There are John Saxon movies, there are John Saxon on the telephone movies and then there are seasonal John Saxon on the telephone movies. This one, dear reader, is very much the latter.
Fondly referred to nowadays as the forefather of the Slasher genre, Bob Clark‘s Black Christmas set the blueprint for the “sorority house-full of whinnying teenage girls pestered by an obscured, psycho-sexual assailant” movie. Except, in the big twist here, good golly, the menacing telephone calls from said psycho-sexual nuisance-maker are coming from, wait for it, inside the house!
As Christmas approaches, a bevvy of good looking girls (Margot Kidder) and dried up alcoholic Sorority House Mothers (Marian Waldman) are being murdered and hidden up in the attic by a foul mouthed prank caller. Olivia Hussey suspects her creepy boyfriend Keir Dullea, mainly because when not busy bashing the crap out of a piano, he’s freaking out over being dumped and told of the impending abortion of their unborn child. Investigating cop, Lt Fuller (John Saxon) suspects Dullea too. Mainly because, when he eventually traces the calls to the house and turns up to make the arrest, Hussey has bashed the crap out of poor Keir’s brains in an apparent act of “self defense”.
But is Dullea really responsible for the lewd, threatening phone calls? Or the growing pile of bodies upstairs?
Part of Black Christmas‘ appeal is that even by the film’s end, it’s audience is really left none the wiser.
Although clearly helping to shape the Slasher format, Clark‘s gloomy yuletide murder mystery also manages to buck a few of the genre’s regular tropes too. Hussey, a Final Girl kind of counterpoint to Kidder‘s loud mouthed sass, is clearly (quite literally) no virgin. Similarly, the typical behavior of a stalk n’ slash killer – silent, brooding, almost supernatural, is exchanged here for the rambling hystrionic of a foul mouthed nutso pervert who tells the girls over the phone that he wants to “lick their pretty pink cunts” in between some truly unsettling slurping, cackling and yelping down the receiver.
Black Christmas also attends to a rather devoted characterization of it’s victims in a way most subsequent “anniversary themed, terror pictures” would choose not to. As a result, the middle of the picture starts to sag a little, moving away from the claustrophobic setting of the dimly lit sorority house to take in a search party sequence, some light relief at the police station and an awkward emphasis on the alcoholic tendencies of both Kidder and Waldman, who end up nursing more than just hangovers before the film is done.
That said, when the film is pre-requisitely violent, it is deliciously so. Clark‘s ability to draw out suspense through woozy POV is commendable and lends an obligatory voyeuristic feel. When poor Claire gets it at the start, we know it’s coming, but the ferocity of the attack, achieved through clever camera set ups and razor sharp editing, is still startling, even on repeat viewing – an accomplishment in a genre teeming with murder scenes and jump gags a plenty.
And though John Saxon was not first choice for the part, his performance as Lt. Fuller is excellent. The single raised eyebrow, sardonic remarks and perennial irked expression that Saxon fans have come to expect are all present and the actor revels in his role. John boy has surely never looked as good cradling a telephone…
If you can pardon the pun, you’ll probably agree that the festive slasher film has by now been done to death. Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, Don’t Open til Christmas, To All A Good Night, Elves, even Clark himself, who essentially remade his own film (as producer) in 2006; all retread death and abject terror beneath the twinkling fairy lights and prickly boughs of holly. But Black Christmas remains the original and is, for my money, still the best. After all, it’s just not Christmas if you don’t have John Saxon on the telephone and a bunch of rotting corpses stowed away in your loft, is it?