A Yuletide Friday Fight Extravaganza: BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
For me, Black Christmas takes on a new resonance this year, after the wave of powerful men outed for sexual assault and harassment that’s dominated the news, and the women who bravely spoke out. Needless to say, film about a sexual deviant harassing and killing women puts the creep factor off the charts.
This movie is creepy as hell. Not in a terrifying/horrific kind of way; in a pervy, grimy, voyeuristic kind of way. It’s filled with long, slow POV shots, putting the audience in the head of the film’s killer. But it’s not just the psycho POV shots; Bob Clark repeatedly zooms his camera in slowly on his characters in a way that suggests an invasion of their personal space. It charges the environment of the sorority house with a deeply unsettling atmosphere.
Watch the knowing glances these women give each other, listening to the obscene phone calls, and as they are repeatedly dismissed and hushed by authority figures. There is an acknowledgment and resolve on their faces. There is no one coming to save them and they know it. The two major boyfriend characters are a controlling, increasingly abusive asshole, and one incapable of locating his girlfriend (already dead, her body sitting in the rocking chair in the attic the whole time). The cops are useless, and that dead girl’s father – also on hand to search for her – isn’t much help either. They rely on each other, and in their own strength. I don’t want to spoil anything for the folks who haven’t seen it yet, but that point is very forcefully driven home by the film’s end.
BLAINE MCLAREN: I know that I am going to be crucified for this opinion, but I have never dug 1974’s Black Christmas. A lot of it is that I really don’t like slasher movies and find the genre to be boring. The wait game throughout the movie is never justified by the kills. Even the best kills aren’t worth me sitting through all of the boring story and lame police drama. I get that it is a classic, but it is not one of my “go-to” holiday horror flicks. I would much rather watch Silent Night Deadly Night 2 or Christmas Evil than this overly long take on the “the call is coming from the house” thriller. What I do love about this movie is the inclusion of the foxy (maybe one of the foxiest) Margot Kidder. She is one of those actresses who I would watch in anything, ***Spoiler Alert*** but when she is gone so am I. I don’t want to shit too much on this movie, but it just isn’t my kind of movie. The film is well shot and cast, but just bores me to death. Happy Holidays folks and hope you all beg Justin to make us review the far superior remake next year!
DAMIAN BLADE: I was about 16 years old the first time I saw the original Black Christmas and it scared the crap out of me. The movie has great atmosphere, uses the “filmed-from-the-killer’s-point-of-view” camera technique to great effect, and focuses on suspense over gore. The film makers considered wat they were making to be a psychological thriller and not a slasher film, but inadvertently opened the door for countless slasher films that followed.
To put it succinctly, here is a list of reasons why Black Christmas rules:
Predated Halloween by four years, thus inventing the holiday themed horror film.
Has a great cast of quality actors, including a pre-Superman Margot Kidder; a post 2001: a Space Odyssey Keir Dullea; a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street John Saxon; and a pre-Stephen King’s It (TV movie) Olivia Hussey; as well as Andrea Martin, who would go on to play the house mother, Ms. Mac, in the 2006 remake.
Contains the line, “Let me lick your pretty pink cunt” and it’s not even porn or an exorcism movie!
Death by glass unicorn!
Pre-dates When a Stranger Calls with its own take on the “killer calling from inside the house” urban legend.
The girl in the rocking chair with the plastic over her face – one of the best shots in the movie!
The one thing that makes Black Christmas a little outdated is how central the house phone is to the scares. A younger generation might not get it at all – that someone could terrorize you over the phone and there was no caller ID, and you couldn’t “Star 69 his ass” as Jada Pinkett-Smith points out at the beginning of Scream 2.
Black Christmas isn’t just a juvenile attempt at making a horror movie, though Director Bob Clark became the king of juvenile movies with Porky’s and Porky’s II and those unforgivable classics A Christmas Story and Rhinestone. First of all, it has very little gore, relying on the viewer’s imagination and what is unseen to create the level of discomfort many horror movies rely on over-the-top gore to provide. The movie also has a message. Made in 1974, at the height of the sexual revolution and the women’s equal rights movement, as well as a year after Roe v. Wade ruled abortion legal; there is a striking contrast between the sexual revolution and the still-rampant sexual repression and oppression of women by men and society as a whole. This oppression can be seen in how dismissive the police are of the girl’s complaints, as well as Keir Dullea insisting Olivia Hussey has no right to an abortion without his permission.
While the 2006 remake of Black Christmas has its merits, I still prefer the original. It has atmosphere, good acting, artful direction, and cinematography, and though there may be holiday-themed horror films that bested it (such as the original Halloween) it will always be the first. It’s a classic that has stood the test of time.
Oh, and does anyone remember when it was called Silent Night Evil Night? I had the hardest time finding it on VHS years ago because the film had gone by that name, as well as Stranger in the House.
