The Ghost of Christmas Past Presents: BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
Review by L.L. Soares
Who would have guessed that the guy who gave us PORKY’S back in 1982 would also be the guy to give us two Christmas classics. Yes, TWO. The first one that comes to mind for most people is the movie Bob Clark made in 1983, and which has gone on to become a Christmastime juggernaut – A CHRISTMAS STORY. The story of Little Ralphie and his BB gun seems to be playing in a constant loop in the latter part of December. It’s become as much of a holiday staple as IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and A CHRISTMAS CAROL. And I’ll admit, it’s a fun movie, as long as you don’t sit in front of the television for days on end watching it 150 times in a row.
But Clark also gave us 1974’s BLACK CHRISTMAS (also known as SILENT NIGHT, EVIL NIGHT), one of the first of the Christmas slasher films. And one of the best.
It may be the most famous of Clark’s early horror movies, probably because it was remade (badly) in 2006.
In BLACK CHRISTMAS, a deranged killer breaks into a sorority house, hides in the attic, and takes his time killing some of the girls who are left behind during the holiday (most of the girls have gone home to see their families). The killer has contacted them before this— by way of obscene phone calls that have plagued the house for a while. The killer says his name is “Billy” and his phone calls are pretty damn weird: he speaks in different voices and seems to be totally wacko.
One of the girls, Claire (Lynne Griffin) disappears, just before her father (James Edmond) comes to the college to pick her up, so he goes to the police, who are at first not very helpful, but grow more concerned as other murders pile up.
The other “girls” include Jessica (Olivia Hussey), the sensible lead; Barbie (a young Margot Kidder—most famous as later being Louis Lane in the Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN movies—and I have to admit she’s pretty hot in this movie!), who likes to drink too much and tell dirty stories; Phyllis (known as “Phil” and played by Andrea Martin of SCTV, in a rare dramatic role) who is the nerdy one; and house mother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), who’s always sneaking drinks and shouting for her cat. And the cop who investigates the case, Lt. Fuller, is played by genre icon John Saxon.
The movie is unique for its camera work (the killer is never shown, and the camera is often from his point of view in his scenes) and weird sound effects (the killer’s phone calls are downright weird and unsettling). This is one case where the killer actually seems frightening and totally unhinged. The fact that not much is explained actually works to the story’s benefit, building suspense. The identity of the killer is also a source of much suspense. Is it Jessica’s boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea), who seems a bit unstable after a piano recital that fails to impress his professors, and who is angry that Jessica plans to abort their unplanned baby? Or is there going to be a twist as the story develops?
Bob Clark had a real talent for simple little horror flicks that were also very effective. It’s too bad he didn’t seem to be a big horror fan (he treated these early films more as a way to build his film resume). His biggest successes were comedies like the PORKY’S movies and A CHRISTMAST STORY. Then, later in his career, he turned out, almost exclusively, family films like BABY GENIUSES (1999) and KARATE DOG (2004).
BLACK CHRISTMAS is a classic of its kind and a real pioneer, since it pre-dates another “mysterious killer” movie, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. Also, its famous “the phone calls are coming from inside the house” storyline was ripped off years later in 1979’s WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (which Bob Clark seems to feel both flattered and annoyed about in a Q&A session that’s one of the extras on the DVD).
The 70s horror films Clark made (especially this one,1974’s DEATHDREAM and CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS from 1973) are all worth checking out. They’re all entertaining and suitably creepy. Clark had a very unique vision for these kinds of things, and I wish he’d made more horror films.
I think DEATHDREAM is the best of the bunch, but BLACK CHRISTMAS probably has the biggest profile of his horror work. Watch it this Christmas with someone you love (and who scares easily!).
© Copyright 2010 by L.L. Soares