October Horrorshow: Black Christmas

Filmmaker Bob Clark had an interesting career. He started out in horror, as so many others have, but then launched the mostly forgotten Porky’s comedy franchise. His legacy now lives on most memorably at Christmas time, when one of the Turner cable channels shows A Christmas Story, which he directed and helped write, for 24 straight hours. As it turns out, A Christmas Story is not Bob Clark’s first foray into holiday-themed filmmaking.

From way back in 1974 comes Black Christmas, a classic early progenitor of the slasher subgenre of horror. In the fictional college town of Bedford, Christmas break has come. A prank caller has been rattling the young ladies of the Gamma Kappa Sigma sorority house. Except for Barb (Margot Kidder). Barb doesn’t rattle. Barb drinks. And when some pervert breathes into a phone and then makes some very disturbing noises, Barb can be counted on to hurl back a string of obscenities, whiskey in hand. So goes the opening sequence, when we viewers meet the girls at the sorority house. Most have gone home for the holidays, but there are still a couple on hand, along with their house mother, Mrs. McHenry (Marian Waldman).

Unbeknownst to them, a stranger has crept into the house. He’s hiding in the attic, and stalks and kills one of the girls early on. The calls to the house continue. They could be coming from the killer or they could be coming from elsewhere. The girls, not knowing about the fate of their sister, inform the police of the calls, and a detective, Fuller (John Saxon) is assigned to the case.

A day goes by. In the meantime, a child goes missing in the town, and police and townsfolk gather to search. The girls of the sorority house are swept up in this potential tragedy, as the two cases seem to overlap. Some girls help with the search while others remain at the house. Dividing themselves thusly, the killer has easier targets.

The final act is one of high tension as it begins to dawn on the cast that a crazed killer is loose. The killer works in secret for much longer in this film than in many other slasher flicks. The result is a Black Christmasmore effective drama involving the main characters. There’s a ‘whodunit’ aspect of the plot that makes the whole film that much better. Such mystery is absent in something like Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Also, there’s nothing paranormal about the killer in this film. He is a straight flesh and blood crazy, that’s all. The believability of the killer makes the character more frightening, as well. After all, more than once in this country’s history has the home of college women been the target for mass murder.

As effective as this is as a horror film, Clark also showed he had a bit of the prankster in him. Everyone is a slightly exaggerated caricature. Barb has her overt alcohol problem, while Mrs. MacHenry has her secret one. Conservatory musician and boyfriend to one of the girls, Peter (Keir Dullea), is an emotional and volatile artiste. Everyone at some point has lines that will make a viewer look sideways. This doesn’t feel like a film that should have jokey dialogue slipped in here and there, but Clark makes it work.

There’s also a fair amount of first person footage of the killer. Clark used a lens with a wider angle for these scenes, the effect being that the exaggerated angles create a visual representation of the killer’s insanity. We also hear his ramblings. The way he lurks about the house, aware of all that goes on, only adds to the creepiness. This is a very good film villain.

Black Christmas is an important film in the horror genre. Much of the praise that is heaped on Halloween should probably be reserved for this film, instead. I’m guilty, myself, of pointing out Halloween’s contribution to the genre while failing to note Black Christmas. This film has many of same tropes that have weighed down slasher flicks over the last 40-plus years. But they weren’t tropes yet when this film was made. This movie is an influencer. It’s also very entertaining and nicely disturbing; a must-see for horror fans.