And yet “Black Christmas” earns its place among a plethora of watershed moments, taking the early ideas of “Psycho” and “Peeping Tom” and expanding on them in a way that fills the screen with wall-to-wall hysteria for a frenzied 98 minutes – not cheap or excessive, either, as one might expect. Some argue that it was the film that singlehandedly inspired John Carpenter to make “Halloween,” and one can only surmise truth in that proclamation: even apart from having the same underlying driving force as a premise, the movie is a well-made excursion into the bloody unknown, driven by characterization and modulated by a tone that knows when to amplify the scares and when to back away from them, usually at the service of a story with the morbid curiosity to investigate further. And the open-ended climax, a moment not often used in later films, plays like blunt trauma on our exaggerated standards: inconclusive and grim, it leaves you with a nagging sense of despair, as if to assume that the horror will haunt you just as thoroughly as it will plague the survivors.
Like most slashers, it also embodies a certain ambiguous threat that guides the horror. The setting is a college town house on the eve of the wintry holidays, where a gathering of girls – all sorority sisters – are partaking in a Christmas party of loud shouts and energetic cheer. During their rowdy gathering, the camera takes the point of view of a heavy breather wandering the outside of the house, who gets close to doors and peers in windows; eventually he sneaks in through an opening and stows away in the attic, unbeknownst to any of those living in the house’s walls. Just as swiftly, the girls begin receiving obscene phone calls that defy traditional expectation; often vulgar and usually bizarre, the movie uses them as a key device of foreshadowing, allowing them to precede more tragic inclinations with a methodical pulse. Many of them listening in are amused and even annoyed. One, clearly rattled by the implication, wanders upstairs to retrieve her things but never returns: she is murdered by the mysterious figure, and her body propped up in the attic like some sort of trophy, a symbol of the killer’s continued descent into unknown madness.
Her disappearance serves to inspire various stages of unrest in the college girls, many of whom regard the event with a sort of displaced awe. Jess (Olivia Hussey), the story’s obligatory heroine, is too caught up in personal predicaments to see the event as anything more than an unfortunate circumstance; she is busy contemplating an abortion after being impregnated by Peter (Keir Dullea), an aspiring concert pianist who seems to make love to the piano keys more than he does his girlfriend. Others, like the blunt Barb (Margot Kidder), attempt to save face while getting lost in personal indulgences (in her case, liquor). There are snappy exchanges between them and Phyl (Andrea Martin), who approaches a search for her missing friend with level-headed practicality, and the feisty Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) attempts to keep the general mood of her house lighthearted by being a carefree drunk, which does nothing for her safety when she becomes the first to act on strange noises she hears upstairs.
The catalyst in advancing these uncertainties to outright danger comes when the missing girl’s father (James Edmond) arrives in town and demands a police investigation, which in turn leads to a search and rescue endeavor outdoors with its own shocking reveal: the discovery of a dead high school girl’s body nearby. Are they related? Lieutenant Ken Fuller (John Saxon) certainly thinks so, and he becomes driven to find the culprit of these crimes before any others turn up dead or missing, even though his own conviction is undermined by a sense of unnecessary deferment. Furthermore, the obscene phone calls, lacking a source, have progressed to repetitive obsession, and the continued disappearance of others with no clues leading to their whereabouts casts the bureau in an unfavorable light. The movie is rather gradual with these circumstances; they aren’t rushed or edited down in order to move us closer to the blood and guts, because Moore is propelled by the Hitchcock doctrine, which tells us that the audience isn’t as scared of a bomb going off as much as they are knowing that the bomb has been planted under the feet of the key characters.
As you watch the material, you aren’t just partaking in the values of a well-made scarefest: you are also sensing the seeds of a plethora of important genre standards that will follow, including the incorporation of an ambiguous villain, a backstory not yet known to the victims, a gradual depletion of a survivor’s hope, the jolt of a climactic revelation and the all-too-familiar narrative device that puts an important character in the crosshairs of suspicions in the final act. Even the approach of Moore’s camera shots is prophetic. Consider a scene in which the killer makes a move on someone in a bedroom while she is halfway between sleep and consciousness; the image pans back and forth between two shots showing the victim in close-up and the killer barely obscured by a flash of street light, and though you never see his face you certainly gain a sense of what its structure suggests. (“Halloween” added a mask to that visage for the purpose of visual intensity). The use of a phone as a device for propelling threat became the defining impulse of Wes Craven’s “Scream” franchise. The performances come from a place of assuredness that many will find synonymous with later films, including Olivia Hussey’s, whose casual observation and hysteria seem to give birth to the skills used by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis. And as you watch Saxon’s police officer, you can clearly see the early prototype of his character from “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” both of whom are cops who must remain unshakable even as they are losing ground on putting an end to the nightmares they are faced with.
If there is a drawback to “Black Christmas,” even now, it’s that the film’s sense of restraint requires us to spend more time with characters that are not meant to be all that interesting, and the screenplay (also penned by Moore) doesn’t dive deep enough into the lives of the supporting players to elevate their situation. A modern audience raised on the slasher code will not see that as a detriment, though their quibbles will be far more trivial. There is very little violence at the end of the long taunt of tension. The murders are staggered carefully, mostly concluding off-screen, and the final showdown between the lone survivor and her would-be predator isn’t choreographed to the sensational precision that became a norm for later endeavors (a remake in 2006 attempted to incorporate these gimmicks, but lost sight of the edge and replaced it with violence that was senseless and overkill). Somewhere in the pamphlet that defines the standards for movies about homicidal maniacs doing off with a row of ducks, these initial standards became an exception rather than the rule, and time has eroded the sensibility down to its most pornographic extremes. What would the characters of a movie like this think of their peers now, most of whom are usually dismembered and tortured before death comes for their unlucky souls? One senses not even Christmas would be enough to displace their sense of depression.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Horror (Canada); 1974; Rated R; Running Time: 98 Minutes
Olivia Hussey: Jess
Keir Dullea: Peter
Margot Kidder: Barb
John Saxon: Lt. Ken Fuller
Marian Waldman: Mrs. Mac
Andrea Martin: Phyl
James Edmond: Mr. Harrison
Produced by Gerry Arbeid, Bob Clark, Findlay Quinn and Richard Schouten; Directed by Bob Clark; Written by Roy Moore