Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Classics Revisited: Black Christmas

(1974) Directed by Bob Clark; Written by Roy Moore; Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and John Saxon; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

Note: The following is an expanded version of the capsule review from last year’s feature, “Have Yourself a Contrary Little Christmas."

What’s a Christmas movie without John Saxon?  Hey, if we can associate the holiday with the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby or even Peter Billingsley, then maybe it’s time to add Mr. Saxon as tireless police inspector Lt. Fuller to the list.  The film might not appear particularly fresh to 21st century eyes and ears, but it must have raised a stir when it debuted in the early 70s.  The residents of a sorority house are being stalked by a psychopath, and methodically picked off one by one.  Black Christmas was a big hit in its native Canada, but initially failed to attract much attention in the U.S., where it was released under the alternate titles, Silent Night, Evil Night and Stranger in the House (TV title).  In the years that followed, however, the little-slasher-film-that-could gradually gained a loyal following in the States and elsewhere.

Director Bob Clark, who would go on to direct the perennial holiday favorite A Christmas Story just nine years later, tweaked Roy Moore’s original script (originally titled Stop Me), adding touches of humor to an otherwise bleak story about a killer on the loose.  His lighter touch helped provide the right balance between light and dark.  Although the tone becomes increasingly serious as the plot advances, there are some surprising moments of levity early on. 

Olivia Hussey stars as sorority house resident Jess Bradford.  As her fellow sorority sisters begin to disappear, it’s apparent that she’s next on the killer’s list.  Her temperamental boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea) quickly becomes a suspect after they argue about the future of their relationship. He becomes increasingly unstable after she reveals that she’s pregnant and wants to have an abortion (It’s interesting to note that Jess wears a large cross around her neck).  Their exchange is significant, taken in the context of the time when this film was originally released, and that the Roe v. Wade decision in the States would have been fresh in the minds of filmgoers of the time.  Whether or not the filmmakers intended to make a statement for or against abortion rights is open to debate (and beyond the scope of this review), but the fact that these themes exist in the film sets Black Christmas apart from many of its lesser imitators.   

There’s some nice ensemble work by the other cast members who play residents of the sorority house.  Marian Waldman is amusing as the alcoholic house mother, Mrs. Mac (she hides her booze in every conceivable nook and cranny of the house).  Margot Kidder is another standout as Jess’ uninhibited, and acerbic house-mate Barb.  In one inspired scene, she discusses the mating habits of tortoises to one of her fellow residents’ uppity (and suitably horrified) father.  A pre-SCTV Andrea Martin, as the bookish Phyl, also helps provide some of the film’s lighter moments.

* In recent interviews, Hussey and Kidder provided somewhat conflicting views of the general atmosphere during filming.  Hussey described Kidder as being “distant” from the rest of the cast, while Kidder claimed that Hussey was very “serious,” and that she and co-star Martin tried to make her laugh on several occasions.

The aforementioned John Saxon brings his trademark intensity to the role of Lt. Fuller.  Clark originally started filming with veteran actor Edmond O'Brien as Fuller, but was forced to leave the production due to complications from the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  Thankfully, Saxon (who was the first actor Clark had in mind for the role) agreed to replace O’Brien, and made the last-minute trek to Toronto.

The phone calls from the crazed killer, arguably more unsettling than the murders themselves, are the creepiest aspect of Black Christmas.  Instead of utilizing one actor, three different individuals’ voices were combined (including the director, Nick Mancuso and an unidentified actress), and consisted of improvised dialogue that departed from the original script.  Another effective aspect was the then-revolutionary (and often-copied) use of POV shots, to show the audience the killer’s perspective.  Thanks to cinematography by Reginald Morris, and a camera rig designed by Albert Dunk, we follow the killer’s disorienting path as he stalks the hallways of the sorority house and climbs the trellis outside.

One of the conceits of Black Christmas (possible spoiler alert) is that we never learn the identity of the killer.  Interviews with several cast members failed to yield much in the way of clues.  If Clark had someone in mind, he remained mum on the subject.  It’s this combination of intentional ambiguity, along with healthy doses of humor and suspense that have contributed to the film’s cult classic status.  Unlike many other genre films, there seems to be something to appeal to virtually everyone, possibly explaining how it acquired a host of diverse admirers over the years, from Elvis Presley to Steve Martin.  It’s become a family tradition in some households, joining the ranks of White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life and Clark’s own A Christmas Story, as a ubiquitous holiday staple.


  1. Possibly my favorite slasher of all time and definitely one of the best horror flicks of the 1970s. I see this as being on par with Carpenter's Halloween - in fact, I think they're best viewed as companion pieces. Carpenter's interest in Halloween - the intrusion of inexplicable and motiveless evil into the placid world of the everyday - really mirrors what Clark had all ready done here. And in fact, Carpenter inserts Donald Pleasance's Dr. Loomis into his story in order to contextualize Michael and provide some means of interpreting/understanding him. Clark doesn't do anything near that comforting in Black Christmas - the unmotivated and unknowable presence that lives in the sorority house cannot be reasoned away. There is no Loomis to provide a backstory which can help us understand him. In fact, Saxon's Lt. Fuller fails to really do ANYTHING - Loomis is there to riddle Michael with bullets and save Laurie at the end of Halloween. Fuller is unable to confront or even recognize the evil in Black Christmas. So unsettling, so good, so bleak. We did an an in-depth discussion/analysis of the movie over on our blog, Girl Meets Freak. You might dig it. http://girlmeetsfreak.com/2012/12/27/movie-discussion-bob-clarks-black-christmas-1974/

  2. Thanks for the comments, Sean! I agree that both films have their relative merits (and weaknesses). I will definitely check out that link.