Black Christmas (1974) review

Black Christmas posterDirector: Bob Clark

Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Keir Dullea, Marian Waldman

Also known as: Silent Night, Evil Night (USA title)

“Little baby bunting, daddy’s went a-hunting, gonna fetch a rabbit skin to wrap his baby Agnes in.” (The Killer, Black Christmas)

Although Halloween is credited as the film that kicked off the slasher genre and Friday The 13th is the considered the one that inspired a slew of imitations, Black Christmas pre-dates them both by nearly half a decade.

This makes it all the more impressive, then, that despite being one of the earliest proper examples of the genre, it remains one of the better slasher movies 40 years after its original release.

Olivia Hussey (who first found fame in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet) plays Jess, a student living at a college house with a bunch of other girls.

One day, she swore, she'll catch those kids who kept leaving glowing penis wreaths on the door
One day, she swore, she’ll catch those kids who kept leaving glowing penis wreaths on the door

Recently the house has been receiving a lot of dodgy phone calls from an unknown prank caller. I’m talking sexually explicit messages, c-bombs, the lot.

While the house’s resident party animal Barb (Superman‘s Margot Kidder) gets a kick out of giving the caller as good as he gets, the other girls are disturbed by the messages.

Turns out they’ve every right to be upset, because the creepy bastard making the phone calls is actually making them from upstairs in the same house.

Things start to go tits-up when quiet girl Claire goes to her room and, unbeknownst to the rest of the housemates, is suffocated by the killer and dragged up to the attic, where she’s made to sit in front of the window, plastic bag over her face and all.

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'bag lady', I suppose
Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘bag lady’, I suppose

When Claire’s dad turns up to meet her the next day and she’s nowhere to be seen, it soon becomes clear that something bad might have happened. He, Barb and Claire’s boyfriend start hassling the police and trying to convince them to investigate her disappearance.

There are two main types of slasher film. The first has an established killer from the start – be that Freddy, Jason, Chucky, Michael Myers or what have you – with the plot focusing mainly which of the film’s would-be victims will be able to defeat them.

Black Christmas is an example of the second type, the whodunit slasher, where the plot is as much about finding the killer’s identity as how they’re eventually defeated.

Whodunit slashers almost always have a red herring who seems to be the most likely killer, and Black Christmas is no different. It’s got Peter, Jess’s boyfriend, who’s a first class knob-end and is controlling and aggressive.

"Look, if you call me Mushroom Head one more time I'm never coming back"
“Look, if you call me Mushroom Head one more time I’m never coming back”

You see, Jess is pregnant and she wants to have an abortion, but Peter’s having none of it. The stress causes him to fuck up an important piano recital and he wrecks his school’s piano, before heading over to the house to sort things out with Jess. Drama!

The evidence against Peter mounts when the dodgy phone calls start referencing conversations Jess has had with him regarding the abortion, making it seemingly clear that he has to be the one making them.

The whodunit plot and the unique visual style of the killings make Black Christmas feel more like a North American (Canadian, to be exact) version of an Italian giallo film, the sort of stylised murder movie that the likes of Dario Argento and Mario Bava were renowned for. While it doesn’t have the dodgy dubbed vocals and pleasantly low-quality production quality of a typical giallo, it does still have a similar mood and tone.

One aspect in which it certainly outdoes giallos, however, is the performances. Olivia Hussey does a decent job as Jess, but the supporting cast is fantastic. Marian Waldman is hilarious as the alcoholic landlady, Margot Kidder is convincingly irritating as the constantly drunk Barb and John Saxon does his ‘pissed off cop’ routine masterfully, a full decade before he’d do it again in A Nightmare On Elm Street.

"You know chief, these phones would probably be a lot more useful if they were further apart"
“You know chief, these phones would probably be a lot more useful if they were further apart”

Warning: The next paragraph spoils the ending, so skip it if you don’t want to know what happens.

I said earlier that the plot of whodunnit slashers tends to revolve around finding out who the killer is, and then figuring out how to defeat them. In this respect, Black Christmas is interesting in that neither question is answered. As the final credits roll to the sound of a telephone ringing, we still don’t know the killer’s identity: all we do know is that he’s still in the house, alone with Jess.

Black Christmas may be one of the oldest examples of the modern slasher film, but it’s still one of the best. It still has the power to shock four decades later, and not even a shonky remake in 2006  could damage its reputation. If you’re a fan of slashers and you haven’t seen it yet, correct this as soon as possible because it’s a Christmas cracker (sorry).

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Black Christmas‘s high rating earns it a place in the hallowed That Was A Bit Mental Hall Of Fame. Click here to see what else made the grade.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?
Black Christmas is only available on DVD in the UK – you can get it here. In America, you can choose between either the DVD or a Blu-ray edition, which is naturally the best way to see the film.

SHOW ME THE TRAILER:

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