22 February 2004 | RareSlashersReviewed
Perhaps one of the most underrated films in Cinema history
Long before Jamie Blanks turned popular urban legends into a theme for his routine slasher franchise, director Bob Clark took one of the most vigorously touted of those fables and created a genre staple that would become the forerunner of the stalk and slash cycle. Comparisons can obviously be drawn between this and Halloween, including notorious but unconfirmed reports that Carpenter's film was in fact based upon an un-produced concept that Clark had earlier initiated as a sequel to this 1974 sleeper. Both efforts certainly have a lot in common with one another; including two excellent steady-cam openings - putting the viewer in the killer's shoes as he enters his 'soon to be' scene of a crime - that are almost interchangeable. On the 'making of' featurette for the 25th anniversary of Halloween, perhaps one commentator is fairly unjust when he states that it was that movie that started the excessive use of point of view shots that are so often imitated in horror cinema ever since. Black Christmas was equally as effective with its application of first person cinematography, a feat that John Carpenter clearly recognised before incorporating and perhaps improving upon it for his further acknowledged masterpiece.
The story concerns a group of sorority sisters that are preparing for their Christmas celebrations in a remote house. They have been receiving bizarre and threatening calls from what sounds like a group of insane people, although no one takes them seriously at first, believing that they're just a typical prank from a few of the local town boys. However fears are ignited when one of the students, Claire (Lynne Griffin), doesn't arrive to meet her father on time and is reported missing. Later a child is found butchered in the park, whilst all the while the Looney continues his demented ringing and terrorising the young women. Before long Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) realises that there may be a link in the occurrences and asks Jess (Olivia Hussey) to remain close to her phone so that he can trace the line when the lunatic next rings. But will there be anyone left alive when that happens?
Although this movie is neither graphic, gratuitous nor particularly unpleasant by today's standards, it remains one of the most disturbing and chilling 'slasher' movies ever made. Perhaps as mysteriously alluring as the exploits of Michael Myers and certainly far more alarming than any of the endless Friday the 13ths could ever hope to be. The killer creates the fear himself, but not in the typical methods that have become somewhat old-hat in more recent efforts. This assassin doesn't wear a mask, probably doesn't possess any super-human attributes and may only be threatening towards the female of our species. But his enigmatic ranting and crazy excessive skips between multiple personalities that are portrayed superbly over phone calls, which are all but too short; effortlessly allow him to become one of the creepiest wackos ever set to celluloid. Never has a telephone been implemented as a tool for creating fear so efficiently, there's something really unsettling as this Jekyl and Perhaps ten Mr. Hydes argues potently with himself. He changes his pitch from that of a high female to a deep and aggressive male and then back again, in a manner of pure and unadulterated insanity that really sticks in your throat. He perhaps reaches his most bloodcurdling moment when he drops all the wacky personas to adopt a civil yet curt voice and mutter once; `I'm going to kill you'. Proving to be the one and only direct threat that he makes in the whole movie.
Where as Michael Myers' success was brought about by the mystery that surrounded the little that we knew of the true motivations of his character, a similar method has been used here. We never actually see who's terrorising these girls and we are never given a reason for his dementia. He often refers to himself as 'Billy' or 'Agatha' in his one sided conversations, but we never learn of the events that made him spiral into such mindlessness. In a movie like Scream (aka The Outing - not Wes Craven's) this just feels like lazy and incompetent filmmaking, however Bob Clark puts it across in a manner that makes you want to learn and know more and he teases you with revealing that you never will. His talents as a director certainly reached their peak with Black Christmas. Helped excessively by some great cinematography and neatly planned lighting effects that often evade the more recent slasher movies, Clark proved himself as a great filmmaker that would have his inspiration cemented over the years that followed. He produced fairly original ways to keep the killer obscured from view, whilst not forgetting the fundamental silhouette and shadow play. If you do predict the twists in the plot, then it's only because they have been carbonated so many times since this hit the shelves, that they now feel second nature to any horror fan. It's good to remember that this was one of the first to use these elements and you must also note how perfectly this holds up against the less than impressive attempts that have been released up to three decades after.
Some brilliant supporting actors whom themselves would make their own slight impressions on the genre (Margot Kidder: The Clown at Midnight, Lynne Griffin: Curtains and John Saxon: Nightmare Beach and The Babydoll Murders) are sadly let down by a weak lead in Olivia Hussey. She's certainly not terrible, but at times her performance was fairly improbable when she could have found chances to shine. Kudos however to the actor(s) that performed the terrorising calls, I don't think titans like Brando or Nicholson could have played them any better! Credit has to be given to whoever helmed that crazy dialogue, for without it, the movie certainly would not have been so fearfully memorable! Perhaps a little further explanation on Peter's (Keir dullea) exact involvement may have helped make the end a little clearer, admittedly I was a little confused. Although I must confess that I can't be sure if that was my fault for not watching properly (it was late at night) or it was crafted deliberately to help cloud the mystery? But those gripes are hardly damaging and mainly I really enjoyed Black Christmas.
The slasher genre has gained a reputation over the years for being somewhat over populated by incompetent/amateur filmmakers. But efforts like this, Halloween and The House on Sorority row prove that the category is a necessary ingredient to cinema history when it's handled properly; often able to generate superb and noteworthy results that rank up with any of horror's acclaimed pieces from the past. This has recently been re-released on DVD with minimal extras but maximum value for money and really does warrant a purchase. There's really not a lot more to be said to convince you, this is a true cult-classic and your collection is poorer without a copy. As stylish as the best Giallos and as disturbing as Friedkin's Exorcist, this is certainly worthy to hold its renowned status for years to come. Maybe next time you are bothered by a crank caller, you'll be a little more cautious as to how you handle the situation.