The Daves would like to welcome guest blogger Brandon Engel to our site with his insight on the 1974 movie BLACK CHRISTMAS!
Often cited as one of the first true “slasher” films, BLACK CHRISTMAS puts a scary spin on time-honored holiday traditions. When threatening phone calls escalate to the cold-blooded murder of a group of college co-eds, tensions run high and the looming threat of death hangs alongside the perennial mistletoe. The anxious figures of an era – liberated feminists with loose morals, urban legends, restless youth – stamped a template for a new subgenre of scary films.
Imitated but never equalled, BLACK CHRISTMAS is a first-rate holiday production that still has an unsettling power three decades later.
Filmed during an era of sleazy, no-budget horror, BLACK CHRISTMAS was shot in the icy environs of Toronto, Canada on a budget of $620,000. Featuring an impressive array of on-screen talent, the film boasts the beautiful-but-agoraphobic ROMEO AND JULIET star Olivia Hussey, and Margot Kidder and Keir Dullea in supporting roles. It’s release predated John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN by four years, and likely inspired the master of horror in it’s use of chilling first-person perspective. The audience is left guessing throughout the film, as very little violence is actually shown. The result is chilling, atmospheric horror perfection.
Bob Clark was ahead of his time with his holiday-themed masterpiece. While the film’s tempo is slower than average by today’s standards, and most of the gore occurs offscreen, it’s stalking and slashing still holds up exceptionally well. By limiting the killer to a demonic voice on the other end of the phone, it’s much more disturbing than a visual bloodbath, particularly against a backdrop of festive lights, decorations, and trees. As the sisters are killed off one by one by an unexpected guest in their house, their personal dramas unfold amidst the holy aura of Christmas time.
Originally titled THE BABYSITTER and then STOP ME, the BLACK CHRISTMAS variation emerged shortly before its 1974 release. But that title was changed too, when Warner Brothers studios feared seventies-era viewers might mistake it for a blaxploitation film. Renamed SILENT NIGHT, EVIL NIGHT, the title was switched again when the film was released for television, becoming STRANGER IN THE HOUSE. The film didn’t find true success until the title BLACK CHRISTMAS was reinstated.
Filmed inside a sorority house, the film is rife for feminist commentary. The film can be seen as a metaphor for the way female friendships are often sabotaged by the male gaze – as each sister disappears, distrust and hostility build between the remaining members of the house. With Hussey’s character pursuing an abortion contrary to her boyfriend’s wishes, it can also be read as a morality tale for what may happen to women who choose to terminate their pregnancy. In the context of 1974 gender politics, her decision to have an abortion fuels the narrative and the suspicion that her boyfriend may be the killer. Reminiscent of Richard Speck’s systematic rape and murder of a dormitory full of female nurses in 1966, BLACK CHRISTMAS explores the “Madonna-prostitute” attitude towards women that would also be exploited in later slashers such as HALLOWEEN and SCREAM.
The cryptic phone calls from “Billy,” crafted by Clark, actor Nick Mancuso and others during post production, are as bizarre and terrifying as the violence committed against the houseful of sorority sisters. Carl Zittrer’s dissonant, haunting piano score builds further suspicion and fear.
Sorority pledges in the late 70’s likely took a dip, as female college students in an era before ADT Security in Georgia, Detroit, or other American murder hotspots sought safety from deranged killers. But if these films can teach us anything, it’s that door locks are essentially useless and attics are the worst place to hide your presents. And that rosary around your neck probably won’t do any good, either.
If you would like to buy your very own copy of BLACK CHRISTMAS, just click HERE!