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 blkchr-posbest 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.

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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.

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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.