[BLACK CHRISTMAS screens Thursday July 14th at 6:00 pm and Friday July 15th at 9:10 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]
Review by Bob Ignizio
John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN is one of the all time great horror films. But without taking anything away from Carpenter's achievement, there's no denying that his film owes a significant debt to Bob Clark's 1974 holiday thriller BLACK CHRISTMAS. So do many other films in the eighties slasher cycle, most notably WHEN A STRANGER CALLS.
The film is set primarily in a sorority house during Christmas break. Most of the girls have gone home for the holidays, leaving behind Jess (Olivia Hussey), Barb (Margot Kidder), Phyllis (Andrea Martin) and alcoholic house mother Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman). One of the housemates planning on leaving, Claire (Lynee Griffin), never makes it out the door. She becomes the first victim of the film's unseen obscene phone-calling killer.
The structure of BLACK CHRISTMAS is more mystery/suspense than full-on slasher as police lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) conducts his investigation and eventually zeros in on the most likely suspect, Jess' boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea). The film nonetheless includes several elements that would become de rigeur in the dead teenager movies of the eighties.
To start with the obvious, there's the holiday theme that would show up time and again in films like HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, NEW YEAR'S EVIL, and coming full circle, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT. A number of scenes are shot from the killer's point of view, although the technique is not used as consistently or effectively as it would be in HALLOWEEN and subsequent slashers. There are the obscene phone calls, a plot device which became the crux of both WHEN A STRANGER CALLS and DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE. And finally, the victims are almost exclusively young sexually active women, and the killer is motivated by misogyny and sexual issues.
Despite that, the film rarely feels misogynistic. In fact, the female characters here are all developed in much greater depth than one usually finds in horror films. Hussey would seem to be playing the Jamie Leigh Curtis “good girl” role, but her character is eventually revealed to be far more multifaceted than that. Kidder plays the smart ass bad girl, similar to P.J. Soles in HALLOWEEN, but when Claire turns up missing she displays genuine remorse for having picked on the girl, which she then tries to drown with alcohol. Okay, not a whole lot going on with Andrea Martin's character, but Waldman's Mrs. McHenry is a great comic relief part. In fact, Clark arguably spends more time with her than necessary, but he was always more interested in comedy than horror.
Aside from the way BLACK CHRISTMAS prefigures the slasher craze, it's also interesting to see some of the similarities to Clark's other, better known Christmas movie A CHRISTMAS STORY. There's a scene with a snowball sandwich, we get a surly Santa talking inappropriately around kids, and the arrangements and specific choice of Christmas carols by frequent Clark composer Carl Zittrer sounds almost identical at times. As an added bonus, Leslie Carlson, who played the Christmas tree salesman in CHRISTMAS STORY, shows up here as phone company worker Graham.
The script definitely has some problems. There's a fair bit of material that could have been left out, and the resolution doesn't really achieve that sucker punch feeling it's going for. Still, thanks to the strong cast and Clark's direction BLACK CHRISTMAS holds up better than it might have. Whatever the influence of BLACK CHRISTMAS was on HALLOWEEN, Carpenter's film is still the undisputed classic of the genre for a reason. But Clark's film isn't rememberd only because it was there first; it's a delightfully dark holiday treat in its own right. 3 out of 4 stars.