Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas Bob Clark

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.

“Black Christmas” (1974), directed by Bob Clark, stands as a landmark in the horror genre, an influential film that helped shape the slasher subgenre long before the iconic likes of “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th.” Viewing it today, one can still feel the chilling grip of tension and dread that makes it an enduring classic.

The plot is seemingly simple: a sorority house, filled with young women enjoying the festive season, becomes the hunting ground for a deranged killer. But within this simplicity lies a carefully constructed masterpiece of horror. The killer’s unseen presence, mysterious phone calls, and the gruesome murders are all framed with a stark realism that elevates the terror.

Black Christmas artwork

The cast, led by Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder, delivers performances that breathe life into their characters. They aren’t mere slasher film stereotypes but nuanced, believable individuals. Their genuine reactions and believable dialogues provide the film with an emotional depth often lacking in similar horror offerings.

Bob Clark’s direction is masterful. His use of shadow, unsettling camera angles, and a haunting score creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that draws the viewer into the sorority house’s darkened corridors. The film’s pacing is deliberate, building suspense in a way that feels organic and unforced. It’s a slow burn that pays off in a series of shocking and memorable moments.

One of the most striking aspects of “Black Christmas” is its refusal to answer all the questions it poses. The killer’s identity and motives remain enigmatic, giving the film an ambiguous edge that leaves a lingering sense of unease. This decision makes the horror feel more pervasive, a terror without reason or rhyme.

“Black Christmas” is more than a mere horror film; it’s a piece of cinematic history that played a crucial role in defining a genre. Its influence can be felt in countless films that followed, yet it remains fresh and terrifying. For those looking to explore the roots of the slasher film or simply enjoy a well-crafted, intelligent horror movie, “Black Christmas” is a gift that keeps on giving, a chilling reminder of how effective and artful horror cinema can be.

As an aside, 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.

Billy - The Eye - Black Christmas
The infamous eye in the closet. Billy, from Black Christmas.

Black Christmas (1974) Synopsis

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.

black christmas 1974 artwork

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.

killer in the closet

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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2 thoughts on “Black Christmas (1974)

    1. Good call, Chad. Curtains is notable for having one of the best trailers in slasher history. The movie is a good one, though nothing can live up to that trailer. Fortunately, Curtains was finally released to DVD in the last few years. I haven’t seen it since the 1980s so I suppose I should grab a copy.

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