Before John Carpenter’s Halloween, there was Black Christmas, and no it’s not a Tyler Perry holiday special. It’s a slick little slasher set in a 1970’s sorority house during Christmas break, when many of the girls have gone home. Suddenly mysterious phone calls start to plague the ones still there, and one by one a murderous, unseen prowler starts to murder them. The phone calls themselves aren’t overly threatening, but instead sound like the nonsensical babbling of someone who is a couple reindeer short of a sleigh, making them all the scarier. I remember watching this years ago and being far more creeped out at the phone calls rather than the actual murders. That is a perfect example of using atmosphere to get under your audience’s skin rather than straight up gore, and a testament to the fright films of the 70’s and 80’s, which really seemed to have all the atmosphere vs. gore dials in the right positions. This positively drips with tension and ambience. The silences in between screams are almost deafening in their vacuous anticipation of terror to come, and strange as it sounds, there’s actually a nice Christmas-y feeling in places where the fear hasn’t yet struck, despite it being a horror movie. Olivia Hussey plays Jess, the main target of the killer with appropriate wide eyed intensity, Margot Kidder is briefly seen as the house mother, and horror regular John Saxon shows up as a suspicious Police Chief as well. I’d say this one achieves a state of suspense and atmosphere that can step up to the same plate as Halloween any day, it’s just a little overlooked I suppose. The house they are in is the perfect setting, a sprawling Yuletide manor of creaky hallways, desolated basements, dark, dingy attic space and an uneasy thrum of awaiting gloom that gives the words Silent Night a new meaning. The poor girls just never know when a shrill telephone ring will slice through the eerie corridors, forcing them to answer it and hear an unnerving voice warble out “It’s me, Billy” on the other end.
PS: avoid the remake at all costs. It takes everything that was creepy and restrained about this classic and turns it into a disgusting nightmare.