of their sorority house.
All in all, I’m not a fan of the film. It’s not bad, and its influence on the genre is apparent throughout. There are some creepy scenes within and a great performance from John Saxon as police lieutenant Fuller, the only character that I actually enjoyed in the film, so it’s well worth a watch for historical import alone. It’s just… not a good movie. It also doesn’t particularly stand up for modern audiences, as the plot drags and nothing much of importance happens through roughly 90% of its runtime. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve certainly seen a lot worse. But if you’re looking for an entertaining film that will help pull you out of the holiday blues, this largely-bloodless classic probably isn’t going to do it for you.
Who this movie is for: Christmas horror fans, Proto-slasher devotees, Edgy phone sex operators
Bottom line: My lack of enjoyment of the film is not going to change the fact that Black Christmas is a cult classic with thousands of devoted fans. It’s a Christmas horror movie, giving it a place in the pantheon of horror that will never fade. In my not-so-humble opinion, though, it kinda sucks, and only deserves its notoriety due to its influence on other films within the genre rather than the film itself. It’s not particularly scary, it’s not particularly well-made, and it’s largely boring and with some bizarre subtext that never gets fully addressed. Then again, it is a classic, and if it’s a movie that everyone should see at least once. Give it a watch this season, and let me know if you agree with my take.