A maniac sneaks unseen into the attic of sorority house Phi Kappa Sigma and starts to menace the remaining inhabitants with seriously obscene phone calls.

After the boozy, take-no-shit Barbie (Margot Kidder) gives nearly as good as she gets, the caller issues a death threat and abruptly hangs up. Good girl Clare (Lynne Griffin) is worried that Barbie's actions will only encourage the caller and, after an argument, goes up to her room. Unbeknownst to the others, she never gets there, being suffocated in plastic wrap by the killer, who then hides her body in the attic.

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As the others go to the police station to file a report about the obscene calls, Clare's father arrives in town to collect his daughter. When she fails to show up and it emerges that no-one, including her boyfriend Chris (Art Hindle), has seen her since the previous night, a missing person's report is filed with Lt Fuller (B-movie star John Saxon).

Later, a young girl's body is found by a search party investigating another disappearance, though there is still no sign of Clare...

Meanwhile, Jess (ex-Juliet Capulet Olivia Hussey) starts to worry that her boyfriend Peter (2001's Keir Dullea) is acting rather strangely, even for a neurotic would-be concert pianist, who has just been told that his girlfriend is pregnant and wants an abortion. Could he be the killer?

Although relegated in most discussions to a mere footnote as an influence on John Carpenter's seminal Halloween, Bob Clark's Black Christmas deserves to be better regarded in its own right.

Like Carpenter, Clark avoids graphic gore, focussing instead on suggestion and using careful mise-en-scene, editing and use of music to build suspense. Whereas Carpenter's film relied on his minimalist synthesiser theme, Clark favours an avant-garde soundscape of unsettling noises, an aspect that is arguably closer to the work of Italian gialli thriller composers of the period, such as Ennio Morricone - even if the Canadian's movie also lacks the catchier, poppier entries that would tend to alternate with the suspense themes in the Italian product.

Likewise, Clark's film eschews the dubious sexual morality of the American slasher. Rather than combining the roles of virgin and final girl into a single character, as Halloween and Friday The 13th do, Black Christmas splits them, with the pure, prudish Clare first to die and Jess, who would conventionally be doubly punished for being both sexually active and wanting an abortion, the one most likely to make it to the end credits. In this regard, it's perhaps significant that Kevin Williamson's Scream neglected to quote Black Christmas - the giallo, if we take it to be such, simply does not have the comforting rules of its later American counterpart.

This is not to say that Black Christmas is a better film than Halloween. It suffers by comparison with an excess of dumb humour, a reminder, perhaps, that Clark's greatest commercial success will be Porkys (1981), and a deeply unsatisfactory ending.

With quality performances - Kidder displaying a manic-depressive quality that one isn't completely sure was acted, Dullea a sense of danger beneath the surface and Hussey determination without being a hard-hearted bitch - and solid, professional direction from one of the great unsung talents of Seventies horror cinema - able to work worthwhile comment into the most unpromising of material, such as the Vietnam veteran returns home as a zombie allegory, Deathdream, and the Jack the Ripper/Sherlock Holmes crossover, Murder By Decree - the film emerges as a cut above Friday The 13th and other more run of the mill entries.

Reviewed on: 10 Dec 2003
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Killer on campus causes girl fright four years before Halloween.
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Director: Bob Clark

Writer: Roy Moore

Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin, James Edmond, Doug McGrath, Art Hindle

Year: 1974

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Canada


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