Directed by Bob Clark
Review by Angus Luff
What separates Christmas from other holidays is the interpretability and flexibility of the true meaning of the holiday. You could ask 10 different people what Christmas means besides the literal definition and almost everyone would have different answers. That’s what makes it so uniquely special for so many people for different reasons. We all love Christmas films that reflect the typical warm and fuzzy feeling of the holiday, but there’s always a risk-taking storyteller who goes beyond the usual Christmas movie norms – when done successfully, it can truly twist the most familiar version of the holiday from joyful to nightmarish.
Black Christmas is a 1974 Canadian Christmas horror film directed by Bob Clark. During the holiday season, a group of sorority girls are invaded by a dangerous stalker, making his presence known with obscene phone calls and striking victims without warning inside and outside the sorority house. When the situation escalates further, the police get involved to find the mysterious killer.
Early in his career, Bob Clark cemented himself as a cinematic force with this genuinely shocking and horrifying Christmas film. In 1983, he made another famous film, A Christmas Story. But Black Christmas is more notable for me because of its effect on movie fans all these years later. It is a horror film that stands the test of time because it was way ahead of its time. It never resorts to overused horror tropes or the typical directing of popular 1970s horror cinema. Clark scares his audience by showing horrible images as bluntly and honestly as possible and by hinting at possible horrible images offscreen. Each directorial decision is elegantly yet maniacally chosen. The unclear and sudden directions that the film takes keep you on the edge of your seats. I recommend this film, though be warned it is very disturbing and shocking – I would not recommend it for children.
Besides excellent direction, other aspects make this film a landmark for indie horror cinema, especially the memorable, realistic performances by Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and the rest of the sorority girls. All of them are distinct and alive; some are more comedic, ruder or more reserved. You truly feel that a real-life situation has been captured on film. What really gets under my skin is the perfect way they nail the disturbing and uncomfortable atmosphere of the film. It feels as though you’re not supposed to see them like this, as if you’ve stumbled upon something you really shouldn’t have. The girls look just as afraid of the killer as they are of you. As the film goes on, the audience acts as another pair of eyes to watch the sorority girls’ every move; the slow buildup of tension demands that close response from the audience, especially at the end when it makes you reflect on the trauma and horrifying images you witnessed. It is horror filmmaking at its strongest, not pulling any punches, not adding humour or references, just showing you how it is.
Black Christmas succeeds at trying something new. Original and unique horror films like this one and the equally nightmarish Texas Chainsaw Massacre opened the way for the “slasher” sub-genre, which includes films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine and Child’s Play. Such films became extremely popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s but because so many were produced, the sub-genre became a punching bag for critics and was generally looked down upon. While there was undoubtedly a lot of trash produced, I wish more people would give great films like Black Christmas a chance. Though it gets lumped in with other lazy garbage in the slasher sub-genre, this film is anything but lazy – it’s a classic in Christmas and Canadian cinema, something to be proud of, not ashamed of.
If there’s one alternative film to challenge your notion of jolly Christmas stories, make it Black Christmas, but only if you think you can handle it. After you see it, you likely won’t stop thinking about it.
Available on The Criterion Channel and Shudder
Running time: 1 hour 38 mins
Angus Luff is a student at Glebe Collegiate. He grew up in the Glebe and is obsessed with movies.