❉ We look back on the seminal slasher movie, boasting a star turn from the late, great Margot Kidder.
“With her outgoing, raunchy personality, greatest Lois Lane ever Margot Kidder as Barb is easily the cast’s greatest asset; a boozy hoot, happily getting hammered, pretty much oblivious to her housemates disappearing and more than happy to share her booze with young kids at the Christmas party.”
Some directors filmographies are a sad read. You may come across a film or show on tv that could cause you to exclaim “This was made by him/her! But he/she made that ages ago!” The deceased writer/director Bob Clark had such a career. His last cinematic outing was Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 in 2004, a then rare cinematic outing from his usual daytime tv movie fare back in those days. A sad end to a career that started off so promisingly in the horror genre, and also laid out the template for the American slasher film with the influential, alternative yuletide classic Black Christmas.
Released in 1974, the same year as his Vietnam soldier zombie opus Deathdream, Black Christmas tells the now more than familiar tale of college co-eds being stalked and picked off one by one by a mysterious assailant, who likes to taunt them over the phone until coming face to face with the obligatory final girl.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. Brian De Palma, cinemas greatest pilferer, spins his own take of the opening sequence of the killer’s POV stalking around the sorority house to great effect in his own Blow Out from 1981. Then in 1996, Scream took these tropes, including the suspicious boyfriend, that had also been used countless times before and after Wes Craven’s revisionist take on slasher cinema, which then in turn was often imitated to lesser and lesser effect not only by its own sequels but by a large number of imitators, culminating in a poor remake of, you guessed it, Black Christmas itself in 2006.
To a pair of fresh eyes today and without context Black Christmas may come across as a dated relic. In terms of body count and onscreen violence it is quite tame compared to what came afterwards with its imitators. Not to mention you would also have to suffer through the worst coat on display in cinema history, worn to great effect by Art Hindle. However, it would be churlish to write the film off for these anachronisms and the clichés you may find within it, but in fairness this is where the clichés were pretty much born.
The film still works to great effect as a thriller with chilly atmosphere to spare. Clark was a fine director and writer working with a low budget of under half a million dollars he crafted a piece that still entertains and thrills, especially on this remastered Blu-Ray edition. The kill sequences may not match the lurid spectacle of what was being achieved by the likes of Dario Argento at the same time in Italy but one sequence of an obscured murder behind glass figurines is quite startling and visually striking in its sparseness.
A fine cast also graces the film, although it must be said with varying degrees of success. Olivia Hussey isn’t the most exciting or vibrant protagonist to root for, coming across as a bit halted and Keir Dullea’s chilly and blank screen presence may have worked perfectly for Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey but is used less successfully here as Hussey’s pushy boyfriend. However you then have the ever dependable John Saxon warming things up as the patient policeman having to put up with these fatal shenanigans and the rest of the fraternity which also includes SCTV’s Andrea Martin and greatest Lois Lane ever Margot Kidder. Kidder as Barb, is easily the cast’s greatest asset; she’s a boozy hoot, happily getting hammered, pretty much oblivious to her housemates disappearing and more than happy to share her booze with young kids at the Christmas party.
If the film itself was a harbinger of what was to dominate the horror industry for the next decade then Barb herself was also a sign of what Clark would mainly be known for as a director afterwards. Barb, with her outgoing, raunchy personality seems to be a harbinger of Clark’s later T&A comedy Porky’s, the 80’s VHS staple that would dominate the directors career overshadowing this and Murder By Decree, his acclaimed take on Sherlock Holmes starring Christopher Plummer.
But as the years go on Black Christmas seems to cement its stature in horror cinema. 101’s recent Blu ray release comes with a generous helping of documentaries including most of the surviving cast and crew as well as fans of the film and vintage TV spots and radio trailers.
Black Christmas makes for a great alternative festive flick. It is interesting to see as well that it’s status grows again as an alternative Xmas film alongside what now seems to be Clark’s most fondly remembered film; A Christmas Story, 1983, with its now frequent showings on television during the holiday season. A more different film than Black Christmas, and Porky’s, you could not get. But this just proves how skilled a director Bob Clark was back in the day. Sadly in 2007 Bob Clark passed away in a fatal car crash with a drunk driver, not getting to see the slow burn influence of his own career on American cinema.
❉ ‘Black Christmas’ (1974) made its UK Blu-Ray debut as a 2K presentation on 101 Films, 13 November 2017, and is available from all good outlets.
❉ Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.
❉ Image credits: IMDB.