The Christmas holiday season seems to commence earlier and earlier every year. It almost seems when the clock strikes midnight on October 31, everyone starts blasting inane Christmas music, gaudily decorating their homes with tinsel and lights, and frantically shopping like their lives depended on it. In moderation, this would be more tolerable, but "Christmas" and "moderation" are not very well acquainted. For the rest of us, just because we've moved on from Halloween doesn't mean we can't still partake in watching horror films. They work year 'round, after all. Some of them are even best viewed during the annual insanity of the holiday season. One cult classic in particular should be required viewing for anyone interested in adding a healthy dose of horror to their yuletide festivities: Black Christmas (1974).
Directed by Bob Clark, Black Christmas is a genuine cult classic and often referenced as the first slasher film. It's easy to see why it's so revered. It contains several key ingredients that have been found in many slasher films since: a lone and mysterious killer; a series of victims being picked off one by one; camera shots from the killer's POV; law enforcement frantically trying to find the killer; and of course the Final Girl. The film's influence on future slasher movies is obvious; we likely wouldn't have John Carpenter's Halloween as we know it without Black Christmas. To call the film seminal seems like an understatement. It creates intense psychological horror from a simple yet highly effective plot: right before Christmas, several young college co-eds are terrorized in their sorority house by a deranged madman intent on killing them all. What ensues is a tremendously taught and well-crafted thrill ride that will surprise you nearly every step of the way.
As is often the case, the original is better than most that followed in its wake. While Black Christmas seemingly provided the template used by future slasher films, certain traits of the subgenre would come later, including the requisite sex scenes and increasingly high levels of gore, plus in many of the films a clear disregard for women. Black Christmas doesn't traffic in any of that. The film doesn't despise the women in the house or the police officer attempting to save their lives. Instead, it presents these characters as fully fleshed out human beings, with conflicting emotions and opinions, who just happen to be under siege from a lunatic killer.
Black Christmas excels at characterization, featuring some of the most well-realized characters the genre's ever seen. In many ways they're the opposite of the vapid victims of later slasher films. They speak thoughtfully about their lives and circumstances. Jess Bradford, as portrayed by Olivia Hussey, is a considerate, intelligent, and complicated character, whose layers are only slowly unveiled over the course of the film. In one tremendous scene, after her boyfriend decides he's quitting his dream of being a concert pianist to marry her, she eloquently and emphatically expresses how her dreams and goals are not going to take a back seat to his just because he's had a change of heart about his own life. Jess is a radically progressive female protagonist, especially for the horror genre and especially for 1974. Is she cinema's first Final Girl? I would lean towards "Yes," but it's subjective. Whether or not she's the first, she's indisputably one of the best. She exhibits exceptional bravery throughout the film, and while she makes a bad decision or two along the way, it's usually in service of helping her friends.
Margot Kidder provides some comic relief as Barb Coard, the most sexually provocative member of the sorority house who seems to spend most of her time sucking down whatever booze is within reach. While later slasher films would prey upon the sexual aggressive teenager or young adult, Black Christmas doesn't make Kidder a victim because of her sexuality, just as it doesn't spare other characters because of their prudishness—the killer in the sorority house is an equal opportunity mass murderer, clearly. The film's sexual politics are far less conservative than later slasher movies. The women in the house are neither portrayed as good girls or bad girls; they're simply young college students trying to survive this long night of holiday horror. You've likely noticed that I've written about other strong and independent female characters here before, such as the protagonists in Ms. 45, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and The Slumber Party Massacre, to name just a few. Black Christmas's characterization of its women can be seen as a precedent-setting forerunner to those later films. The young women in the house—Jess, Barb, Phil—and even their housemother Mrs. Mac are not stock characters, but instead well-formed and indelibly human. This helps make our investment in whether these potential victims live or die that much stronger than in similar yet lesser films.
The rest of the cast does a wonderful job of bringing these well-written characters to life. John Saxon's sensitive and smart portrayal of police lieutenant Kenneth Fuller makes you believe, against all odds, that he will save Jess and her sorority sisters, somehow. As Jess's boyfriend, the intense concert pianist Peter Smythe, Keir Dullea brings just the right amount of creep factor to make us suspicious. Mrs. Mac, played by Marian Waldman, is in many ways an older version of Barb: flippant, peevish, and perpetually boozing. As noted previously, Kidder and Hussey are tremendous, with Hussey, in particular, emerging as the audience surrogate with whom we most identify over the course of the film. She's most often the one answering the killer's phone calls, which only get increasingly more bizarre, incoherent, and terrifying with each successive call that he makes. Jess's fear becomes more evident with each call, as she begins to realize this is more than just a prank caller. Hussey conveys this fear in her eyes as well as in her screaming appeals to the madmen to stop calling. There's an important subplot involving Jess and Peter's relationship that only adds to our sense of dread as the film progresses.
Speaking of progression, the horrors the women face progress relentlessly with each maniacally demented phone call the killer makes to the sorority house. With this many scenes of Hussey taking the killer's calls, the proceedings could have grown stale or tiresome. Instead, each call brings with it even more terrifying results. A little online research reveals that actor Nick Mancuso read many of his lines as the killer during these scenes while standing on his head, to make his voice appear more unhinged. It certainly had the desired effect. Black Christmas is pure psychological horror at its finest. It doesn't revel in gore or focus on the death scenes for uncomfortable lengths of time. Instead, it scares you out of your seat by virtue of what it doesn't show you. So many of the film's most terrifying scenes involve watching Hussey's reaction shots to the killer's demented ramblings and threats. These powerful performances are only enhanced by Clark's assured direction and impeccable pacing. The film is a master class in suspense, one of the finest of its kind.
If you're looking for a subversive holiday film experience this year, why not give Black Christmas a try. It takes the usual holiday trappings—decorations, Christmas trees, and carolers, for instance—and smothers them under the crushing weight of a maniac killer's murder spree. Without spoiling anything, I'll simply say the ending is one of the most disquieting I've ever seen in film. It made me want to immediately restart it, hoping against hope for different results this time. A fellow film fan has assured me that Black Christmas only gets better with repeat viewings, so I'm already planning to queue it up again before Christmas this year, at least once or twice. I have no doubt this will become an annual tradition for me, as I'm sure it has been for many horror film fans for years now. Now when I'm asked for holiday movie recommendations, Black Christmas will likely be the first film I suggest, to both horror and non-horror fans alike. That it took me so long to finally see it is regrettable, but my goodness was it worth the wait. The film has already vaulted into my personal upper echelon of both favorite cult classics and favorite films, period. I cannot recommend this one enough.
It's worth noting that Shout! Factory is releasing a Collectors Edition Blu-ray of the film this December. It appears loaded with extra features. You can bet a copy has already been added to my shopping cart. Pre-order yours today; you won't regret it.