Christmas has always been a time for scary stories and while there are the likes of “Gremlins” to choose from at the milder end of the spooky spectrum, there are also more than a few that register much, much higher on the festive fear scale. Chief amongst these is 1975’s “Black Christmas”, a film which not only combines that heightened yuletide atmosphere with murderous mayhem but also stands as a significant and influential horror movie in its own right, giving shape and definition to the slasher genre for decades to come.
As the campus winds down for the coming Christmas holidays, the girls of a sorority house are having a Christmas party before they all break up and go their separate ways. The party is interrupted by an obscene anonymous phone call but Barb (Margot Kidder) gives as good as she gets, provoking the voice on the phone to threaten to kill the girls, a promise which is shortly fulfilled when one of the girls who had returned to her room to pack is lured into her closet and suffocated to death. It’s just the beginning of a killing spree which sees the girls picked off one by one as everyone becomes a suspect.
While now a series of genre clichés, nearly everything “Black Christmas” did was brand new at the time. Without “Black Christmas”, there may be no “Halloween”, no “Friday The 13th” and definitely no “Scream”, a film which homages “Black Christmas” so intensely it teeters on the brink of being a remake. It’s one of – if not the – first horror movies to bring the age-old urban legend of the ‘calls coming from inside the house’ to the big screen and it’s a third act twist that still retains much of its shock power now, some 45 years later thanks to the movie’s distinctive tone and devilishly dark humourous streak courtesy of director Bob Clark.
By this point, Bob Clark already had a cult Christmas favourite to his name – “A Christmas Story”, and he carries some of that festive quirkiness into this merrily morbid tale, because Christmas is an important part of the movie’s make-up, albeit more to provide emotional and atmospheric context for the murderous mayhem to follow. The holiday break-ups give convincing cover for the increasing disappearances not prompting more urgent suspicion and the gradually emptying sorority house, as gaudily and brightly decked as its halls may be, takes on a melancholy and sinister air as it gets emptier (at least those parts outside the attic).
It’s the characters, though, that Clark populates his expertly set scene with that propels “Black Christmas” to deserved cult status. Margot Kidder is superb as the hard-drinking, smack-talking party girl, superficially delivering the comic relief but also providing a supporting character of real depth, dropping hints here and there of the pain which drives the drinking and the forced devil-may-care attitude. It contrasts perfectly with the prim, almost stiff, level-headedness of Jess (Olivia Hussey) who, far from being the perfect virginal final girl is actually dealing with a then-daring sub-plot about a potential abortion, giving us a disapproving boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), to suspect and for the cops, led by John Saxon, to focus on to the exclusion of other potential killers.
There are funny characters and even some laugh-out-loud moments but make no mistake, “Black Christmas” is a horror movie to the bone, often brutal and effective. It keeps its killer’s backstory and, indeed, identity in the shadows, dropping hints and clues but refusing to give any definitive answers, leaving the killer, motives and origins unsettlingly ambiguous. It’s got a uniquely unsettled and unsettling tone and while its tricks and tropes have been ever duplicated and even post-modern ironically reinvented, they’ve never quite equalled their intoxicating best here.