Film Review: Black Christmas (1974)

Now that’s a fun poster and a great tagline.

Spoilers, of course!

I was on the hunt tonight for a horror film from the 1970s. Given that two of the greatest horror films of all time (1973’s The Exorcist and 1978’s Halloween) came out in that decade, I figured let’s try another one, and it occurred to me that I haven’t actually seen what many (rightly) consider to be the true “grandfather” of the slasher, 1974’s Black Christmas. While I think Halloween perfected it and popularized it, it certainly is fair to say that Black Christmas did it first.

The premise is that sorority sisters are receiving threatening phone calls and are then stalked, and murdered by a deranged psycho during the Christmas season.

First, the most notable thing about the film is who is in it. Margot Kidder, as Barb, who obviously would go on to have a career-making role as Lois Lane in Superman only four years later! Then there’s John Saxon, as Lt. Fuller, who would go on to play Nancy’s police officer dad in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street! How neat is that?

Here are the ways from recollection the film seems to influence Halloween:

Eek!
  • Billy, the killer, is first presented with a point-of-view shot as he makes his way to and in the sorority house, accompanied by heavy breathing. Halloween opened with a similar POV shot, and of course, Michael Myers is known for the heavy breathing.
  • Obviously, attacking the “babysitters.” Even though the sorority sisters aren’t necessarily babysitting in this film, apparently the film itself is based off of a similar urban legend.
  • We don’t see much of Billy; he’s relegated to the shadows and to one close-up of his eyeball. And we don’t know much of anything about him. That’s similar in a lot of ways to Michael Myers. If anything, we actually know more about Michael Myers.
  • Billy presents the bodies at the end to our protagonist, Jess (played by Olivia Hussey). Michael Myers did the same thing to Laurie Strode (played by Jamie Lee Curtis).
  • This is certainly a slow-burn film that takes its time getting to where it wants to get, same as Halloween.
  • There’s not much out-and-out gore or violence. Much of it is atmosphere, same as Halloween.
  • Centering a horror film around a holiday, and interestingly, Christmas came before Halloween, but it makes sense, I suppose, given the fun juxtaposition to be had.

Overall, I thought this was an effective, chilling film. Those phone calls from Billy to the sorority girls really chilled me to the bone, and I mean seriously, I got goosebumps. That sort of thing, with the multiple, manic voices, freaks me out and gets under my skin. The fact that the phone calls are coming from inside the house the entire time is all the more frightening.

But also, given that Roe v. Wade was just decided a year earlier in the United States, protecting a woman’s right to an abortion, I’m impressed that a horror film not only centered that topic, but came out on the feminist side of it. That is, Jess was pregnant, but told Peter, her boyfriend (played by Keir Dullea), that she was planning to get an abortion. He flips out, tries to change her mind, and even threatens her (setting up the red herring that he’s actually the killer quite effectively), but she sticks to her guns. He also earlier more or less proposed to her, and she turned that down, too, talking about her own career ambitions and goals. What a feminist horror film! I was pleasantly surprised by that.

And given that Jess is pregnant, that she still takes the fight proactively to Billy with a fire poker at the end is wild, and then defends herself against who she thinks the killer is, Peter, by killing him. Given how Peter was acting both before that scene and during that scene, I can’t blame Jess for stabbing him.

Another great scene to show the juxtaposition of Christmas and horror is when Barb is being killed by Billy while the Christmas carolers are charming Jess at the front door. What a beautiful, horrific juxtaposition that’s so well-shot, and really epitomizes the bleakness of this film. Also, another nice red herring, as I thought for sure Barb would be the “final girl,” as it were. Not just because of who Kidder would go on to be, but because Barb seemed the most assertive and “forget this guy” character to the caller.

Two issues I had with the film from a storytelling perspective, for which I think, if corrected, the entire story would fall apart:

The perfect setting.
  • Once Clare (played by Lynne Griffin) goes missing after being killed by Billy, it makes no sense for the police to start a search party outside the sorority house, the last place she was seen, before checking the sorority house. Then they go back to the sorority house later to check, but it’s not even a full search. Given what Jess also told the police, they know the last place Clare was seen was at the house! But, of course, if the police were to do the proper search, then Billy, as well as Clare’s dead body, would be found out.
  • At the end of the film, Jess is asleep, having survived Billy for now, and instead of taking her to the hospital, the police just put her in a bed in one of the sorority house’s rooms, i.e., the scene of the crime! What in the world?! Then when Mr. Harrison, Clare’s father (played by James Edmond), passes out from shock, they take him to the hospital and leave Jess alone, aside from one cop staged at the porch? That makes no sense, but it’s necessary to set up the reveal that Jess didn’t actually kill the killer, who she thought was Peter, but was actually Billy, who is of course still alive.

I do think Halloween improved on a few elements slasher genre elements here, primarily by putting a mask on Michael Myers, adding the Dr. Loomis character, and thanks to a more expansive field to play with, adding in classic tracking shots and wide frame shots that only add to the horror. And, of course, really letting an iconic score shine, although this one had a solid score, too. But again, credit where credit is due, Black Christmas is a revelatory film experience for me, both as the grandfather of the slasher, but also for how feminist it came across for its time. 1974! Wow. The dang Canadians beat us to it, and in cool, horrific fashion.

If you’ve seen this film, what did you think about it?

Is it just me or is this cat enormous?

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