Ho! Ho! Ho! I couldn’t possibly resist. ‘Tis the season and all that so how could it be any more appropriate to darken your doorstep with words on Bob Clark’s dreary 1974 proto-slasher, Black Christmas?
Since the beginning of the stalk and slash genre, it has been suspiciously popular to set your horror movie on or around certain holidays or important days of the week. Birthdays, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, there’s even one set on April Fool’s Day (even if it is a bit of a spoof). However, there has always been something innately taboo about setting it during Christmas. There was a minor furor over the Santa Claus imagery in Silent Night, Deadly Night. I’ll agree that it’s particularly morbid and even though the Christmas themed slashers are some of the weakest of the genre, Black Christmas, in spite of its cult following, is probably one of the least spoken of horror movies. It’s a shame, really. Of them all, this is probably the most effectively unsettling of the entire batch.
So merry Christmas, folks.
As a small party in a sorority house winds down, an unidentified man enters the house by way of an open attic window. It would seem that the girls have been receiving obscene phone calls from a guy they call The Moaner and his earliest call in the movie is squeamishly filthy. When drunken loud-mouth, Barbara (played by future lunatic, Margot Kidder) gets on the line and tells the caller what’s what, he ends the call by declaring in an even tone, that he’s going to kill her. The main protagonist, however, is the pure virgin of the bunch, Jess, played by Olivia Hussey.
Right off the bat the movie establishes many popular motifs of the slasher genre. POV shots from the killer’s perspective, victims-to-be involved in vice, the pure, virginal heroine and the holiday theme. It has been long established that Halloween is the originator of the slasher genre, which I still think is true, but much of what would come to be stock slasher material is show here several years before the machine got rolling. Black Christmas is actually more like a giallo than a slasher but where do you draw the line between the two? Gialli have always been much more sophisticated than the American take which simplifies the formula and shows you a lot more than the Italians usually do. Here, the Italian recipe is intact. There’s an unseen, black gloved killer and the staple of the giallo plot, a police investigation that seems woefully inadequate.
The girls are all about to break from college for the holiday but for a handful of reasons, several are to stay behind in the house over the break. Things turn hairy when the youngest of the bunch disappears. Her father shows up to pick her up but she never shows. She never shows because moments before the panic sets in, we’re shown her fate as the unseen killer, the man on the phone, suffocates her with a dry cleaning bag over the head. Her body is propped up in a chair in the attic and festively used on the movie’s poster and press materials. More calls come in, getting crazier and more frenzied. The sexual angle is gone entirely, and the calls make absolutely no sense. Freaky voices come across the line, animal sounds, frantic questions, “WHAT YOUR MOTHER AND I MUST KNOW IS, WHERE DID YOU PUT THE BABY?!?!”
Let me tell you something. I may be spoiling a part of the movie here, but you never see the killer. Not fully. His feet crossing the hall, hands, an eye, but his full body is never featured. The only thing we ever get are these fucked up phone calls. More frightening than the killer and his kills, these phone calls become a serious source of dread. Winding up for the next kill is nothing compared to the chills you get every time the phone rings. There is no context for them at all. We get no information about the killer but there seems to be a common thread among each message. Something about naughty Billy and the fate of some unknown baby. The stroke of genius throughout is hinting at some kind of twisted back story and giving us nothing to go on. As a device for horror, it keeps us, the viewers, off balance the whole time.
Black Christmas moves along like many stalk and slash movies. Sympathetic characters get it as the cast is whittled down, one by one. The police investigation, led by the iconic John Saxon can’t seem to figure out shit until it’s far too late and a trace of the phone calls determines that, gasp! The calls are coming from inside the house! The fatal flaw of the movie comes in the form of too many side-bar characters and needless subplots about Jessica, her ridiculous musician boyfriend and just about everyone else having not much to do with the story. Leaving big gaps in the background of the killer and his motivations works to the movie’s advantage, but filling those gaps with, well, filler, to make up the time that turns this into a feature-length movie, takes away from the experience. It’s not perfect but when the killer is on the phone or doing his dirty work, this is an absolutely frightening, tense horror movie. Made for peanuts in Canada, it successfully does what adequately budgeted horror movies have unsuccessfully tried to do ever since. If you’re in the mood for a holiday themed horror movie chocked with suspense and creeps put that Silent Night, Deadly Night shit down and get yourself a copy of this beast.
Black Christmas gets a lot of praise on the cult circuit but it’s still a horribly underrated movie. Director Bob Clarkis probably better known for his 80’s T&A classics, Porky’s and Porky’s 2, but he also made up for this Christmas bum-out by giving the world the holiday classic that endures to this day and still gets Christmas day, 24 hour rotation with A Christmas Story. He really has a thing for the holidays and I think he really felt bad about this one. Don’t believe me? I defy you to make it all the way through, take in the ending and realize just how black this Christmas is.