Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Black Christmas (1974)

Reviewed By: Billy

Being that we’re just a few days before Christmas, I think it’s only appropriate that I pull out my all-time favorite holiday heart-warmer, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. This is a movie that somehow eluded me for the first two decades of my life – but when I finally saw it, having rented an old VHS copy from Hollywood Video – it completely creeped me out and I instantly fell in love. It is now a holiday staple at Tower Farm, matched only by its equally wonderful – albeit in a TOTALLY different way – 2006 remake (see my brother's phenomenal review here).

You know you’re in for a great movie when the director of a movie is Bob Clark, the man who gave us A Christmas Story and Darren McGavin uttering the classic “Fra-JEE-lay…"  How is it possible that one person is responsible for two of the greatest Christmas movies of all time? Anyway, you also know you’re in for a good time when the cast includes Olivia Hussey (she of the completely indescribable accent…seriously, what country is she from? England? France? Ireland?), a young and totally insane Margot Kidder, and John Saxon, basically playing Nancy’s father ten years before A Nightmare On Elm Street. Saxon, by the way, is either the most genetically fortunate man on earth or uses some damn good moisturizer, because he does not look a bit different in the Special Features interview – taped just a few years ago – than he did in the movie, filmed in 1974.

So, the plot here is one that would be aped for generations to come: a bunch of girls hang around in their college sorority house over Christmas break, only to be killed off one by one by the guy who’s been making prank phone calls to them. This plot – and the revelation that “…the calls are coming from inside the house!” – is so cliché nowadays that it’s virtually impossible for it to have any impact. But back in the early 70s, it was apparently novel enough that a thousand other filmmakers would steal all the ideas. The one element that NOBODY else has ever been able to duplicate, though, is the phone calls. These calls, with a horrifying array of voices rambling about someone named “Agnes,” are chilling. I don’t care if you’re a sociopath with absolutely no nerve endings and the largest testicles ever, you’ll still be creeped out by them.

The cast of sorority girls is also stellar. Mind you, this is the early 70s, so there are no fake boobs and bleached-blonde hair; that wouldn’t happen until 1980s horror sororities. Lynne Griffin is the first to go, in the semi-famous bag-over-the-head death. Griffin is cute here, but only gets about four lines; she’d be put to far better use years later in Curtains, where she’s forced to perform the worst stand-up comedy routine in history (if you’ve never seen that performance, you must rush out and find it…NOW. That, my friends, is a real Christmas treat.  Read more about it here). Anyway, we also get Olivia Hussey as final girl Jess, who undergoes a multitude of horrible things in this movie, not the least of which is being forced to wear this odd, sexually-suggestive sweater for what seems like an awfully long time:

In a very strange bit of casting, comedienne Andrea Martin plays Phyl, and gets absolutely no chance to show off any of her comedic abilities (this would be rectified years later, however, with her inexplicable appearance as the house mother in the 2006 remake, which will have you howling with laughter). Margot Kidder is also along for the ride as Barb, the drunk and damaged sister who spends most of her scenes downing liquor and tossing off sexual one-liners. She’s so natural in this role that one can’t help but wonder if downing liquor and tossing off sexual one-liners was a typical Saturday night for Margot Kidder. Margot’s most famous scene takes place in the police station, during which she tells a dim-witted policeman that her phone number exchange includes the word “fellatio.” This is a funny bit, but you’ll likely be distracted from the dialogue by the sight of Margot’s hands, which are shot at such a bizarre angle that they appear to be coming from a basketball player standing off-screen. Seriously, folks, her hands look ENORMOUS, and can only bring to mind the “Seinfeld” episode in which Jerry dates the woman with “man-hands.”

