The Test of Time: Black Christmas (1974)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and John Saxon

With it officially being that time of the year, it seems only fitting to bring along a little Christmas gore to help damper all that cheer and stuff. Now since the release of the first Halloween in 1978, many, many horror movies have connected themselves to just about every holiday (is there an Arbor Day movie yet?). This was done to turn the moments where we feel safe, warm and experience joy with into something…not so safe and joyful. It’s about injecting some terror in unsuspecting, happy places.

Most horror fans have undoubtedly seen so much of the slasher genre over the years that it leaves you wondering whether or not one of the unheralded genre originals still holds up under the Test of Time. 

Under the examination: Black Christmas.

Actually, it’s a funny thing how much love John Carpenter’s Halloween gets as the granddaddy of all slasher films. Even 35 years later, all over slasher releases still get compared to it as it remains king. Somehow though, most folks either don’t give credit or aren't aware of Black Christmas, which was made four years before Halloween. Black Christmas utilized many of the same gags, mainly with the first person POV killer as he stalks and kills all those poor girls. Though we don’t have a Michael Myers to instantly identify with, we do get the plenty of the scary.

THE STORY: Nothing says the holidays like a bunch of dead sorority girls. Well, they don’t start out dead. With the holidays and all, Pi Kappa Sigma throws a lame party to celebrate the end of the year. However, they keep getting a bunch of nasty, obscene phone calls, which seems to ruin the fun. When one of the girls goes missing, panic slowly (very slowly) starts to set it. The police are called, but they don’t pay much attention until Bruce Lee’s old chum, John Saxon (playing at police lieutenant here), takes up the case. But can he track down the killer before it’s too late? Or will they all end up with the worst Christmas ever?

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: If anything Black Christmas is one of the few horror films that manages to blend suspense, horror, and comedy without taking any of the elements too far. It’s never too horrifying and never too stupid or goofy where you’re pulled away from the thing. Considering this was done by the director of freakin’ Porky’s, its rather amazing how tight the flick actually is. I’m not saying Porky’s isn’t a great movie, it’s just to correlate that movie with this one. It’s just…odd. In fact, I'm surprised director Bob Clark never returned to the genre. He could have had something going here.

Anyway, Black Christmas is often cited as one of the first slasher movies ever made, which it is and isn’t. The clichéd formulas that Scream so eloquently defined aren’t really used here beyond that group of college girls who end up dead one by one. The unknown killer, seen only through that 1st person POV, not only adds mystery, but it makes it all that much more suspenseful because for once we really don't know who keeps making people dead. Hell, Clark even avoids a satisfying ending just to keep things tense even as the credits roll. 

And while that goes against every bit of marketing potential that would sell the genre, it works beautifully here. Since now we’re all used to having franchise bad guys that we can dress up as for Halloween, its nice not to see who the hell is killing all these people for once. We see shadows, hands, feet, and hear a whole lot of creaking wood floors. Just enough to know someone is there. Someone really f*cked and with some bad intentions. 

At the same time, Black Christmas even avoids an overload of gore, which again is actually kinda refreshing. Blood and guts, if overused, ends up just another gag sometimes, but this movie still has plenty of its own standard gags like an unplanned pregnancy, a psycho boyfriend, the sorority drunk, the old home mom drunk, and stupid police jokes (complete with the classic falashio bit) that actually help elevate the drama to make the thing feel like more a psychological thriller rather than part of a single genre.  

Actually, the (now) most cliched element of Black Christmas that creates the suspense comes from a terrifyingly simple but effective place: the nasty phone calls. They make the movie. It's nearly impossible to hear what the killer on the other end says, but what you can decipher ain't good. It's all bad, horrific shit

WHAT BLOWS NOW: In terms of expectations for the modern horror fan, this film sure isn’t Saw. It feels as if Black Christmas was made when movies where just on the line of being truly edgy with the gore, but the thing never pushes that envelope like we all expect now. Not that that’s necessary a bad thing, but when looking if the thing holds up or not, at times it just doesn’t. Obviously, some people might complain about the pacing too, but again it didn't bother me. That's what made the movie work.

So what does blow now? If anything, lead actress Olivia Hussey is downright stiff and annoying. She has no personality or interest and a dry British accent. (Jamie Leigh Curtis set the bar for genre lead victims...that's for sure.) I would have rather seen more of a drunken Lois Lane have to run for her life and change as a character. That would have been a whole lot more interesting. 

THE VERDICT: Black Christmas isn’t in a rush, and that’s really why it works. It has so many quiet, drawn out sequences that it ends up being one of the scariest, tensest movies ever made. 

I'm not sure if this one will play over well with the family in celebration of the holiday, but Black Christmas remains a powerful flick that should remind everyone that sometimes less is a hell of a more. Ho, ho, ho.





Latest Movie News Headlines