Overlooked & Underrated : Black Christmas (1974)

The entire horror movie genre is often overlooked by main stream movie-goers and critics. Some of the most important and well respected horror films often began their existence by being overlooked by audiences and completely underrated by critics. Take John Carpenter’s “The Thing” for instance. If you ask anyone worth their salt to list the twenty greatest modern horror movies I guarantee you “The Thing” will be on the list, and likely near the top. Yet – back in 1982 when the film was released by Universal Pictures alongside that other alien visiting Earth film of the summer – Spielberg’s “E.T.”, it failed to attract audiences, failed to make much money, and was mostly dismissed by critics.

Yet many of the so-called “successful” films are completely lost over time. There are many movies that made money, built careers, but I guarantee you no one is taking the time to read articles about them decades later. And, selfishly, it is good that many of our favourites are overlooked and underrated. That is why we embrace them. Odds are if you are on this site and taking the time to read this article you are a horror fan – you don’t care about what is popular or how much money something makes. You are looking for quality thrills and scares and to be entertained by something that is not mainstream. If “The Thing” was a huge success – would Carpenter have made “They Live”? Probably not. The fact that he had to operate on the fringe with more limited budgets created some incredible genre films.

So – in theory – this article could be about almost any horror film. But the goal of writing this is to look at those movies, within the genre, that just don’t seem to get the credit they deserve. Maybe they just didn’t come out at the right time, or maybe they got lost in the shuffle with other movies. Why doesn’t “The Collector” and its sequel get the same attention as the “Saw” films? Why did “Friday the 13th” generate so many sequels when “The Prowler” came and went with limited fanfare? Or in this article – why does everyone love John Carpenter’s “Halloween” but not hold “Black Christmas” in the same regard?

I was born in the 70s (the same year that Black Christmas was released) and grew up in the 80s with a steady stream of horror movies on VHS. For anyone who grew up in the 80s, or has re-visited the films of that era, the holiday horror film was all the rage. It seemed every holiday had its own horror happenings – “Friday the 13th”, “New Year’s Evil”, “Mother’s Day”, “April Fool’s Day” – even event dates like “Prom Night” or “Happy Birthday To Me” which weren’t tied to any particular calendar day.

Overlooked & Underrated : Black Christmas (1974)

Most credit “Halloween” as starting the trend. Even Sean S. Cunningham – the creator of “Friday the 13th” freely acknowledges that the first film was merely an attempt to make money by copying “Halloween”. With “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween” achieving so much success the whole trend snow-balled until it finally played itself out (or until people finally ran out of dates to use).

But the very first holiday slasher is NOT “Halloween”. The movie that actually started it all is “Black Christmas” – four years before “Halloween” back in 1974. And in my opinion, “Black Christmas” is every bit as good as “Halloween” – maybe even better (I’m sure some jaws are dropping right now).

If you have never seen the film then you are missing out on one of the absolute best slasher films, or even best horror films, ever made. Don’t look for it online – run out and buy it right away (after finishing this article and spending some more quality time on horror-movies.ca of course!) No collection of horror films is complete without this title.

I’m not going to spoil it for anyone that has not seen it, or at least has not seen it recently. The film focuses on sorority sisters who begin to receive obscene phone calls and then fall prey one by one to an unseen killer accessing their sorority house from a trap door in the attic above. The phone calls are very disturbing, the tension builds and builds as the girls start to disappear and the camera work from director Bob Clarke is absolutely stunning.

The killer is mostly unseen – in the shadows ready to strike. His identity is concealed adding a “whodunnit” element to the film. The performances are excellent, including memorable roles for a pre-Lois Lane Margot Kidder and a pre-Elm Street John Saxon.

Every sorority house horror movie, holiday horror movie and crank call horror movie owes a significant debt to “Black Christmas”. There are rumours that Bob Clarke once told a young filmmaker named John Carpenter that he had planned a sequel which would be set on Halloween night but he could not get the sequel into production. These are only rumours but there is definitely a clear influence on “Halloween”. Clarke uses some incredible POV shots – including a POV shot of the killer stalking outside the house and moving to the trellis to go inside to start the film. More modern films like “Scream” and “Saw” borrow directly from “Black Christmas” (I’m showing my age – is “Scream” really still modern???)

So why does the movie not get the respect it deserves? Why do people not list “Black Christmas” alongside “Halloween” when they talk about the best horror films of all time?

It’s hard to understand. The fact that it is a Canadian movie (although they try very hard to make it look American – check out the flags in the police station) may have hurt it somewhat. Another big problem was that it did not have a consistent title – Canadians and Europeans knew it as “Black Christmas” yet in the United States it was released with the title “Silent Night, Evil Night”. I also wonder if back in the 1970s people did not want to associate horror films with a “religious” holiday. I was born that year so I have no memory of it, but certainly I remember plenty of out-cry back in the 80s when “Silent Night, Deadly Night” was released. Halloween is an easier holiday to associate with things that go bump in the night.

Whatever the reason, “Black Christmas” is often overlooked and hugely underrated given how significant it was and still is for the horror genre. So now that you’re done reading – GO WATCH IT!

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