RACHAEL HAUSCHILD: What is there bad to say about Black Christmas (1974)? Answer… nothing. This movie rocks from beginning to end. Not only is it a gorgeous product of the 70’s as made apparent by the colors strewn throughout and the stylish wardrobe, but all the individuals in this are awesome. It’s the fun filler horror holiday movie we need.
Olivia Hussey puts on a killer performance as Jess as she’s dealing with life, a crazed boyfriend, and “The Moaner” who won’t stop calling and harassing the sorority house she’s in. Margot Kidder knocks it out of the park as Barb. We all know a Barb. She’s the drunken best friend we all love that brings us complete joy with her no filter dialogue and comedic relief. Keir Dullea is the whacked out boyfriend that is having major issues trying to figure out what to do with his life and convince his girlfriend (Jess) to keep the baby of her unplanned pregnancy with him. Lastly, my major shout out goes to John Saxon and his spiffy full eyebrows. He’s great, hands down. There’s nothing bad to say about that man and his performance in this. The story is filled with other side characters that create a dynamic for this movie that feels whole.
Slashers are tough for me to indulge in sometimes, as I find them to be far too over the top. However, with Black Christmas, I do not get that sense and I could watch this over and over again and never get sick of it. It has realistic kills that are both shocking and gory, a terrifying plot with an ominous killer, and an aesthetic that is extremely pleasing to my eyes. Instead of the television playing Bob Clark’s other movie A Christmas Story on loop, I think they should reconsider and give this one a shot. Billy would be pleased. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.
TAB TREML: Black Christmas (also known as Silent Night Evil Night and Stranger in the House) is a 1974 Canadian horror film directed by Bob Clark and written by A. Roy Moore. It stars Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, Marian Waldman, and John Saxon. Set in a sorority house under siege by a very scary/gross prank caller, it may be the very genesis of the teen slasher movement of the following years. The film is based on a series of real life murders and utilizes urban legend in it’s story structure. Later films such as the Halloween series and even up to the Scream series are influenced by Black Christmas’s style. POV shots, graphic imagery, Surrealistic lighting and hypnagogic sound design echo Italian horror masters like Bava, Argento, and Fulci. There is, though, an element of proximate, immediate danger that imparts a sense of reality obscured by the backdrop of comfort and joy. I should point out that, the director Bob Clark, later directed A Christmas Story (1983). There was a remake made in 2006, but I haven’t seen it since I’m generally skeptical about remakes. It’s an interesting placeholder in film history for sure! Check it out, and give the remake a chance (do as I say, not as I do). Peace!
[Editor’s Note: Garrett cover the film top to tails on his podcast just the other week! Go listen to it.]
GARRETT SMITH: This is really, really hard for me to say and admit… but I think I like this better than Carpenter’s Halloween, which has long been one of my favorite horror movies, and sits pretty high on my list of all-time great films.
I saw this for the first time about 10 years ago, when my college girlfriend was taking a class on women in genre film. We watched things like Alien, and The Wicker Man, as well as this, which I had never heard of before. I remember loving it at the time, but the only detail I really retained was that the killer was in the attic. I didn’t remember that that detail isn’t actually a twist, but instead something we’re presented with in the opening scene of the movie, adding dramatic irony and tension to the whole thing, rather than trying to surprise us in the end. I didn’t remember that the character work is so damn strong here, and the true focus of the movie.
By putting character over plot and thrills, Black Christmas achieves a kind of relatable and relentless horror that can only be described as pure dread. Each and every time the girls return to the house thinking it’s a safe space, we the audience are aware that it is the least safe place they could be. It’s an ironic tension that permeates the movie and makes it a far more effective horror film than most of the slashers that would come in its wake. And it’s barely even a slasher – the one murder scene we really get to see in any detail is a beautifully shot and edited bit of vague but specific imagery that gets the violence across without having to be overly graphic.
On that note, the editing in this movie is just stellar. The way we move from scene to scene, with complimentary camera moves or sound edits that overlap give this an energy and pace that is not often found in films of this era.
I just love everything about this movie and hope to god there’s a great high quality transfer of this being planned this very minute. I can only imagine what this would look and sound like on a big screen, with a fresh, crisp transfer. It’s currently available on YouTube in full (below) if you’ve never seen it and would like to give it a look.
JUSTIN HARLAN: The team has said it all far better than I could… or have they?
In the case of this one, I’m siding with Blaine and saying that I find it dull. I have seen it before, but I barely remembered it, so I decided to pop in in in preparation for this Friday Fight. I didn’t even get through it. I mean, there is some true masterwork going on here, but I just can’t really appreciate it for some reason.
I’ll leave you with two thoughts…
First, you can assume correctly that I enjoy the remake more than the original. Along with this assumption, you can also assume that I am not sorry about that.
Second, I am struck by the TV musical that Bob Clark’s other Christmas classic was given this year. I propose that this film be given the same treatment. Just imagine a Black Christmas TV musical event… really imagine it!
Merry Christmas and enjoy whatever holidays you and yours are and aren’t celebrating this year!