Director Bob Clark covered a diverse array of genres in his career but genre fans love him for the horror films that he started his directing career with: Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is a cult fave with zombie movie fans and Deathdream remains one of the great deep-catalog shockers of ‘70s indie horror. That said, his best known and most popular horror film is Black Christmas, which is both a pioneer in the slasher subgenre and one of the all-time best holiday horrors.
Black Christmas takes place in a sorority house closing down for the holidays. Everyone’s caught up in their own little dramas: Jess (Olivia Hussey) is debating how to break the news that she wants an abortion to her high-strung musician boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) and Barb (Margot Kidder) is soothing the disappointment of being cold-shouldered at Chrstimas time by her mom with drink and cutting remarks.
They’re also the victim of nasty calls by a pervert who propositions them before threatening them with murder. None of the sisters know that said caller is a disturbed and resourceful killer that has snuck into their house. He starts by killing the virginal Clare (Lynne Griffin) and making it look like she disappeared. As the remaining sisters in the house try to find her with the help of local cop Fuller (John Saxon), the killer uses the holiday chaos and the distraction of her search to turn his psychotic rage on them.
Like a lot of classic horror films, Black Christmas holds up to repeat viewings because of its ability to generate a creepy vibe. It starts with Roy Moore’s inspired script, which relies more heavily on the mystery element than it does on the killings. This works because the mystery is compelling and well-structured, with good characterizations to bolster it. It helps that the killer is particularly disturbing in his behavior, with sudden rages and recurring themes in his rants that suggest some kind of primal, perverse family trauma in his background.
Black Christmas further benefits from a strong cast. Hussey makes a sympathetic heroine and more importantly has the expressive face and lung power required for a good scream queen. Saxon is typically solid as the devoted cop, Dullea is appropriately twitchy as the likeliest suspect and Kidder steals virtually every scene she’s in as a queen bee whose forward behavior and bitchy taunts conceal a wounded ego.
Elsewhere, the supporting cast features an array of future Canadian film and t.v. stalwarts like Andrea Martin, Art Hindle and Les Carlson. It’s also worth noting that the voice characterization of the unseen killer, done in part by a young Nick Mancuso, is one of the unnerving things you’ll ever hear. Even after repeat viewings, it will still jangle your nerves.
Bob Clark’s direction completes the film’s sinister atmosphere. From the opening moments, he creates a doomy mood where everyone’s ability to recognize the danger around them is just out of their grasp and the audience is placed in the upsetting position of watching fate close in on them. Clark ratchets up the tension from the opening frames with an excellent use of Reginald Morris’s cinematography, including effective use of fisheye-lens P.O.V. shots, and a score that mixes minimalist soundscapes from Carl Zittrer with an ironic use of familiar Christmas carols.
Along the way, he manages some powerhouse setpieces: Schlockmania’s favorite is a murder using a glass sculpture that is intercut with a series of fresh-faced kids beautifully singing a hymn. The biggest test of Clark’s directorial skills comes up with the final twenty minutes, where the revelations of the mystery coincide with the most dramatic expression of the film’s horror elements. He navigates these demands with great skill, giving the film a genuinely frightening final act that is topped with a spooky coda that fits the film’s grim mood beautifully.
In short, Black Christmas fully earns its status as one of the classic Christmas shockers and as the high point of Clark’s “horror” period. If you want a creepfest for the holidays, this one’s hard to top.