The career of director Bob Clark was eclectic, to say the least. Best known for the enduring holiday classic A Christmas Story, his resume also included the high school sex romp Porky’s, the infamously dreadful Rhinestone and the truly awful Loose Cannons. Before his switch to comedies he got his promising start with horror flicks like Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Dead of Night. But it was 1974’s Black Christmas that put him on the map. I only became aware of this hidden gem of a horror film when I watched the abysmal 2006 remake. I subsequently learned that Bob Clark definitely had a gift for horror.
Black Christmas gives us classic horror in the form of a psychopathic killer who is terrorizing a sorority house during the holiday season. The unseen killer, who is hiding the attic, torments the young woman mostly through a series of obscene phone calls before slowing picking them off, one by one. As the film starts we get a captivating if slightly disorienting series of shots from the killer’s point of view as he (assuming it’s a male) makes his way into the house and establishes his base of operations in the unknowing sisters’ home.
The film features a veritable Who’s Who of notable performers of the 1970’s. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin play members of the sorority. Art Hindle and Keir Dullea play boyfriends of the stalked co-eds. And none other than John Saxon plays the hard-boiled police lieutenant in charge of the case. Margot Kidder in particular makes the most of her screen time as the worldly student who drinks hard and is obsessed with sex...turtle sex to be more specific.
There’s also a surprisingly dramatic and timely subplot involving Olivia Hussey’s Jess who is pregnant and planning an abortion. Keir Dullea’s Peter is her dedicated boyfriend that we watch unravel as he protests her decision. We are meant to see Peter as a mere red herring but his presence adds surprising tension to the film. Additionally, this portion of the film has gained notice and analysis in recent years via feminist film theory.
The film is rough around the edges but it certainly feels ahead of its time. Released in 1974 it’s hard to not see its influence on ensuing horror films later in the decade, including Halloween (killer’s POV) and When a Stranger Calls (calls from inside the house). Though technically a Canadian film, Black Christmas is seen by some as ushering in an era of slasher films in the US in the mid-to-late 70’s. The film also has some notable fans. In addition to Glen Morgan, a noted writer and producer of The X-Files who was inspired to make the unfortunately uninspired 2006 remake, there was Steve Martin.
Per Olivia Hussey, when Steve Martin was casting 1987’s Roxanne he asked to speak with her about a role. Martin started gushing about how Hussey was the star of one of his favorite movies of all time. She just assumed it was 1968’s Romeo and Juliet, like everyone else she typically met. But, no, Mr. “Wild and Crazy Guy” was completed enamored of Black Christmas and claimed to have seen it 27 times when they met.
So, this year when everyone else will tune into the annual 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story, try something new. Who needs typical holiday cheer when you can enjoy the grisly terror of Black Christmas? And maybe you too will gain a new appreciation of Bob Clark and his true cinematic legacy.