In the thirty-plus years since its release, Black Christmas has gone on to be recognized by many as the trendsetter to many slasher movie conventions that exist today. And while it's pretty easy to pick-up why this is, when all is said and done Bob Clark's Canadian-filmed flick is one decent little movie with a script my Roy Moore that's more serious in tone than most "slasher" movies (it even touches briefly on the topic of abortion, something not exactly prominent in the 70's) and plays out more like a mystery thriller than a 'slice 'em up' programmer.
It's Christmas time at the Pi Kappa Sig sorority house and everyone is having a good time hanging out, drinking, and generally enjoying their time away from classes. It's just too bad that all that holiday cheer is being ruined by obscene phone calls from an unknown male caller. But little to their knowledge (but much to ours thanks to some great, suspenseful and extremely well-staged point-of-view shots - one of the many things pointed out to be a "first"), someone's snuck into the house with murder in mind.
And our killer has quite the batch to pick as we get mousy heroine Jess (Olivia Hussey), the rude loudmouth Barb (Margot Kidder), and various other college girls. There's also Jess' boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) thrown in there for red herring purposes as well as a comic relief "house mother" who's busy stashing bottles of alcohol all over the house and muttering things under her breath.
Things here are set into motion when one of the girls goes missing. Really she's just been suffocated to death with a plastic bag, but they don't know that. The police end-up getting involved with the girl's father shows-up looking for her and soon enough the cast members start getting separated in order for our killer (who is quite nutty as evidenced by his constant freak-outs and speaking in tongue phone calls to Jess) to pick them off while a local detective (John Saxon) tries to trace the calls and figure the entire mess out.
Black Christmas isn't exactly fast paced stuff. Clark and Moore take their time getting down to business and the deaths are pretty minimal, but what's here actually works pretty well, as the murders are quite effective and the story manages to keep your interest. As the main character Hussey does merely okay and settles down after spending the first ten minutes picking up the phone receiver and wildly yelling "Hello? Hello?" into it, while Kidder's Barb just wears out her welcome - but generally the cast is quite solid.
The thing that makes this work as a thriller though has to be the low-key score by Carl Zittrer, the aforementioned death scenes and the calls that go with them (some are a bit silly, but a few are somewhat unsettling), and Clark's insistence on never showing the killer and keeping him vague. There's just something about an unknown assailant that heightens tension.
If you're wondering if all the plaudits tossed onto Black Christmas ring true, the answer is: for the most part. This isn't your a-typical slasher movie, but it does contains various things that would pop-up in later movies (the POV shots and the twist of "the calls are coming from the house" which I've always found not only ridiculous but pretty impossible) and for that it's a notable film for any horror fan and it deserves its status as a landmark of the genre.
Director Clark (for which this was his third horror movie after Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things and Deathdream) would go on to helm the highly successful sex comedy Porky's as well as the holiday mainstay A Christmas Story while many of the cast members would continue to enjoy lengthy careers (Saxon would even co-star in another genre classic with A Nightmare On Elm Street). Writer Moore would do a few more low-budget Canadian movies before disappearing completely.
Remade in 2006 (to awful reviews and much hatred from fans of this film). (Chris Hartley, 1/3/07)
Directed By: Bob Clark.
Written By: Roy Moore.
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Marian Waldman.
aka: Silent Night, Evil Night; Stranger In The House.
Critical Mass/Somerville House - December 5, 2006
Picture Ratio: 1.85:1 Widescreen.
Picture Quality: The box for this all-new 'Special Edition' boasts of a remastered picture which makes me wonder how Critical Mass' other two releases of this title looked. This doesn't look a heck of a lot better than VHS with a pretty fuzzy transfer and mediocre clarity, but at least it's clean and this marks the first time it's been available in widescreen.
Extras: I have a sneaky suspicion that this only came out to cash-in on the remake and while the features here (made in conjunction with fan site, itsmebilly.com) aren't too bad, it seems like there's not quite enough to warrant the SE tag and director Clark is nowhere in sight on anything (except the Q&A session which dates back two years).
Unfortunately, we don't get a trailer, but there is the retrospective "The 12 Days of Black Christmas" featurette that contains interviews with cast members and is narrated by Saxon, there's 2 scenes featuring alternate sound mixes, the 2004 Q&A session with Clark, Saxon and Zittrer filmed at a screening in Los Angeles, and some extended interviews with cast members Hussey, Kidder and Art Hindle.
It's a pretty slender bag as the features don't offer enough talk about why this is considered a landmark and it definitely could've used input from Clark (a commentary track would've been a big plus).
If you're a fan, pick this up for the simple fact it's widescreen as most of the extras are of the "throwaway" variety.
Visit Somerville House for more info.