Holiday Classics: “Black Christmas” (1974)

Director Bob Clark is likely most remembered for helming the nostalgic 1983 comedy “A Christmas Story,” which has become an annual holiday staple, a tradition for families and the subject of a 24/7 television marathon. But in 1974, nearly a decade before adapting Jean Shepherd’s novel, Clark directed a very different kind of movie set around Christmas: “Black Christmas,” an early entry in the burgeoning horror subgenre that would soon be known as “slashers.”

“Black Christmas” centers around the members of a college sorority. They’re having a Christmas party in the opening scene when sorority member Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey) answers the phone. The mysterious male caller hurls lewd insults at her, threatening to kill her and her friends. Later in the evening, when Clare (Lynne Griffin) retreats to her room to pack to go home for the holidays, she is killed by someone in the house. The closer it gets to Christmas, the more the girls are harassed by the mystery caller and picked off one by one.

Olivia Hussey as Jess Bradford in “Black Christmas”

I am a latecomer to the “Black Christmas” fandom. I didn’t see the film until October 2020, when the Criterion Channel added it to their service as part of a curated series of 70s horror movies— a particular era of a particular genre that was a bit of a blind spot for me. I don’t scare easy, but something about “Black Christmas” got to me. Maybe it was because I was alone in my apartment, and had been for the better part of a year (thank you 2020), but even watching it with all the lights on, the idea that the killer was someone close to these girls, that he was lurking somewhere in their home, that the dead body of their missing friend was right there under the noses as they went out searching for her all over, reaches across the decades to create a supreme sense of unease. “Black Christmas” isn’t even particularly graphic, despite the myriad ways the killer (supposedly the phone caller, named Billy and voiced by Nick Mancuso) does the girls in. It doesn’t need to be: Clark does a remarkable job building up the tension and suspense, occasionally shooting scenes from the killer’s point of view and predominantly centering the action within the grand old sorority house.

The other big thing that “Black Christmas” has going for it is that every character, even the supporting players, feel like fully fleshed out humans. Hussey achieved worldwide stardom in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 English class staple “Romeo and Juliet”; she took the role in “Black Christmas” based on advice from her psychic. Keir Dullea was pursued for the film based on his lead performance in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and Margot Kidder was just a few years away from her iconic turn as Lois Lane in Richard Donner’s “Superman.” Clark and writer A. Roy Moore, who reportedly based some of the story on urban legends and a real killing spree in Montreal (the movie was filmed in Toronto), contended that they never intended for there to be any political angle in their movie. And yet, “Black Christmas” is decidedly feminist. The conflict final girl Jess faces besides the killer on the loose is the fact that she’s pregnant and wants to have an abortion, declining her temperamental boyfriend Peter’s (Dullea) pleas to marry him in favor of pursuing her education and career. Every woman in the sorority has a distinct personality regardless of how much screen time they have, from bombastic housemother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) to Andrea Martin’s Phyl to Margot Kidder’s loudmouthed and often not sober Barb. And the movie, with cinematography by Reginald H. Morris, is just gorgeous to look at, the warm glow of the Christmas lights inside and outside of the house feeling decidedly at odds with the chilling acts of violence the characters are subjected to.

Margot Kidder and Olivia Hussey in “Black Christmas”

“Black Christmas” earned far beyond its small budget at the box office in its initial run worldwide, although it was met with less enthusiasm in America, where critics mostly panned it and the film was subjected to multiple title changes, supposedly to wave away any association with the popular (and controversial) blaxploitation craze. “Black Christmas” was released in theaters as “Silent Night, Evil Night” and aired on television as “Stranger in the House” before its original title was finally restored, and the passing years led to a building fan base and critical reassessment. “Black Christmas” has been remade twice as two very different movies in 2006 and 2019, but none of them have had the lasting impact Clark’s 1974 film continues to have.

“Black Christmas” is streaming on Peacock, Shudder, AMC+, and for free on Tubi. Runtime: 98 minutes.

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