Movie Review: Black Christmas (1974)



“If This Picture Doesn’t Make Your Skin Crawl… It’s on TOO TIGHT.”

This atmospheric thriller from 1974 would go on to be influential of the Slasher genre. It predated John Carpenter’s Halloween by 4 years, and may have inspired the maestro with its use of killer cam, a holiday setting and pretty young co-eds getting picked off one by one.

The story goes a little something like this:

The Pi Kappa Sigma sorority, full of hard-drinking, foulmouthed college girls, starts receiving threatening, obscene phone calls during a Christmas party. Turns out they have an unexpected guest in their house for the holidays, and it’s not St. Nick (although he does come down from the rooftop). Girls start going missing, but no one notices right away, as people are leaving for the holidays.

When one of the girls doesn’t turn up to meet her father, they begin to suspect that something is up and go to the police. The police install a wiretap on their phone, and a number of tense scenes unfurl, as lead girl Jess (played by Olivia Hussey, the hard-drinkingest of them all) struggles to keep “Billy” on the line.

It all plays out with a classic, chilling climax, that will thrill some and frustrate the rest.

“Black Christmas” was critically panned at the time, but has enjoyed a second life as a cult classic. It was also included as one of the original 72 films of the infamous British “video nasties” list. There’s a couple of big names in Black Christmas, that  would go on to greater things: Keir Dulleam, who plays the highly-strung artistic boyfriend Peter, had already starred in 2001: A Space OdysseyMargot Kidder would play Lois Lane in the Superman movies, John Saxon would appear in the Nightmare On Elm Street movies, and director Bob Clark would take another stab at Christmas pictures, to wider acclaim. He directed A Christmas Story.

Black Christmas reminds us of the joy of ’70s Horror cinema: quirky characters, atmosphere, groddy film quality, advocado appliances.

avocado phon

While I enjoy modern horror, with its fast-pacing and streamlined plots, it removes some of the incidental moments that make retro horror so much fun. You get the feeling that directors are exploring, playing around, trying to fill the time, and there are moments caught on film that would never make the cut these days. Take for instance, the hyjinks of Mrs. Mac, the lovable but surly drunken hausfrau. Watch her fish bottles out of toilet tanks and out of hollow books. Count the scenes which feature her drinking, before she meets her untimely end. I miss these eccentric characters and oddball slices of life. Also, bonus points for the irresponsibility of the ’70s-this film features a child getting drunk, and a cop gets a shotgun blast in the bum from a local farmer, with no apparent repercussions. Those were looser times.

flipping off

Black Christmas relies on tension, atmosphere and dread, rather than gore, which makes it that much more effective. It doesn’t bash you over the head, instead it creeps in and unsettles you. “Billy”‘s phone calls are genuinely disturbing, speaking in a variety of demonic voices, playing out his Freudian psychodrama. There is something seriously wrong with this bloke. The atmosphere is sustained by a subtle but effective score by Carl Zittrer, which has the composer abusing a piano in every way imaginable. It’s nice to hear an actual score, not just pop music tacked on at the end, as sound design is such a vital component of horror movies.

I am a child of the ’80s, so it is always a pleasure to watch film from the ’70s. The blurry film quality and funky scenery takes me back, in an oddly comforting way. But my appreciation of this film is not mere nostalgia, as I am also a hardened horror fanatic, and won’t accept no fluff. This film is a tense, atmospheric chiller that has stood up to the test of time, and actually improved with age, like a bottle of absinthe.

Recommended for your yuletide fireside.

Get It For Christmas, on DVD Or Blu-Ray: Black Christmas (Special Edition)

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  1. Really enjoyed this post. Thanks for it. Black Christmas is indeed a different kind of holiday favourite.
    I watched Black Christmas on TV originally and when I finally saw the DVD, I was surprised to discover the menacing phone calls were much more obscene, and therefore disturbing, than on television.
    One query: Was it really rated a video nasty in the UK? I know that happened to Silent Night, Deadly Night, but Black Christmas seems a surprising choice. I first saw it on British TV (admittedly with the cuts I’ve just mentioned) in the 1980s, so that seems odd … but I don’t know.

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