And this is why we invented Caller ID
The girls of a sorority house are being tormented by a twisted prank caller who continually calls to convey increasingly vile and abusive sentiments. What at first appears to be a sick joke eventually turns to violence and murder as the girls are terrorized during the supposed season of goodwill and merriment.
The original and quite possibly still the best, ‘Black Christmas’ set the ball rolling for the slasher genre and was the biggest influence for the phenomenally successful John Carpenter classic, ‘Halloween’ (1978), a film that was originally conceived as a sequel to ‘Black Christmas’. Italian director Mario Bava may have previously created what some see as the first true slasher movie, ‘Bay of Blood’ (1971), but it was ‘Black Christmas’ that was to become the catalyst for one of the most lucrative, notable and controversial sub-genres of horror cinema for the next three decades.
Bob Clark, whose previous credits include the kooky, low-budget zombie marmite-movie ‘Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things’ (1972) and zombie film cum-Vietnam War allegory ‘Deathdream’ aka ‘Dead of Night’ (1972), was still at this point in his career something of an amateur director. Clark took a simple yet naturally frightening concept and the makings of many an urban legend and turned it into one of the most unsettling and nerve-racking one hundred minutes in cinematic history. Only a select few films such as ‘The Haunting’ (1963) and ‘Alien’ (1979) are atmospheric enough to truly equate to the eeriness and feelings of apprehension that can be induced in a viewer by ‘Black Christmas’.
The simplicity of the production is what makes it so endearing. There are no overly bloody death sequences or unlikely, comic-book style events; the viewer is just presented with an unnerving tale which could easily have a strong basis in reality. Inventive camerawork and PoV shots as well as a superlative use of lighting are the elements that combine to achieve the desired results. The often pseudo-claustrophobic environment of the sorority house, which serves as the movie’s primary setting, offers the perfect location, vulnerable and unguarded, susceptible to intrusion and its seeming isolation contributes heavily to the continual foreboding atmosphere.
Clark was not afraid to take time crafting an eerie and unsettling story; a story with humble origins, masterfully cranking the tension notch by notch before plunging the viewer into a seemingly uncontrolled nightmare that one experiences along with the protagonists. An aspect that firmly stands out is the mysterious way that everything is presented; even at the very end, very little has truly been explained yet everything seems like it should have an obvious explanation. Oft-absent by contemporary standings, these little dashes of mystery play on the simple truth that the human mind with a little prompting can conjure up much darker scenarios than those that could be feasibly confined to film.
Even in the undoubted simplistic concept, ‘Black Christmas’ has complicated facets that require more than a little consideration perhaps because it at times follows a narrative structure akin to literature; an omniscient narration that only provides the information that the characters themselves would know. ‘Black Christmas’ is complimented wonderfully by strong acting performances from Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, John Saxon and a highly pleasant and amusing turn from Marian Waldman. Despite the tiny budget, this is a highly polished horror film that genuinely belongs among the elite of the genre.
For slasher movie fans, whether your have a penchant for the cheap, copious and often cheesy output of the 1970s and 1980s such as ‘Halloween’, ‘Friday the 13th’ (1980), ‘Slumber Party Massacre’ (1982) and ‘The House on Sorority Row’ (1983), are more a fan of the slick, polished presentations of the 1990s and 2000s such as ‘Scream’ (1996), ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (1997), ‘Urban Legend’ (1998) and ‘Wolf Creek’ (2005) or are just a fan in general, this is a movie worth seeing at least once because this is where it all began. A simple concept turned into a taught and frightening movie.
Watch the original ’74 teaser on YouTube.