Over the years Black Christmas has gained almost classic status. It doesn’t really deserve the label, but it’s a very important film for many reasons. It’s not the first “slasher” film: some of Mario Bava’s later work fits that concept, but it certainly showed filmmakers at the time what the future of this burgeoning new genre was going to be, especially in the ’80s. It was, however, the first of the “holiday” slashers, and films like the superior Halloween followed, then Mother’s Day, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine and so on—you get the picture.
The plot is as simple as you can get: a house full of sorority sisters are getting a series of threatening phone calls, and soon enough one goes missing. The rest are soon getting knocked off like there’s no tomorrow. It’s all set against the backdrop of the Christmas holidays, which doesn’t add a whole lot, besides the obvious juxtaposition between the horror on screen and the holiday decorations.
Black Christmas, not unlike other pioneering slashers of the era such as Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, doesn’t rely completely on gore. Sure, there are some blood blots here and there, but it’s kept to a bare minimum, partly a budget choice but also an aesthetic one. Like all of those films, viewers could’ve sworn it was a gore fest but it was more about what is implied then what is actually shown on screen. The film’s director, Bob Clark, always considered it more of a psychological thriller than a flat-out slice-and-dice fest.
Clark also pioneered the killer point-of-view shot, which Carpenter would of course perfect four years later with Halloween, which cost about half of Black Christmas’s budget but which I find more visually pleasing. The female lead, Jess (Olivia Hussey), kind of subverts many of the clichés of the slasher genre: she is the kind of woman who in your standard film of this ilk would be killed off within minutes, but instead she outsmarts all the townsfolk. In a recent piece on the film, the killer has been compared to nameless misogynistic trolls on Twitter. It’s an interesting take, but was not in the mind of the director for obvious reasons.
The cast does have two interesting cult character actors in the form of John Saxon and Keir Dullea. Saxon was in everything, including Mario Bava’s proto-Giallo The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and playing a cop is something he could do in his sleep. Dullea is an actor who is almost faceless, and is best remembered as the main astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey and its very misguided sequel. He plays Jess’s boyfriend, who is angry about her having an abortion. He is solid, but he certainly isn’t an actor with a wide range. That’s probably why Kubrick liked him, because it meant he could mould him into exactly what he wanted.
Overall, Black Christmas is a perfectly fine holiday horror flick from Bob Clark, who would ironically go on to direct the even more famous Xmas film: A Christmas Story. There could not have been two more different takes on the holiday season. I personally wasn’t as impressed by the film as some critics, but I’m just really burnt out on the slasher genre. Besides a handful of films, it’s so formulaic—but it kicked off the genre somewhat, so it’s an important film.
The disc itself marks a real change of pace for 101 Films, whose releases tend to be on the lighter side regarding extras. It uses the recentish 2K master, which looks very filmlike with a good amount of grain. The extras are a selection of the features that Shout Factory put together for their stacked releases, and includes interviews with Art Hindle and Lynne Griffin, and the Black Christmas Legacy documentary. It’s rounded off by TV and radio spots, and a video recording of a 40th anniversary reunion panel in 2014. The package includes the film on DVD and Blu-Ray. The hardcore fans will clearly opt for the Shout Factory release, but it’s got a perfectly respectable amount of features, and for the casual viewer of the film is more than enough.