Black Christmas [Retro Review]

“Filthy Billy, I know what you did, nasty Billy”

Tagline: If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight!

The Scoop: 1974 R, directed by Bob Clark and starring Margot Kidder, John Saxon and Olivia Hussey

Summary Capsule: Right before holiday break in a quiet college town, strange phone calls to a sorority house seem to coincide with the disappearance of one of the sorority girls. Could this have something to do with the creepy guy who snuck into the attic?

Kyle’s Rating: I think Halloween is one of the greats, but I bow down to Black Christmas!

Kyle’s Review: For reasons I don’t fully comprehend, Black Christmas is practically forgotten except among hardcore horror fans. That won’t be the case for much longer, as the news is Black Christmas is set to be remade very, very soon. Whether that’s good news or not depends on your point-of-view.

But if you loved, or even liked Halloween, then you will love/like Black Christmas. Arguably, it deserves all the props that Halloween gets, as Black Christmas preceded John Carpenter’s film by about four years. And truth be told, as fun and full of atmosphere as Halloween is, Black Christmas is just as fun and about twice as disturbing. Great setting, phenomenal cast, and fairly solid plotting: it deserves “classic” status in the great horror pantheon. I have no idea how hard it is to find (I had to order my DVD) but if this sort of thing is your scene, I highly recommend it.

The story is pretty standard stuff, if you know your horror plots and urban legends. It’s almost Christmas in a small college town, and most students are getting ready to head home or skip the family noise and go on a ski trip. The girls of the Pi Kappa Sig sorority just want to party before they all head out on their Christmas plans, but they have to deal with the additional nuisance of really, really freaky prank phone calls. Funny lush Barb (a surprisingly amusing Margot Kidder) advises everyone to just forget about it, but ephemeral Jess (the absolutely delightful Olivia Hussey) is troubled by the calls, which don’t make dealing with a clingy boyfriend and the problem of a pregnancy any easier. We the audience realize (thanks to very atmospheric and effective point-of-view shots) that someone has climbed a trellis and is hiding out in the sorority house’s attic; is he the one making the phone calls? Is Jess’ clingy boyfriend Peter (2001’s Keir Dullea) so miffed about Jess not wanting to keep the baby or him that he’s making awful phone calls and preying on sorority sisters? And are the cops in this town the usual disbelieving buffoons or on-the-ball heroes? And what is everyone getting for Christmas?

The premise seems deceptively simple because it is: there’s a crazy guy in the attic, there are freaky phone calls being made to a certain sorority house, and a girl is missing. What’s so impressive about Black Christmas is how much mileage is wrung out of the set-up. There’s plenty of humor and fun among the characters (there’s one hopeless cop the other make fun of, and it’s always cool to see a college girl’s uptight dad get hit with a snowball), but then when things get dark and bleak it’s uncompromising. The killer (let’s call him “Billy” for the sake of his freakish prank calls) is a weird mouth-breather in his point-of-view shots, and the content of his phone calls loom over everything else in the film. They’re a mixture of scary voices, weird gurgles, and various screams, and they are terrifying. If you’re used to modern watered-down horror, you’ll be pretty surprised at how they treat Billy, because with only the occasional glimpse of him and his phone voice(s), he becomes a wholly memorable killer. During the climatic chase-the-heroine part of the film, the way Billy just shrieks and screams and shatters everything around him is extremely disturbing. There are entire message boards dedicated to deciphering just what the content of his calls means, and after 30 years it’s still a mystery. Crazy!

