14th December: Black Christmas

Image: Warner Bros.

The Reel Time Christmas Movie Advent Calendar is exactly what it says on the tin: a classic festive countdown, except instead of chocolate behind the windows it’s my ramblings on a host of Christmas films. In true advent calendar style, films will not be announced in advance, but revealed at 6pm each day. Get involved by shouting abuse at me on Twitter and Facebook, or even just reading and sharing. I hope this can bring a little cheer at the end of a miserable year. Enjoy! 

Year: 1974

Director: Bob Clark

Writer: Roy Moore

Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, Keir Dullea, John Saxon, Marian Waldman

I am shaken. Having played around with horror ideas in The Nightmare Before Christmas, had some kid-horror fun in Gremlins, and finally got pretty close to scary with Krampus, now we have a full-on fright fest on our hands. Blood, murders, creepy imagery, creepy voices, skulking in the shadows: the lot. It is a well-known fact that I am of a nervous disposition, but Black Christmas rattled me more than almost all other horror films I have seen. It has the same sense of unseen, unspecified dread found in The Blair Witch Project, a film that quite thoroughly disturbed me.

Within about 15 minutes it is clear that Bob Clark’s Black Christmas is a nastier, more obscene beast than everything else we’ve had on this list so far. Early on there is a scene with roughly nine c-bombs and a fairly grisly murder. From this point on, the film does not loosen its grip and turns out to be an inventive, smartly staged holiday chiller.

The film has been remade twice this century, but this Black Christmas is the original – part dated, part progressive – 1974 version: the story of a group of sorority sisters picked off one by one by a mysterious, crazed killer. Sound familiar? That’s because this basic plot outline is in itself a genre: slasher. A sub-section of horror, slasher films enjoyed a boom in the late 70s and early 80s after the format was popularised by John Carpenter’s Halloween, still held as the gold standard for all slasher movies.

Other famous entries include Friday the 13th, a host of films starring ‘scream queen’ Jamie Lee Curtis, and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven would then go on to re-birth the genre by homaging/parodying/subverting it with the magnificent Scream in 1996. I adore that film, and it is in fact pretty much my only first-hand knowledge of the slasher genre until this point. Black Christmas is significant, however, in being what many critics have referred to as the first slasher film.

Similar things had been done before, stretching back to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960, but the ‘young people picked off by a knife-wielding killer’ format that would sweep cinemas in the 80s had its prototype in Black Christmas. The film deserves credit therefore, not mockery, for its use of several familiar slasher tropes. The threatening phone calls, the camera from the killer’s POV (deployed in a thrilling but not too lurid or glorifying way), and the idea of a ‘final girl’ are all present and correct here.

Besides pushing forward a hugely successful and effective form of horror, Clark’s film deserves praise on so many levels. It is well-paced, well-edited and shot with little aesthetic flourishes that always elevate a film for me. In one scene, there is a shadow in the background that moves around, ever so slightly, raising the possibility that the killer may or may not be lurking. It is subtle, yet effective. Clark takes this approach a lot, then suddenly hits us with something more shocking. Gore is used sparingly, really counting when it does pop up.

The film succeeds finally because it is a sad film as well as a frightening one. The victims here are vivid, well-drawn characters embodied by a charismatic cast including future Lois Lane Margot Kidder and previous Juliet Olivia Hussey. They talk about marriage, children and their futures, emphasising the horrific loss of life and opportunity that this killer brings about. The film is not leaden or morbid, but invests enough time in its characters for us to be left with more than just superficial scares.

All this makes for a very satisfying horror that lingers a little after the credits roll. It is, of course, far from christmassy and I fear I have killed the nice festive mood I had previously created. If films like Elf and Arthur Christmas gave us a warm, optimistic glow, then Black Christmas knowingly shatters it. But it does so very impressively.

Where it Ranks

I fear that how in awe I am of Black Christmas may be a result of my ignorance surrounding horror movies. It scared me like little else has, and for that it has succeeded as a film in my eyes. Perhaps if I was a seasoned scary movie watcher it would have seemed less impressive, but for now Black Christmas is near the top of a very dark, horrible tree. It’s certainly in the top tier, but these films are so hard to pit against each other that I feel I am acting on instinct more than anything now. Let’s go with fifth.

  1. Die Hard
  2. Happiest Season
  3. Klaus
  4. Arthur Christmas
  5. Black Christmas
  6. Elf
  7. The Nightmare Before Christmas
  8. Love Actually
  9. Gremlins
  10. Home Alone
  11. Krampus
  12. Nativity!
  13. The Holiday
  14. The Santa Clause

Andrew Young

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