Bob Clark may be revered as the director of A Christmas Story and reviled as the director of Baby Geniuses, but in truth his most striking work is also his most underrated one. Black Christmas, Clark’s 1974 slasher classic is a veritable masterpiece, an overlooked, bone-chilling work of art that has never truly gotten the critical praise that it deserves.
Focusing on a sorority house that has become the unwitting focus of a homicidal maniac, the film is notable not only for its opening P.O.V. shot, a technique that predates John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years, but for its expertly controlled tonal changes. Though the movie opens with a sinister phone call and a woozy sense of dread, it quite rapidly shifts into all out comedy, with the alcoholic house ma’am Mrs. Mac (expertly played by Marian Waldman) scoring some very real laughs.
These tonal shifts help us to become genuinely connected to the characters in a way that many other slasher films of the period don’t – we actually give a damn about the young Jess’ unwanted pregnancy, for example – but more than that, the startling jumps from comedy to drama to horror and back again serve to unsettle the audience, and to undermine our preconceptions. We never know what’s around the corner – whether it’s going to be a laugh or a scare – and that sense of unease feeds expertly into the film’s reserves of tension.
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss the film without discussing its shocking final twist – or, perhaps more accurately, it’s lack of one. Rather than bowing out cheaply with a lazy reveal, Clark never gives away the identity of his killer. The open ended finale not only leaves its main character still in danger, it also adds a mythic element to its villain. The antagonist is a cypher, a proto Michael Myers who is no one and thus everyone. He is a force of nature; a violent presence whose motives are never revealed.
Not only is Black Christmas one of the finest horror films of the 70’s, a decade that gave us nothing but fine horror films, it is one of the best horror films full stop. It’s as taut as razor wire; as chilling as the winds before a storm. In short: it’s a masterpiece.