Robin’s Underrated Gems: Black Christmas (1974)

You know that a film is underrated when it pretty much invents most of the cliches for an entire genre, but nobody gives it the proper credit for that. Most people consider Halloween or Friday the 13th to be the films that spawned the slasher genre, but while they did make the slasher film incredibly popular, they should not receive credit for inventing it. Four years before John Carpenter’s Halloween became a massive hit and one of the most iconic horror films of all time, a Canadian slasher film named Black Christmas was doing a lot of the same things that made Halloween so popular in the first place. While Black Christmas was a modest success and received its fair share of acclaim from horror fans, it was not a blockbuster (and it was also Canadian) so, as a result, a lot of its innovative ideas would not become prevalent in the horror genre for a couple more years. Today, Black Christmas is looked upon by knowledgeable horror fans to be the true original slasher film, but there’s always the question of how well it holds up 36 years later. After all, so many scenes from this film have been copied literally hundreds of times in other slasher flicks. They even made an unnecessary Black Christmas remake in 2006 that was about as generic and forgettable as a horror movie can get. However, in spite of its familiar elements, I do feel that the original Black Christmas holds up amazingly well and I still find it to be one of the most tense and genuinely scary horror films ever made.

Black Christmas takes place at a sorority house at Christmas where some of the oldest-looking college students you’re ever likely to see are harassed by a madman making obscene phone calls. The movie’s main character is named Jess (Olivia Hussey) and despite being the heroine, she’s actually not the innocent “good girl” in this story. She’s just gotten pregnant and wants to have an abortion, despite the objections of her odd boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea). In what would definitely not become the norm for slasher films, the most innocent virginal character, Clare (Lynne Griffin) is actually killed off FIRST, after the movie has barely reached its ten-minute mark! The mysterious killer suffocates her with a plastic bag while she’s in her bedroom and hides her body in the attic. Most of the girls go home for the holidays the next day, with the exception of Jess, Barb (Margot Kidder), Phyll (Andrea Martin) and the alcoholic housemother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), who all stay behind. When Clare’s father arrives in town to pick her up and she never shows up to meet him, the remaining girls launch a search for her, unaware that her body is right above them in the sorority house attic . Meanwhile, Jess starts receiving obscene phone calls again and begins to wonder if her boyfriend might be behind everything. I don’t think I need to put up a spoiler alert if I revealed to you that those calls are actually coming form FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!! If you’ve ever seen a slasher film in your life, I’m sure there are a lot of things in this plot summary that sound awfully familiar, but Black Christmas came up with them first. If you thought Halloween was the first film to open with a long camera shot taken from the point-of-view of the killer, just watch this clip.

I should concede that Black Christmas isn’t single-handedly responsible for inventing the slasher film. One of the first true “body count” pictures was Mario Bava’s 1971 Italian film, Bay of Blood (a.k.a. Twitch of the Death Nerve), which helped launch the formula of a group of people gathering together in a secluded location and being killed off one-by-one in gruesome fashion. However, it was Black Christmas that really patented the formula of a mad slasher terrorizing vulnerable young women (preferably on a special occasion like Christmas, Halloween or Valentine’s Day) and killing each of them off until only one strong-willed heroine remained to fight off the killer, whose identity may or may not be a mystery. So many things in Black Christmas have been copied and made famous by other films. In addition to the aforementioned “killer’s POV” shot that was copied and immortalized in Halloween, the idea of a killer making obscene threatening phone calls to a heroine from inside the same house has often been erroneously accredited to the slasher film, When a Stranger Calls, which came out five years later. However, no obscene phone call ever featured in any movie has ever matched the creepiness of the caller in Black Christmas. The director of this film was the late, great Bob Clark, who would go on to make the most successful Canadian film of all time, Porky’s, and the far less violent but more beloved Christmas movie, A Christmas Story. While Clark did not direct many horror films throughout the course of his career, he does a marvellous job at building up a creepy, tense atmosphere here and came up with a lot of the innovative, groundbreaking filming techniques that are still being copied by slasher film directors to this day. Unlike many later films in the slasher genre, most of the characters in Black Christmas are fairly well-drawn and entertaining to watch, and the script provides a nice undercurrent of humour to lighten the tension. The biggest standouts in the cast are Marian Waldman, delivering an hilarious performance as the drunken Mrs. Mac, and Margot Kidder, who steals every scene she’s in as the heavy-drinking, vindictive Barb.

Compared to most slasher flicks, there is very little gore to be found in Black Christmas and a lot of its violence is kept off-screen. However, very few slasher films have done a better job at generating tension and maintaining an eerie atmosphere from beginning to end. What really sets Black Christmas apart from its imitators and has allowed the film to remain scary after 36 years is its ending. I’ve seen so many horror films throughout the course of my life that I can become a pretty jaded and desensitized viewer who isn’t spooked very easily. Yet I believe Black Christmas to have one of the most creepy and genuinely scary conclusions to a horror film I’ve ever seen. I watched the film for the first time many years ago when it was late at night and I was home alone, and this ending made me legitimately petrified about setting foot in any of the other rooms in my house. I’ve seen very few other horror films that have brought that sort of reaction out of me, which goes to show you how effective Black Christmas really is. It’s sometimes unavoidable for groundbreaking films to lose their punch after so many years because the things they helped innovate have gone on to become so common and cliched. It’s always difficult to predict how someone who watches Black Christmas for the first time these days is going to react to it. If they’ve seen a lot of the other slasher films that Black Christmas helped spawn, they may find the whole thing to be completely generic. However, I still do believe that Black Christmas is so well-made and put together that even the most jaded horror fan should get into it. It’s a shame that Black Christmas still remains an underrated gem because in addition to the telephone and the game basketball, our beloved Canada also deserves due credit for inventing the slasher film!

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