1 Hr., 37 Mins.
Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974) is a barrage of slasher movie tropes, comprised of murderous POV shots, moronic cops, deadly phone calls, exclamations of "I'll be back," and a killer rivaled only by Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees if we ever found out who he – or she – was. But before we can give into the temptation to pass it aside as an above-average leap into playful carnage, we must remember that the movie makes for a barrage of slasher movie tropes that existed long before there ever was such a thing as a slasher movie trope. Black Christmas was made, after all, before Friday turned into the most infamous day of the week, before Patricia Arquette feared the very idea of turning in for the night, and before Wes Craven decided to make a big joke out of the genre from 1996 on.
Halloween (1978) is still the genre's apex: it's the film that brought the Boogie Man to the most photo perfect of neighborhoods, the film that gave the psycho killer new life, the film that defined a generation of horror. The undeserving underdog Black Christmas follows in its footsteps; it remains a premier example of a frequently devalued genre, arguing that, yes, the slasher movie can actually sometimes be a cheap thrill worth the price of entry.
Black Christmas details a horrific, sorority house-set Christmas holiday, where a phone-sex fiend’s attentions have become murderous. Following myriad calls that leave most of the young women living in the house uneasy, we're forced to see life through this would-be killer's beady eyes just as the film's opening. As a party distracts the guests downstairs, he cleverly sneaks into the attic of the girls’ living quarters and plans his slaughter spree.
His first victim is the virginal Clare (Lynne Griffin), asphyxiated by a sheet of plastic and left in the attic. When no one finds her, so begins a series of murders within the home that perhaps would have never happened if the police weren’t so inept, if the girls weren’t so trusting, and if the killer were a little less nimble.
The premise is so facile, we're quick to question the film's aptitude. But unlike the majority of cheaply made slashers, the need to poke fun never really comes up. This time around, the characters aren’t unrealistically stupid, and the murderer is veritably terrifying. With the screenplay and the direction effectively suspenseful rather than flimsy and jump-scare ridden, it becomes a superiorly made exercise, supplemented by a fittingly minimalistic score, a plethora of smartly placed tracking shots, and a cast that matters to us so much that we actually do care when the "picked off one by one" cliché comes to light. I especially enjoyed the performances of Margot Kidder (vulgar) and Olivia Hussey (secretive), which make such an impression that it's understandable why they helped define the long-running characters who plagued slasher movies in the years following. (The airhead who immediately puts a target on her back and the final girl, respectively.)
So while I'm mixed when it comes to the infamous, ultra-enigmatic ending, I'm nonetheless impressed by the way Black Christmas goes for audacity rather than predictability. Us not ever knowing who the killer is forever eats at us, and that lacking of knowledge, arguably, immortalizes the film. The best horror movies are the ones that refuse to give away too many answers, and Black Christmas happens to be one of them. A-