Director: Bob Clark
Cast: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon
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Many an influential horror film can lose some of its lustre 40 years on from its original release, particularly those confined to such a trope-heavy sub-genre as the slasher. 1974’s Black Christmas, like that same year’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, is one of those rare horror gems that has lost none of its power. In fact, looking back on it after several decades’ worth of films having cribbed from it – or rather, filmmakers cribbing from 1978’s Halloween, which basically cribbed from this – it’s even more impressive that its formula can still unnerve.
Then again, execution is what really matters with genre, not the template, and director Bob Clark’s execution of his executions is what makes this the king of Christmas-set horrors. (Saying that, the consumerism of his later film A Christmas Story might be even scarier than Black Christmas, and the CGI and very concept of his Baby Geniuses films definitely are. This man had an odd career.)
One of the most memorable elements of Black Christmas, aside from its unusual collection of performers (Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Andrea Martin, and 2001: A Space Odyssey star Keir Dullea), is how it presciently subverts its own genre before it even became fully-formed force. For one thing, and this is something ignored in the 2006 remake, there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the slayings at the sorority house; there is no motive with which to diagnose a madman’s murderous urges. Even Leatherface had a degree of reason to his spontaneous brutality; slaying teens just for intruding on your property is a considerable overreaction, but, hey, it’s an articulated reason conveyed through little details in how Tobe Hooper constructs his film.
Clark with Black Christmas, though, all but refrains from giving his killer a semblance of logic, or even much of a visible physical form. His version of evil manifests itself mostly in shadows and blood-curling shrieks. Were characters not visibly strangled or stabbed, you’d be inclined to think the villain more spirit than human – not too dissimilar from John Carpenter’s later Michael Myers in that sense. Hope is lost when evil doesn’t seem tangible, and Black Christmas is a dark film in numerous ways. When characters are cruelly offed, it’s often the case that there isn’t anything they could have done to save themselves – Jamie Kennedy’s rules for survival in Scream most definitely do not apply here.
Nor are people safe even with police involvement. There’s a running series of comic moments involving particular employees at the local station, but as the film progresses, the incompetence and idiocy of the so-called protectors of society takes a sinister edge, as lives are actively put at risk as a consequence of their actions and inaction. Allusions to an unsolved rape, an additional, unrelated murder of a young girl in a park, and condemnatory attitudes towards the sorority house’s reports of obscene phone calls and a missing sister (an officer suggests she’s probably just sleeping around somewhere) drive home the lack of protection or likely rescue even before the film’s final rug-pull reveal really hammers home the police’s inefficiency, despite some of them, such as Saxon’s character, making an admirable effort. In the bleak midwinter, indeed.
Black Christmas is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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