Black Christmas has a lot of significant problems, but the film’s strengths make up for (or just distract from) a lot of them. But then there’s director Clark. He can’t make the film scary. He can make it disturbing–and often does, even when it’s not successful otherwise–but he never makes it scary. And when Olivia Hussey is running away from the psycho killer, it has to be scary. It’s the first scene with real action in the film and Clark doesn’t do it. In the process, he loses any of the disturbing too.
Even though the final act is a flop, the film does still look good. It’s not exquisitely directed anymore–Clark does a beautiful job introducing the film and its characters in the first act–but it’s always well-produced. Reginald H. Morris’s photography is always competent, even when he’s not doing anything special. His use of focus is particularly gorgeous and it really brings personality to the film in the first third.
Clark just can’t direct the scary part. And he never does, because neither he nor writer Roy Moore, have anything interesting in mind for Hussey. She’s initially just one part of an ensemble, but once she becomes the lead, there needs to be something to the character and there isn’t. Hussey’s not good, but she’s not bad and she does have a few strong moments. She just doesn’t have anything to work with. Her character has the film’s least thoughtful story arc–she’s pregnant with creepy boyfriend Keir Dullea’s baby and she doesn’t want to keep it. Why doesn’t she want to keep it? She doesn’t love him. And her “ambitions.” What ambitions? No idea, Clark and Morse don’t care. They care enough to immediately establish Margot Kidder’s backstory because Kidder does wonders with it. It’s like Clark doesn’t want to ask too much of Hussey.
If it’d been any of the other stalked sorority girls–Black Christmas has the psycho killer terrorizing a sorority just before Christmas because narratively pointless gimmick–the film would’ve been better. Hussey plays the script. She doesn’t bring any personality of her own. Everyone else acts. Hussey recites. And Clark’s mostly responsible. He shoots Hussey differently than the other actors. Lots of close-ups, lots of boring close-ups. Almost every other shot is interesting (until the action), but never the ones of Hussey. It’s frustrating.
Like I said, great supporting performance from Kidder. She’s hilarious, charming, sympathetic, profane, gentle. John Saxon is fine as the cop. Marian Waldman’s awesome as the drunk den mother. She has the same kind of sipping sherry stashed all over the house–it’s a fantastic subplot and far more imaginative than the psycho killer one. Andrea Martin is good as another sister. James Edmond is fantastic as one of the girl’s fathers. When Edmond’s still part of Christmas, it’s a special film in how it deals with grief and fear amid cheap horror gags. Art Hindle’s good too. Doug McGrath’s funny as a dumb police sergeant. There’s so much texture to the supporting cast, it just makes Hussey and Dullea stand out even more. I neglected to mention Dullea’s awful. There could be a drinking game for his lousy performance in this film. Anyone would’ve been better.
Or, even better, the character wouldn’t exist because there’s no place for him in the film. Clark and Moore’s problem is how they anticipate the narrative. The characters have nothing going on except what they’re doing at a moment–Black Christmas takes place over thirty hours or so–even when they’re in the middle of another subplot. The setup for the psycho killer is infinitely better than the psycho killer because there’s nothing to do with the psycho killer. Clark and Moore completely cop out.
Okay music from Carl Zittrer. Okay editing from Stan Cole. Sometimes excellent direction from Clark, sometimes not. Truly great performance from Margot Kidder. Black Christmas has a lot going for it, it just doesn’t really get anywhere.
Produced and directed by Bob Clark; written by Roy Moore; director of photography, Reginald H. Morris; edited by Stan Cole; music by Carl Zittrer; released by Ambassador Film Distributors.
Starring Olivia Hussey (Jess), Keir Dullea (Peter), Margot Kidder (Barb), John Saxon (Lt. Fuller), Marian Waldman (Mrs. Mac), Andrea Martin (Phyl), James Edmond (Mr. Harrison), Doug McGrath (Nash), Art Hindle (Chris) and Lynne Griffin (Clare).