Grindhouse Review: 'Black Christmas'
“Black Christmas” (1974)
Directed By Bob Clark
Starring Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin and James Edmond
On a cold night in the winter of 1974, a group of sorority sisters are having their annual Christmas party before most of them go home for the holidays. But what they don’t know is that lurking in the shadows is a stranger who has something else in mind: Cold-blooded murder. When one of the girls disappears without a trace and the group keeps receiving cryptic and obscene phone calls, the relaxing holiday season turns into a twisted nightmare that unsettles the nerves and makes one wonder; if they’re not safe in their own house, then where are they safe?
“Black Christmas” was constructed from a very solid screenplay by Roy Moore and directed by acclaimed cult director Bob Clark, the mastermind behind the 1973 cult favorite “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things.” Clark and his talented production crew set out to craft one of the most nerve-wracking independent horror films just four years before the original “Halloween” took its place for its use of craft, style and minor storytelling.
As I said before, I’m very apprehensive when it comes to slasher flicks because most of them are populated with senseless violence, gratuitous nudity, predictable scares, amateur acting, poor writing, awful directing and pretty much anything that matches the definition of garbage. Although the film does fall under the stereotypical category, it does stand on its own and shies away from any of the formulaic conventions that create your typical slasher flick.
First of all, I must praise the wonderful performances from the entire cast, especially Olivia Hussey, who gives a tangible performance as the leading lady, Jess. Although all of the characters are very easy to identify with and fleshed out in great detail before anything happens to them in a predictable manner, it is the structure and the manipulations of the genre that attracted me.
Without giving away any plot points, the audience is always with the characters and with the killer. Back then, this choice of storytelling was unheard of because it shied away from any of the typical Hitchcock conventions where suspense is built up and you don’t see the attack coming. However, this new technique was extremely effective in this film and soon went on to become a huge cliché in future horror films. “Black Christmas” is the first film to use this approach to storytelling.
In the opening shot of the film we see a beautifully composed wide shot of the sorority house. As soon as the opening credits finish, we hear heavy breathing over the picture’s soundtrack. A group of students walk by and head toward the house while the camera begins to follow the students up the front porch and through the front door of the house.
After several beats, the camera pans over to the group that just entered the house being seen through the window after being greeted by the lead cast of the picture. After another several beats, the camera moves toward the backside of the house where the camera focuses on a vine fence that’s attached to the side of the house.
As the camera slowly creeps toward the wooden fence, a pair of hands reaches out to grab hold and begins to climb toward the attic window. But it doesn’t stop there: The pair of hands climbs through the window, creeps through the attic and makes its way past the attic door, where the intruder peeks around the corner to get his first glimpse of the lead character of the picture.
Here we are about six minutes into the film and we come to our first edit: A complex shot executed extremely well to show the perspective of the stranger who is now in the house. Is it creepy and effective? Very much so.
However, the creative camera work wasn’t the only element that gave the film its full four-star rating. The picture does create tension within the arc of the characters, the killer’s point-of-view, the withheld identity of who the killer is and a razor edge humor that cuts through glass to take the edge off.
With these elements all together, “Christmas” is defiantly creepier than humble. No gore, no sex, no nudity—just plain old-fashioned horror. This is “Black Christmas”: Snow-covered silent streets, creepy Christmas carols, spooky use of lighting and color, scary atmosphere and the overall look of the plastic bag-suffocated victim in a rocking chair staring from the attic window. Trust me, you will never look at your attic the same way again. If your skin is not crawling by the end of this picture, it’s on too tight.
Four Out of Four Stars