Black Christmas

Release date: December 20, 1974

Director: Bob Clark

Cast: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin, James Edmond and Doug McGrath

Believe it or not, there was a time when Black Christmas was considered a distinctly different kind of horror film. Released in 1974, a while before Halloween or Friday the 13th would be released, and long before the splatter genre went to absurd depths by the major Hollywood studios. So with looking back, it’s easy to see why plenty of horror movie buffs point to this movie – instead of Halloween – as the preeminent slasher flick.

Black Christmas involves a sorority house that is being harassed by a mysterious phone caller who goes from disturbing sexual comments to threats of violence. Soon, it appears that he has entered the sorority house, starting to make good on his promise to murder them. He continues to make phone calls from within the house, and as others are found to have gone missing, the remaining girls contact the authorities to assist in catching the perpetrator before he comes after them.

Black Christmas’s story sounds very familiar: there’s a killer on the loose as a sorority house’s residents get ready to leave for the Christmas holidays. But what is so different about this movie compared to others is how well it’s acted, directed, and also how the main characters have actual depth to them. Shocking – albeit plain-sounding – in explanation, but it’s true. And the film still holds up after all these years.

Aside from their alcoholic house mother, the sorority members are not boring characters. There isn’t a clear-cut distinction between the sexually-repressed and the promiscuous or the smart and the stupid. Rather, these are "strong" women in crisis. And it’s not just the fact they’re being terrorized. Seriously dealing with pressures from boyfriends, parents and school, they are not treated as ham-handed plot points that occur between gory deaths.

As more residents end up murdered and more creepy phone calls happen, there is the inevitable climactic showdown. What appears to be a saw-it-from-a-mile-away unmasking turns out to be someting very different. And surprisingly, it’s not a cheat or entirely implausible.

Two very interesting aesthetics of the movie are POV shots from the killer’s perspective and mysterious phone calls coming from inside the house. Now, before you start accusing Halloween or When a Stranger Calls of plagiarism, understand that the film was not very well-known upon original release. Director Bob Clark, who directed other horror flicks before and after this, never had sour grapes towards those movies or the Directors of them. Besides, he made another classic holiday movie and it didn’t involve murderous stalkers: A Christmas Story (kind of ironic that he first made one of the most anti-Christmas films ever with Black Christmas.)

Black Christmas is the kind of film that, despite its formula becoming so commonplace even just a few years after its release, is a true original. Going beyond overused scare tactics and fleshing out sometimes sympathetic and always complex characters, the movie turns out to be an accidental trailblazer instead of an intentional exploitation piece.

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