Several years before John Carpenter formally launched the teenage slasher genre with 1978’s Halloween, director Bob Clark managed to put together one of the genre’s strongest entries in Black Christmas. Today, Bob Clark is better known for his other hokey holiday staple, A Christmas Story, and the 80s teen trash comedy Porky’s. But in the 1970s, Clark was a part of the decade’s focus on having a gritty, realistic ethos in film-making, producing the 1976 crime drama Breaking Point, 1974 horror Deathdream, and 1979 Victorian murder mystery Murder by Decree. Released around Christmas 1974 for maximum marketing effect, Black Christmas plays with tropes that are by now well traveled in horror film: teenage co-eds being knocked off one-by-one, a killer in the attic, a “Final Girl”, point of view shots, and as far as I can tell, the earliest known use of the “the calls are coming from inside the house” staple in movies.
What separates Black Christmas from the rest of the pack is its a) focus on creating a foreboding situational atmosphere, b) solid ensemble cast who capture a classic snapshot of the 70s women’s lib era, and c) really good sound design. Black Christmas has a few intended jump scare moments but mostly it prefers to crank up the creepiness by having its suburban killer Billy remain mostly sight unseen, instead mostly placing nasty and abusive phone calls and unsettling mutterings while lurking in the shadows. In the original script for Carpenter’s Halloween, the adult Michael Meyers was referred to as “the Shape”, in order to better emphasize the character’s mystery and unexplained nature, and that tactic is more successfully deployed in this movie as the killer not only remains mostly unseen but also rather unexplained.
In between the horror of the killer in the attic, the film explores the day to day lives of its rather charming university co-eds, who struggle with topical issues, such as abusive boyfriends, getting an abortion, overbearing fathers, underage drinking, and sexual harassment. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Marian Waldman as a drinky sorority mother are all particularly good. Keir Dullea is particularly obnoxious as Olivia Hussey’s vain and mentally unstable boyfriend, while Margot Kidder obviously had a lot of fun playing the hard-drinking and wise-cracking Barb.
Other reviewers have noted the film’s similarity to Dario Argento, and Black Christmas does indeed come off as something of a Canadian giallo film, with strong use of lighting and color, as well as typical close-up shots of quivering, murderous eyes. Specific praise must be given to the film’s ambiguous and unsettling ending, an effective use of silence and minimal sound cues that capably set a parting tone of dread and eeriness. The score composed by Carl Zittrer and sound design handled David Appleby, Kenneth Heeley-Ray, and Bill O’Neill do a lion’s share to help carry this movie’s mood and atmosphere and their efforts should be praised.
Overall, Black Christmas plays to its minimalist strengths of slow-building foreboding that make it an interesting and effective staple of 1970s horror, despite its deployment of what are now thoroughly exhausted cliches of the modern genre. Essentially, this movie is Carpenter’s Halloween beaten to the punch by four years with a different holiday framing and a more psychological edge. Bob Clark had shot horror and gritty movies as an easy way to break into the industry but he had not intended to stay as a genre director, as his later work in the 80s and beyond goes to show. An interesting entry by a rather unusual and eclectic director, Black Christmas stands well with slasher horror like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and When A Stranger Calls.