Reviewed by Michael Sarago
A large house harboring the cheerful chatter of a sorority Christmas party, a few colorful holiday decorations and a snowy landscape make up the first images of this film. Now while this seems like a warm and friendly situation, it is anything but as we realize we’re seeing this through the eyes of a stranger. This person proceeds to climb up an ivy trellis along the side of the house and enters through an open attic window. Minutes later, a sorority girl is dead.
This is the basic premise of Black Christmas and the best aspect of the overall film. What is it about locked doors and bolted windows that make us feel so completely safe in our homes? Surely they keep us safe to a certain degree, but what stops someone from picking the lock? From shattering the window? From finding an open attic window that no one even thinks to lock in the first place? We’re brought up with the allusion that we’re always safe as long as we’re behind a locked door and this movie completely shatters that notion, leaving us feeling chilled to the bone as we realize that the comfort we feel in our homes is a lie.
Just as disturbing obscene phone calls suddenly ruin the joyous occasion, main character Jessica Bradford (Olivia Hussey) and her friend Phyllis (Andrea Martin) decide to stay behind at the house for Christmas break to help out Barb (Margot Kidder), a lovable drunken mess of a girl who has no where to go. By this early point in the film, we already get a sense of the characters through their caring demeanor and even some well placed humor. The three actresses play their parts really well and prove likable, which helps the mounting tension build through the roof as we fear the inevitable, knowing the killer is already in the house unbeknownst to the girls.
While there are a lot of slashers out there that need gory murders every two minutes and seem to have ADD when it comes to plot, the vastly underrated director of this film, Bob Clark, decided to take his time with development instead and gives us good old fashioned suspense and a strong atmosphere to rely on that oozes with an unrelenting creepiness. Within the horror genre, I think less is more and since most of the sinister elements of this film are kept under wraps and we’re left with numerous questions, we can build fear from our own imaginations. We’re never fully sure who this psycho is or what he’s really after. We don’t even know what he looks like. We’re only given minor glimpses, one of which is his creepy bulging eye. We’re just left knowing that he’s there somewhere, watching and waiting and I couldn’t help but peer over my own shoulder for fear that someone was watching me too.
Since we’re given very little visuals to work with pertaining to the killer, Bob Clark turns much of the focus on sound, which is sadly an element seldom used to it’s advantage in horror films. The phone ringing itself is somehow chilling enough, let alone the killer’s voice on the other end, spewing out all kinds of disturbing gibberish and obscenities through what sounds like multiple personalities. From his calls, to his wild madman screams to his heavy footsteps running down the stairs, I was left in utter fear of this man, all because of good sound use. The musical score, while quite creepy, is barely even there. Instead, Bob Clark brilliantly manages to weave his own score using natural sounds from his surroundings; the soft ticking of a grandfather clock, the crackling of a fire place, the cold howling wind outside and a few distant dog barks. While these sounds may not be considered malevolent, hearing them put together in this particular case somehow created something quite unnerving to listen to.
By the last half, just when we think we know who or even where the killer is, we find ourselves surprised with a heart-pounding finale, ending the night wanting to sleep with the lights on. In my opinion, Black Christmas not only remains the best slasher film to date, but also one of the scariest horror films ever made. For some reason, this movie continually gets overlooked and was eventually pushed under the rug to make way for John Carpenter’s Halloween four years later, which unfairly took all the credit for being the slasher film that started it all, even though it basically felt like a carbon copy and was in fact originally meant as a sequel to Black Christmas, according to Bob Clark. Halloween is obviously a great film and deserves the praise it gets, but don’t allow it to overshadow this classic. For any true slasher fan, this is a must see. Don’t let it pass you by.