(Movie Review by Donnie Saxton) About 90 minutes into “Black Christmas”, my mind began to wander to Steve McQueen spinning his tires in the classic car chase scene from 1968’s “Bullitt.” In ’68, that particular scene was virtuoso — a defining scene spawning hundreds of imitations over the next few decades. But if you show that same scene to a 12-year-old today, it induces drowsiness. I say that to say this: “Bullitt” is to car chase scenes as “Black Christmas” is to teen slasher films.
I’m not suggesting that this 1974 yarn by Bob Clark (the brain behind “Porky’s”) deserves the iconic status that “Bullitt” enjoys; however, “Christmas” was the first of a particular kind of movie. Its story has become so overdone that it feels like a retread of a retread until you remind yourself that “Black Christmas” was made over 30 years ago. The degree to which I enjoyed “Christmas” was similar, although far less, to the way in which I enjoyed “Bullitt.” Not because it is so riveting in today’s terms, but because I recognize that in ’74, Clark’s film was somewhat revolutionary, and became a benchmark for a long line of filmmakers to come.
The plot features a group of sorority girls who begin receiving disturbing phone calls shortly before Christmas. The caller, who mixes a barrage of screams and moans with a bad Andrew Dice Clay impersonation, has a habit of signing off with warm salutations like, “I ‘m going to kill you.” Coincidentally, members of the sorority begin turning up dead as the calls continue to stream in, only now the caller begins making personal references. To no one’s surprise — because the first scene shows him entering the house — it’s revealed that the killer has been making the calls from the attic of the house the entire time.
The time devoted to showcasing a telephone as a useful plot device was novel at the time, underscoring the creepiness of having an undiscovered killer lurking in your house. This kind of film, and all of its imitations, requires incompetent police participation to make it work. Here they are led by Lieutenant Fuller (genre vet John Saxon) who begins cracking the case in the usual ways, such as organizing search parties and insulting his staff. The sorority house is populated with a variety of similarly typical personalities. Barb (a pre-“Superman” Margot Kidder) is the drunken horny one, while Clair (Lynne Griffen) and Jess (Olivia Hussey) are, respectively, the quiet virgin and the conscientious feminist.
The DVD release contains special features including the original trailer and alternate openings. The “alternate openings” consist entirely of changing the title in the credits to “Silent Night, Evil Night”, and the hilariously unimaginative, “Stranger in the House.”
There’s also a “Black Christmas Revisited” section that travels back to the house where the movie was filmed to interview some of the cast and crewmembers, among them director Bob Clark. A few interesting revelations leak out; for instance, Oscar winner Edmond O’Brien was originally cast in Saxon’s role, but was let got because he was showing the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Other tidbits about the moviemaking process 30 years ago are mildly intriguing.
Ultimately, the story about making the film is much more entertaining than the story told by the film itself. Even though “Black Christmas” was far from the best of its kind, at least Mr. Clark can say it was one of the first.
Bob Clark (director) / Roy Moore (screenplay)
CAST: Olivia Hussey …. Jessica Bradford
Keir Dullea …. Peter Smythe
Margot Kidder …. Barbie Coard
John Saxon …. Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller
Marian Waldman …. Mrs. MacHenry
Andrea Martin …. Phyllis Carlson