1974 - R - 98 Mins.
|Director: Bob Clark|
|Producer: Gerry Arbeid, Bob Clark, Findlay Quinn, Richard Schouten|
|Written By: Roy Moore|
|Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin, and Art Hindle |
|Review by: JK Radtke
Back in 1974, the world was set ablaze by an unknown filmmaker named Tobe Hooper, and his low budget slasher tale loosely based on the life of the infamous serial killer, Ed Gein: known for skinning his victims and wearing their flesh, while also building various pieces of furniture with their bones. Icky!
Even Superman can't save you now...
Yet, while throngs of movie goers were awe struck by the rawness of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and its antagonist, Leatherface, another much smaller group were happily feeling their skin crawl as an unknown madman wailed and sang to himself in the attic of a Canadian sorority house. Unknown and unnamed, instead of a chainsaw and a mask made of flesh, all it took was one eye, some disturbing phone calls, and innovative camera work to thoroughly scare the pants off of unassuming viewers.
Because of the success of MASSACRE, Bob Clark’s little horror film, BLACK CHRISTMAS has largely gone unnoticed by most. A shame too, since CHRISTMAS is quite possibly one of the greatest horror films ever made.
Simple in plot, and effective in execution, the techniques Bob employed to make CHRISTMAS were not only ground breaking, but have since been copied time and time again as the horror genre has seen its box office stock rise in that silly, cyclical Hollywood world. WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK, and Wes Craven’s SCREAM franchise are just a few of the most notable culprits.
The story takes place in the winter of 1973. Jessica “Jess” Bradford (Olivia Hussey) and her sisters are throwing a Christmas party before everyone leaves for the break. As they do, a heavy breathing madman stalks the outside before ascending a trellis, and climbing through an open window leading to an already creepy attic. Once inside, we know that it is only a matter of time before the true terror begins.
Downstairs, the sisters begin wrapping up the party, as Barbie “Barb” Coard (Margot Kidder) chats away at her mother on the phone, learning that her plans to meet up with her over the break are falling through. Its amazing just how hot Margot is in this film. Lately, if you ever catch a glimpse of her, she looks like card-carrying member of the walking dead. And lest we forget about that little disappearance act of hers a couple years ago, when she went missing for a couple weeks, only to be found by strangers incoherent, mumbling to her self, and looking absolutely hideous. Barb is your typical party girl. She’s ballsy and a drinker, always willing to go out of her way to offend those outside of her circle. And sometimes, even then you’re not safe from her unsolicited wrath.
Climbing out of the attic, the madman stalks the upstairs, staring at Barb. There are instances where we are threatened with the potential for violence, but thankfully nothing happens…yet.
As the last of the guests leave, it is here that the sisters receive their first of many terrifying prank phone calls that includes squealing, moaning, and cursing including the classic line, “…pretty pink [expletive deleted]. You’re all pretty, pretty pink [expletive deleted].” The call ends after Barb gets lippy and is threatened by the caller who says plainly, “I’m going to kill you.” before hanging up.
Many of the girls are frightened, but not Barb, because she has balls. Thankfully, however, they don’t dwell on the call for too long as their house mother, Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman), a uppity, overweight lady with an attitude of her own, stumbles through the door. Her character is played for laughs throughout most, as there are several jokes with her searching the house for various bottles of hard liquor, including one she’s hidden inside a huge novel kept in the bookshelf.
While the sisters entertain Mrs. MacHenry, the psycho takes his first victim in a scene set up to play on some of our most common fears. It also shows that this madman has no shame or fear of being caught by the other housemates.
Looking back on the film, its simplicity in set up and motivation are the true keys for its success as a horror film. While horror films today do their best to twist and turn and psyche the viewer out with gory effects and over-the-top performances, Clark knew that, if given the tools, the viewers would do most of the work for him. And in the case of this homeboy, he was right.
As you watch, we’re shown, in depth, some of the motivations of our main characters, from Hussey’s desire to have an abortion so that she could continue perusing her dreams, to her boyfriend pianist, Peter Smythe (Keir Dullea) strongly objects, and threatens her to not do it, or else.
As the film moves on, we are also treated to more moments with the killer, hiding in the attic, mumbling to himself, and singing incomprehensible tunes as he plays with one of his victims.
Eventually, we’re introduced to Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller (John Saxon), a well-meaning local cop with a lot on his plate, but an ever-present cool demeanor. Devising a plan to trace the calls, he sits on the line, listening in horror as Jess continues to receive these awful phone calls, forced to urge her time and time again to “keep him on the line” if they are to successfully trace it. Of course, this leads to one of the most memorable lines ever uttered in a film, “Jess, the calls are coming from within the house.”
Oh the horror… oh the terror! What is this poor sorority girl to do? Well, fortunately for us, she is forced to endure some of the most terrifying scenes in horror, as she comes face to eye with the madman (a scene I refuse to watch alone, because I’m a big wussy) and struggles to survive.
BLACK CHRISTMAS isn’t the gore fest that MASSACRE is known for being. Instead of going for the shock scare, it relies mostly on that old Hitchcockian style of “scare yourself” horror, which I find to be the most effective, and long lasting. I can watch folks be dismembered left and right by a chainsaw wielding madman and not flinch all day long…hell, all night long, but try to get me to watch BLACK CHRISTMAS by myself in the wee hours of the morning, you can consider yourself shit outta luck. I don’t do it, man. I won’t. Period.
If you’re a fan of great horror, don’t just see this movie, buy it! While most films I’d suggest you’d at least rent first, that step need not be taken here. Bob Clark’s horror masterpiece deserves a place in your collection. No self respecting horror fan should be caught dead without it.