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[Slay The Date] Bloody Good Characters and The Superior Performances in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas

Slay The Date is a quarterly column bringing you something different, compelling, and fun with each edition. Our writers share their favorite horror films for every season.

 

“Excuse me? Could you give me the number at the sorority house? Please?” – Black Christmas (1974)


Olivia Hussey in BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), directed by Bob Clark.
Jess hides in the basement from Peter in Black Christmas (1974)

People don’t often associate horror with acting. Direction, staging, editing, and music — all of these elements come to mind because of their direct impact on horror. Great acting and characterization coinciding are at the center of many horror classics. After all, if the audience doesn’t care about the characters, they won’t be invested in and scared by what happens to them or the film. Nowhere is this more evident than in Bob Clark’s cult classic Black Christmas (1974) written by Roy Moore.


The film has many superior elements, which I consider close to perfection. Moore’s screenplay and Clark’s direction are taut and suspenseful. Carl Zittrer’s jarring and innovative score is incredibly creepy. At the same time, the acting in the movie is superb across the board, from Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, and John Saxon, to stalwart supporting actors Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin. The actors’ chemistry is great, contributing much to the movie’s success. Due to the film’s blackly comedic tone, most actors delivered serious drama, suspense, and upbeat comedy, sometimes all in the same scene.


Black Christmas focuses on the strained relationship between students Jess (Hussey) and her tortured pianist boyfriend, Peter (Dullea). Jess tells him she’s pregnant and wants to get an abortion. However, Peter wants her to keep the baby. While they argue about this decision, a series of murders occur on campus. It’s hinted that Peter could be the killer — as the story progresses, his dark side becomes more evident. Interestingly, both actors remain almost totally removed from the film’s comedy. Perhaps the film's unusual tone is maintained partly by letting the leads remain resolutely serious while the supporting cast indulges in comic relief from time to time.


Lynne Griffin in BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), directed by Bob Clark.
Clare's lifeless body rocks back and forth in the attic rocking chair in Black Christmas (1974)

In Dullea’s stand-out scene, Peter performs an important recital for a group of humorless professors at the university. As the piece continues, he grows increasingly anguished, sweating, and clearly under great duress, but his onlookers remain unmoved. Finally, Peter stops, and a clear look of resigned defeat appears on his face. Shortly afterward, he demolishes the piano, starkly demonstrating his despair and rage.


Hussey’s scenes with Dullea are electric. Their tense conversations are as gripping as any suspense set piece in the unnerving film. The actress’ tour de force comes near the climax when she hears the dreaded words from Sargeant Nash, “Jess, the caller is in the house. The calls are coming from the house!" Her increasingly frantic cries for her friends — unbeknownst to her, they've all been murdered — are chilling. “Phyl. Barb. PLEASE ANSWER ME,” she cries at a heartbreakingly anguished pitch. “Olivia Hussey is a consummate actress,” Bret McCormick wrote in a special “Holiday Horror” issue of Drive-In Asylum (2018). “When she lingers at the front door waiting for Phyl and Barb to respond, we feel her terror!”


Additionally, Jess’s friend Barb (Kidder) is a fellow sorority sister who drinks and smokes incessantly. Although Barb has the “fastest tongue in the west” and provides several notable howlers — in the scene where she tells a clueless deputy that the number at the sorority house begins with “FELATTIO” — it’s obvious that she’s in deep pain. It's rumored that Kidder played her as bisexual, and many viewers have interpreted her as such. If so, conflicted sexuality could have added to her inner personal struggles. It can’t have been easy being queer in a sorority circa the 1970s.


Margot Kidder in BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), directed by Bob Clark.
A drunk and mean-spirited Barb teases her sorority sisters about virginity in Black Christmas (1974)

Her standout scene, without a doubt, is the one in which she drunkenly monologues about watching sea turtles screw at the zoo as Phyl (Martin), house mother, Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman), and Mr. Harrison (James Edmond), father of missing girl Claire, watch. At first, it’s hilarious. She is oblivious to the alternately bemused and embarrassed reactions of the people in the room. It suddenly turns when she says, “You think it’s my fault, don’t you? You think that I drove her away, and if she’s dead, you’re gonna blame me.” One of the funniest scenes in the film suddenly transforms into an emotionally painful and unsettling one. Clark and his crew create tonal shifts that work seamlessly and never push Black Christmas too far in different directions.


The drunken, lovably foul-mouthed Mrs. MacHenry — affectionately regarded as just “Mrs. Mac” — is probably the film’s comic standout. She delivers several of the most memorable lines of dialogue. A particularly hysterical running gag is the series of nip bottles of booze she has hidden in the house: everywhere, from the bookcase to the back of the toilet, she sips a little hair of the dog. It’s hard to pick her funniest scene, but there's a moment when she and Mr. Harrison go to Claire’s room together. Harrison is not pleased with the seemingly permissive sorority environment. He says as much while Mrs. Mac does her best to defend Claire’s character before realizing there’s an explicit poster of two hippies making love on the wall. She tries to hide it from him, resulting in a moment of subtle humor.


The scene is a great example of the chemistry of the cast. Humor is derived from the back-and-forth between stoic Mr. Harrison and snarky Mrs. Mac, hitting every comedic beat. While Waldman obviously has the lion’s share of funny quips, Edmond makes the line “Think nothing of it” hysterical — dripping with exasperation at his daughter’s crass house mother.


Marian Waldman in BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), directed by Bob Clark.
Mrs. Mac dashes around the house for hidden nip bottles in Black Christmas (1974)

The well-developed characters and their talented portrayers help make Black Christmas one of the greatest Christmas horror classics of all time. Everyone from opening victim Claire (Lynne Griffin) to Lieutenant Fuller (Saxon) seems like a real person, a combination of Moore’s strong writing and the actors all giving it their all — especially impressive for a low-budget film. Zittrer’s unnerving score, vivid atmosphere, and terrifying moments of suspense and horror make the movie not just a favorite horror film but one of my favorite movies, period. The cast of characters gives Black Christmas its dark, beating heart.


With this issue of “Slay The Date” closing out the year, I’ll recommend other Holiday Horror films: Christmas Evil (1980), Lewis Jackson’s haunting character study of a tragically unhinged man, Michael Dougherty’s delightfully wicked Krampus (2015), another film benefitting from a top-notch cast, and Emmett Alston’s wonderfully offbeat Los Angeles-set slasher New Year’s Evil (1980). Happy horror days and a scary new year!


 

Justin Lockwood is a Brooklyn-based film writer and contributor for Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, Scream Magazine, and many more, in addition to being a lover of campy, “Psychotronic” B movies. He's a lifelong horror fan and recurring guest on the Slay Away horror podcast.






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