Proto-slasher, Black Christmas (also released as Silent Night, Evil Night, and Stranger in the House), was directed by the late Bob Clark and deserves mention alongside the greatest horror movies of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Clark also directed A Christmas Story, making him the only director in movie history to bring to screen one of the most beloved Christmas tales and one of the most horrifying.
The movie opens with a dirge-like rendition of Silent Night, and as the camera reveals a hulking sorority house amid a frozen winter landscape, it wheels around to give us a hint of a rather unsettled individual climbing unseen toward the attic. The story shifts to a series of disturbing crank phone calls to the sorority girls, each call more unsettling than the last. The calls combine vulgarity with absolute insanity. The caller is so disturbed that it is impossible to avoid the chills as he shifts between multiple voices: a child’s scream, a wailing woman, a roaring man.
It is within these phone calls that we are given hints as to horrific events which the caller likely played a part in. But we are not spoon fed. The ambiguity of the calls leaves plenty to the imagination, which is decidedly more effective than spelling it out. You will, in your mind’s eye, gain a glimpse of understanding as to who Billy and Agnes are. It is likely that Billy will haunt you for far longer than Jason, Freddy, or Michael ever did.
As the story slowly unfolds, we learn of unsolved, grisly murders within the town. At the same time, members of the sorority house begin to disappear, one by one. Are they leaving for the holidays? Or is something more nefarious at work?
Brilliantly directed by Clark, Black Christmas employs several innovations – Steadycam usage, killer point of view shots, and a certain plot line that would be repeated and ripped off for decades thereafter. I won’t go into these plot lines so as not to spoil the movie for first time viewers.
The story is a slow builder. It broods and grows on you, atmospheric and psychologically horrifying. Black Christmas is one of the few movies which still manages to unsettle me despite dozens and dozens of viewings. The movie featured an unusually strong cast for a horror movie, including Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Andrea Martin, and John Saxon. When a solid script, a great cast, a gifted director, and a fantastic plot twist are combined, the final result is cinema gold.
You might be interested to know that Black Christmas served as inspiration for John Carpenter’s Halloween. In fact, there are some people who claim that the original script of Halloween was written as a sequel to Black Christmas. On the other hand, When a Stranger Calls (1979) went beyond inspiration, blatantly copying some of Black Christmas’ key plot points. Scream (1996) revisited some of the classic Black Christmas sequences in its opening scene, another nod to one of the greatest horror movies ever made.
You might be familiar with the 2006 Black Christmas remake. While not half-bad as a slasher or horror movie, the 2006 remake lacked the brilliance and foreboding atmosphere of the 1974 original. I appreciated that the 2006 remake brought back Andrea Martin, who had since gained stardom through SCTV and movie comedies, for one of the leading roles. But don’t confuse the 2006 version with the 1974 masterpiece. The difference between the two is like comparing an X Factor reject to Led Zeppelin.
Very few horror movies bring the disturbing chills that Black Christmas delivers. It’s a timeless classic, easily one of the best horror movies of the last fifty years and perhaps the best slasher movie ever made.
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