Compared to other horror films, Black Christmas does a surprisingly job of juggling a pretty big cast of characters, too. Most times, you’ll get a strong heroine, a couple well-defined friends, and then a bunch of stereotypes. But here you get a deep cast of interesting characters. John Saxon is your strong heroic cop, though not without some weariness and a dash of humor. Actually, I don’t want to run down the whole list, because there are a few cool surprises to be had I don’t want to ruin. Although you do have to wonder why the housemother would bother hiding booze everywhere when surely the sisters would be happy to share their own stuff, but I guess that’s more humor to be enjoyed. It’s hard to imagine Hussey would ever allow Dullea to touch her, let alone impregnate her, but I guess the 70’s were a very different time. You can’t blame him for trying, though, because Hussey (I only knew her from the Romeo & Juliet they showed us in middle school) is gorgeous and serves as a better horror heroine prototype than Jamie Lee Curtis does.

So, really, I just can’t understand why Black Christmas doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Director Bob Clark gets his holidays props for his more well-known A Christmas Story, so I can only guess that this is just way too scary for your general television audience. I can’t discount that opinion, because I still get freaked out by parts of it, and I know what’s going to happen. Whoa! Better try to see it now, because once the crappy remake spoils all the fun parts for you, it won’t be as fulfilling. Stupid remakes!

Don’t let children under the age of 4 and sorority chicks play with this bag

Intermission!

  • That is one cool sorority house!
  • The attempts the housemother makes to hide all the drug-related and sexually-themed posters and memorabilia in the sorority house from Claire’s father are really, really funny.
  • Keir Dullea worked only for a week on this film, never meeting Margot Kidder and barely meeting John Saxon, but the film is edited in such a way that he appears to be present throughout. The role of Peter was originally offered to Malcolm McDowell, but he turned it down.
  • The role of Lieutenant Fuller was originally supposed to be played by Edmond O’Brien, but due to failing health he had to be replaced. John Saxon was brought in at the last minute.
  • Numerous people were responsible for voicing the frightening phone calls, including director Bob Clark, actor Nick Mancuso, and even a few women.

Groovy Quotes

Mrs. MacHenry: These broads could hump the Leaning Tower of Pisa if they could get to the top of it!

Lieutenant Kennet Fuller: Sergeant Nash what’s this?
Sergeant Nash: That’s the address to the sorority house.
Lieutenant Kennet Fuller: Felatio?
Sergeant Nash: Yes, Felatio the New exchange address for the house.
Lieutenant Kennet Fuller: Sergeant Nash, I don’t think you could pick your nose, never the less take down an address.
Sergeant Nash: I know, the address is something dirty, isn’t it?
[Lt. Fuller and another detective laugh at him]

[Upon seeing that Mrs. MacHenry is coming inside the house]
Barb Coard: I’m a drunk? Here we have the queen of vodka herself!

Barb Coard: Did you know that there is a certain species of turtle that can screw for three days straight? I didn’t know, you’re probably asking yourself that can’t be true but it is, because I went down to the zoo and I watched them do it. It was very very boring. I still can’t believe they can screw for three days, I mean I’m lucky if I even get three minutes. So after I saw those turtles screwing, I said that is what I call premature ejaculation!

The Killer: Filthy Billy, I know what you did, nasty Billy!

The Killer: Agnes, It’s Billy! Don’t tell what we did!

Barb Coard: (after giving a young child a sip of her drink) I think the little bugger’s schnockered, son of a b*tch.

Mr. Harrison: I didn’t send my daughter in here to be drinking and picking up the boys

Barb Coard: Why don’t you go find a wall socket and stick your tongue in it, that will give you a charge?
[After the mysterious caller hangs up.]
Claire Harrison: I don’t think you should provoke somebody like that, Barb.
Barb Coard: Oh listen, this guy is minor league. In the city, I get two of those a day.
Claire Harrison: Well maybe. But you know that town girl was raped a couple of weeks ago.
Barb Coard: Darling, you can’t rape a townie.

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4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Saturday’s Six: The Six Types of Christmas Movies « Mutant Reviewers From Hell

  2. I just watched Black Christmas a few days ago, and it was pretty disappointing. I think its worst sin is that it never explains what happened. Who was the killer? Why was he doing it? Was it Peter or not? And if it was, why did we still hear the killer after Peter died? The movie wasted my time by presenting a mystery and no payoff.

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