Is ‘Black Christmas’ the original slasher film?

All of the elements are there for a cheesy good genre movie. Innocent victims (this time in a sorority house). A killer on the loose. A police department two steps behind the assailant. An eerie holiday setting. Black Christmas, a 1974 horror movie, should have a fanbase that’s attracted to its inherent cult-ish quality.

Yet …

This movie, directed by Bob Clark and written by Roy Moore, is much more than a paint-by-numbers exercise in gore. The film is actually quite good. I can’t believe I’m writing these statements, but it’s actually one of the stronger horror entries from the impressive cinematic decade of the 1970s. Just about every element works wonderfully, and the resulting film is creepy and unsettling.

More than simply being an effective film, Black Christmas has also proved to be a highly influential genre staple. Think of all the slasher flicks that have come after Clark’s movie. There’s Halloween, Friday the 13th and the numerous sequels in both franchises. Wes Craven’s output could also be linked to the success of Black Christmas and its uncanny ability to create so many conventions.

In the movie, a sorority house is terrorized by a serial killer right as the students are packing up to go home for Christmas. Olivia Hussey, Andrea Martin and Margot Kidder — all three actresses moved on to successful careers — play some of the central figures, with Hussey turning in the “Jamie Lee Curtis” role as Jess, one of the kinder sorority sisters. John Saxon (yes, Saxon also played in A Nightmare on Elm Street) is Lt. Fuller, the local police officer with the unenviable task of keeping the college safe.

The scares in Black Christmas are not overly terrifying, but that’s because the film is more interested in developing a sense of dread throughout its 98 minutes. Think about that: A horror movie that sidesteps cheap thrills for atmosphere. What a rarity nowadays!

The acting is also near-perfect. Martin, Hussey and Kidder are all professionals, and Saxon is always a pleasure to watch. The “killer” character is frightening and menacingly dark. His phone calls to the students are difficult to listen to, mostly because they’re so evil. This isn’t the line of questioning found in Scream films (“Do you like scary movies?”). Black Christmas is far more realistic and serious, and that makes it genuinely effective.

It’s too easy to dismiss genre staples as overly simplistic and lacking in ambition. To be sure, Black Christmas is no Godfather. No one is saying the film deserved the Oscar for Best Picture. But there’s a case to be made that the movie makes good on its promise … and then some. It’s a perfect horror movie. That means it’s not a perfect overall movie, but it will satisfy genre fans for a long time.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Black Christmas

  • 1974

  • Directed by Bob Clark

  • Written by Roy Moore

  • Starring Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and John Saxon

  • Running time: 98 minutes

  • Rated R

  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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