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John’s Old School Horror Corner: Black Christmas (1974)

February 14, 2013

MY CALL:  Online reviews boast this as one of the “scariest films ever made.”  Ummm…maybe back when it was released when you were 12 years old.  At 12 I thought this was epic.  At 32 I find it an epic waste of time that comes with some pleasant nostalgia.  This movie is for people who scare VERY easily (because it’s not scary) and who look away from the screen (because there’s no need for that).  If your preteen protests that he’s ready for R-rated horror, consider this movie to be the training wheels.  WHAT TO WATCH INSTEADHalloween (1978) and When a Stranger Calls (1979) were also born in the 70s and do a much better job at building tension and testing our nerves.

It’s Christmas break and a few sorority sisters have decided to stay at the pledge house for the holiday.   The sorority house is terrorized by a stranger who makes frightening phone calls and then murders the sorority sisters during Christmas break.

Jess (Olivia Hussey; Stephen King’s It, Romeo and Juliet) is the nice girl whom we expect to survive the movie.  Her friend Barb (Margot Kidder; The Amityville Horror, Sisters) is the ultimate overindulgent sorority girl, always holding a lowball glass in one hand and ever-refilling it from the bourbon decanter permanently attached to the other, which also deftly holds a cigarette at all times.

After the first girl goes “missing” the police don’t take the issue seriously.  But as more sisters disappear Lt. Fuller (John Saxon; A Nightmare on Elm Street, Blood Beach; both of which having him reprise his role as a no-nonsense cop) takes the case.

This movie is revered as something of a classic.  However, I challenge this notion.  The movie is slow.  Not the suspenseful and building sort of slow, but more like the “we’ve got to fill this movie with 90 minutes” sort of slow.  We also don’t see the kills, which are staged in the most simplistic, color-by-numbers manner.  It’s so generic that you feel no sense of dread regarding what’s about to happen.

Now some people may angrily step to this film’s defense.  But I’d ask them to recollect how long it’s been since they’ve seen the movie.  All too often we remember thinking a movie was soul-rattling back when we were 10 or 15 years old.  I am one of those people.  This movie holds a special nostalgia for me, but having seen it again in my 30s I have to say that this film simply doesn’t hold up by today’s standards even if we ignore budgetary issues such as gore and “seeing” the kills.

WHAT THE MOVIE DOES WELL:  1) The acting is quite good for a horror film.  John Saxon always delivers with his no-nonsense characters and Margot Kidder does a fantastic job as the sorority house lush.  2)  The story is great and the characters’ development and relationships are engaging.  3)  This film brought us the most famous and truly jarring slasher movie notion ever: “The calls are coming from inside the house!”  4) A quiet, but great ending.  5) Some disturbing elements like the killer’s off-putting phone calls and the repeated imagery linked to the first victem.

If you’re a self-proclaimed horror fan or connoisseur, watch this just to cover your historic horror bases.  If you saw it and loved it as a kid, watch this for a reality check of what used to be scary to you and a little nostalgia–it is a classic.  And if you’re a parent of a kid who thinks he likes horror, watch this with him to gauge his readiness for more vivid, gory movies.



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