Black Christmas [1974]

Certificate: 18
Running time: 98 mins
Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon
Genre: Horror
Format: DVD
Country: Canada

One of the founding members of the Christmas horror club, Black Christmas sees a sorority house including Jess (Hussey) and Barb (Kidder) under siege during the Christmas break.  One at a time the sisters are targeted by a brutal and insane killer.

Black Christmas is a change of pace from the Christmas slasher we (as audiences) are now used to.  The films is, narratively, one degree of separation from the horror films that have been traditionally centered round Halloween and all the superstition and mysticism that surrounds October 31st.  It’s this quality that allows the film to age better than most that weren’t made in 1974, in fact, with the exception of the clothing Black Christmas holds up to the scrutiny of modern audiences surprisingly well.  It’s quite something that a film that has been so heavily referenced, mined and stolen from over the four decades it has been in the public eye that the trappings and cinematic tricks used in the film still carry tension rather than appear simplistic and uninspiring.  The use of cinematic point of view shots from the killer is a touch of beauty as it allows for two things.  Firstly it places the audience in the position of the antagonist which creates a degree of tension between the audience and the films protagonist (Hussey) as we are privy to more information than she is.  This is a classical technique used in horror and film noir and is timeless.  Secondly it’s use allows for any and all ‘voyeuristic’ type shots in the film to be interpreted as that of POV and therefore create tension throughout the film regardless of whether it pays off or not.

Clark’s use of the camera is understated and excellent.  Every inch of the shot is inhabited with layers of light and shadows and warmth that initially makes the sorority house look comfortable and appealing but as the film progresses and the calls persist it turns this inviting nest into a claustrophobic prison with too many rooms and far too many dark corners that are under lit by the houses open fire.  Similarly the original picturesque Christmas snowfall transforms into an obstacle to their escape from the house as the terrain outside (at night) can prove just as danger as asking “who’s there?” before examining an unlocked room.

John Saxon (Lieutenant Fuller) gives a comfortable performance, it’s great and all but it’s the police performance you expect from him.  It’s a performance of a (then) twenty year cinematic veteran and a performance he would deliver ten years later in A Nightmare on Elm Street.  He is incredibly watchable though and makes the most of the scenes he is given.  Olivia Hussey is a wonderful piece of casting, her physical attractiveness shines through in every moment and is what is traditionally used in horror films to suggest a weakness in the protagonist as someone that pretty can’t defend themselves properly.  Her performance has a few cracks in it, mainly with the delivery of dialogue but a certain amount of slack has to be given to her for being able to carry a film at the age of 23 in her second language.  How many of us could do that?  Be honest.  Kidder (as Barb) is phenomenal, so good it’s impossible to remember a performance she was more natural in or performs better.  The way in which she plays the fun, smart talking but slightly dark Barb is a masterclass in acting, you simply don’t see this in horror anymore.  Every college-centric film needs a lovable smart ass, Kidder is that and more to Black Christmas.  The key to any film is the casting and outside of the trinity above Clark populates the screen with genuinely good actors in the supporting roles.  All of these performers would be able to carry a share of the films narrative if asked and it’s this quality that goes a long way to keeping the levels of tension high.

The best horror scores are simple, Halloween is a perfect example of this and it’s something that Black Christmas adheres to.  The ‘strings of revelation’ are haunting, like a tense yet beautiful signature that resonates on an emotional level.  All music touches an emotional level but the best leap passed the cognitive process and straight into your instinctive self and it is this instinct emotion that Black Christmas captures so well.

It’s not surprising that Bob Clark made such a wonderful, tense and lasting horror, he is the director of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things after all.  What is surprising is that for some reason a skilful cinematic craftsman like Clark is no longer given the opportunity or funds to deliver films of this caliber anymore.











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