The other important character here is Olivia’s boyfriend, played by Keir Dullea. This has got to be one of my favorite horror movie performances ever, if only because of the sheer intensity with which Dullea utters every single line. I mean, this guy appears to be under such stress at any given moment that he’s in serious danger of spontaneous combustion. Dullea’s character Peter is a budding pianist, and the scene in which he plays for his professors is a hilarious gem, as the actor painfully bangs on the keys while waterfalls of sweat pour down his face. And akin to Olivia’s ugly sweaters, poor Keir is forced to sport a sad shag haircut that my brother lovingly refers to as the Joyce DeWitt:

Anyway, as the movie progresses, there are more freaky phone calls, people start dying, and Bob Clark does everything in his power to make us think Peter is the killer. Really…this guy is such a red herring that he might as well be swimming in the Baltic Sea. The climactic scene in the sorority house, in which the killer chases Olivia down to the basement, it masterfully done; it is tense, believable, and the single shot of the killer’s eye is without a doubt the scariest image from a horror film I’ve ever seen:

The ending, love it or hate it, is a brave one; very few horror movies since have left things the way Black Christmas leaves them. I don’t want to give it away (which should tell you something, since we almost always give it away), but it’s a perfect, simple ending to what is essentially a perfect, simple slasher movie. Props must go to everyone involved; the music is sparse but effective, the cinematography is atmospheric and sinister, and the actors are all perfect. Olivia Hussey is totally realistic in a role that the women of the remake clearly didn’t study, and you’ll swoon over John Saxon’s stern, vaguely-swarthy sexiness (why is it that even in American movies, he always kind of seems like he's in a Giallo?). As for Keir Dullea…well, again, the guy has to wear that humiliating haircut, so we can’t really blame him for going over the top.

Anyway…this Christmas, while TBS is playing that other Bob Clark Christmas movie for the 20,000th time (and our father, Ralph Merrye, is cackling as though it’s the first time he’s seen it), we recommend you dim the lights, serve up the eggnog, and settle in with this Christmas classic. And then…when it’s over and you’re too creeped out to sleep, you can pop in the remake, which will instantly calm your fears and have you giggling like a 5-year-old opening presents. It’s a double feature like this that proves yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus.



  1. Loves me some Olivia Hussey. She is a hot piece of ace.

  2. This is such essential Xmas viewing and always on my list, when it comes to compling my list of favourite Christmas movies.

  3. I love reading excellent and entertaining reviews of great and much-discussed films. Good work.

    Bonus points for use of the word 'swarthy'.

    And wow, now I'll be haunted by the image of an infant wearing a Hussey sweater and Dullea's hairdo. Horrors.

  4. Fantastic review Billy. I really love this film, it really is quite creepy. It's just a shame it gets forgotten amongst the almighty slew of classic horror flicks and will be forvere confused with it's godawful remake.

  5. Gawd I hate that fucked-up Margot Kidder. Her one-note performance absolute(ly) ruins BLACK CHRISTMAS for me... and I'm a fucking Canadian!

  6. Five fingers indeed, this is a true unfuckwithable classic. Happy Holidays, fellas!

  7. Thats whats Im talking about Billy, this has quickly become an all time favorite of mine, I love the original but I have to agree I have a ton of fun with the remake! Five finger is right

  8. "Poor Keir is forced to sport a sad shag haircut that my brother lovingly refers to as the Joyce De Witt"-hilarious and very true! But you forgot to mention the awful plaid blazer that Keir wears in the scene you refer to (you can kind of see it in the picture). Also: I've always wondered why Olivia wore that ridiculous "groping hands" sweater-who's idea was that? And Margot's hands DO look freakishly large in that shot, which I'd never noticed before. This movie is one of my all time faves, so thanks for the entertaining review!

  9. Just re watched this after reading your brilliant review. Of course, I kept fixating on Margot's paws (something I never noticed before).

  10. Wow, you're right. Those are some gigantic hands.

  11. A classic in every sense of the word. A must watch during the holidays. And I just noticed Kidder's hands. Holy crap! Like Austin Powers would say: "She's no lady. She's a man, baby."