Director Bob Clark’s entire career might have been summed up by his contributions to Holiday cinema had he not also helmed the seminal teenage sex comedy PORKY’S. In 1983, Clark’s adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s memoirs brought generations A CHRISTMAS STORY, and the plight of little Ralphie Parker’s quest for a Red Rider carbine action range model air rifle. But a decade before lensing that annual television staple, Bob Clark wasn’t peddling nostalgic Christmas wishes to adoring moviegoers everywhere. He was dreaming up something much more terrifying and indescribably more influential—BLACK CHRISTMAS—and when it was released on December 20, 1974—on the cusp of the Christmas Holiday—the director’s nearly bloodless nightmare of a film—alongside Mario Bava’s 1971 classic Twitch of the Dead Nerve—virtually created the template for the modern slasher film.
In the midst of holiday preparations the lovely ladies of the Pi Kappa Sig sorority house are being terrorized by an unknown caller. As the revelry continues, and they drink, and chat, and pack their bags for break, the same mysterious stranger is scaling the wall of their house and setting up shop in the attic’s crawl space. Soon after—one by one—as the calls continue—the few remaining sisters will each meet a terrible and shocking end.
It’s hard to watch BLACK CHRISTMAS now and recognize the sheer importance of the film. As an audience we’re just too far gone. Too bombarded by dozens of HALLOWEEN’s and FRIDAY THE 13TH’s. Too accustomed to killers like Freddy or Ghostface spouting smart aleck dialogue before plying their slice-and-dice trade. Too removed from the time when Norman Bates slid that shower curtain back—his face cloaked in darkness—the gleaming blade slicing through the celluloid, but never seen by our eyes piercing Marion Crane’s soft skin.
BLACK CHRISTMAS is a relic. But, it’s one that rallies against fading away. Every time that house appears on the screen, serenely serenaded in a sea of snowy white, it captivates. It captivates with it’s breathlessly ominous presence. It unnerves and unsettles the viewer. Clark along with Cinematographer Reg Morris and Composer Carl Zittrer (PROM NIGHT) created a visual and aural ambience that is perfectly designed to make your skin crawl. The film is a faultless study in omniscient filmmaking. The audience always knows where the killer is and what his intentions are. So, the innate suspense in watching these girls go, one after another, to their deaths is in our helplessness to do anything but cringe and witness the execution.
The deft performances from the cast are the other piece that makes the project a living, breathing entity. Specifically adept at bringing the viewers directly into the world of the film—then 21-year old actress Olivia Hussey (ROMEO AND JULLIET) captured the abject horror of the entire audience with little more than the quiver of her voice and the fear in her eyes. In fact the reason the film feels much more contemporary than so many of its 1970’s counterparts is due to the naturalistic performances from its cast—Including Margot Kidder (SISTERS), John Saxon (NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST.), Kier Dullea (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) and SCTV’s Andrea Martin (who will also be appearing as the house mother in this year’s remake of the film).
To measure the unquantifiable influence that BLACK CHRISTMAS had on a new kind of horror film is futile. It’s inspiration can be seen directly in John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece HALLOWEEN and in the 1979 thriller WHEN A STRANGER CALLS which—not so subtly—borrows BLACK CHRISTMAS’ climatic line “The calls are coming from inside the house!” and builds an entire film around it.
Anticipation for the Dimension Film’s remake has afforded the opportunity of a Special Edition re-release of the film on DVD. The new package is tight with some solid extras including The 12 Days of BLACK CHRISTMAS documentary including interviews from Hussey, Saxon and Kidder and several additional members of the film’s cast and crew. Also included is a 20-minute midnight screening Q&A featuring Clark, Saxon and Composer Carl Zittrer. The most interesting addition—one that trumps the usual “deleted” footage—is two original scenes from the film with alternative audio tracks. Probably not something that your average viewer will get excited about, but I found it to be a fascinating glimpse at how a few minor changes in the sound mix can alter ones perceptions of a film.
The most disappointing element of the release is the minimal appearances from Clark and the lack of an audio commentary track. Clark seems reluctant to talk about the film, even in the included Q&A session so I can only assume that this gross omission was unavoidable. Still, the presentation of this—now 32-year old film—is wonderful. The picture and the sound are spectacular with very little grain and a stellar 5.1 surround mix calculated to keep your fingers clutched tightly together and the hair on the back of your neck at end.
Even with the planned remake stomping its way into theaters on the 25th, there will never be another BLACK CHRISTMAS. As I said before, too much time has passed and today’s teenage male driven marketing departments would have no idea what to make of a film that hinges on very little action, with a killer that is never seen, and with less blood on screen than a Thursday night episode of CSI.
BLACK CHRISTMAS is almost minimalism horror cinema, yet that restraint is inarguably part of the charm that makes the film not only still relevant, but still unsettling today. Someone much smarter than I said “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”—well to that all I can say…are you there Hollywood…it’s me Billy.