After suffering through the gauntlet that was the Silent Night, Deadly Night sequels, it was a real pleasure to end my week-long Christmas horror marathon with a genuinely good movie. Black Christmas, even more than the original Silent Night, Deadly Night, is the essential Holiday horror movie. It’s a creepy, unnerving, disturbing low budget slasher flick that actually predates the slasher subgenre as we know it. If you haven’t seen Black Christmas then I highly suggest you stop reading my review right now and check it out, because you’ll hate me if I spoil it for you.
It’s Christmas time and a sorority house in the frozen wastelands of Canada has been receiving a steady stream of lewd phone calls from a mysterious creep named “Billy”. What the sorority sisters don’t know is that “Billy” has been up in their attic the whole time, watching their every move and hearing their every conversation. As the house slowly empties for the holidays and only a handful of girls are left behind, the shadowed assailant proceeds to dispose of them one by one.
Coming four years before John Carpenter’s Halloween defined the gimmicks of the typical slasher flick, Black Christmas is more of a proto-slasher that leans further in the direction of a murder mystery. It’s easy to forget that the slasher subgenre was nothing more than an evolution of the murder mystery and suspense/thriller genre than eventually became its own unique offshoot. I like to think of Black Christmas as an indispensable stepping stone that got us from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to John Carpenter’s Halloween.
The film is essentially an adaptation of that old urban legend about the babysitter that gets a series of threatening phone calls traced, only to be told by police, “the calls are coming from UPSTAIRS!” An oldie but a goodie, as they say, and you’d be surprised at how successfully screenwriter Roy Moore manages to milk that old cliché for 97 minutes. The familiarity that “Black Christmas” offers thanks to being based on one of the oldest sleepover tales in the book helps to give it a timeless quality despite some vintage ‘70s technology dating the hell out of it. In my book, this is the quintessential adaptation of the tale even if modern caller ID has sort of taken the sting out of the twist.
While it all sounds a bit ho-hum so far, what makes Black Christmas a cut above the rest is the direction by Bob Clark, who makes the killer of the piece as creepy as possible. Though a red herring is introduced during the film to fulfill the requirements of a “murder mystery”, the actual identity of “Billy” is never revealed. You never see his face, you never know his origin and you never learn his motivation. The majority of his presence is via a disembodied voice over the telephone, screaming and whispering incoherent rants in a variety of weird voices. When he does “appear” in the film, the scenes are primarily shot from his first person perspective. This can get really, really unsettling, particularly when “Billy” simply sits in the attic, rocking a corpse back and forth in a rocking chair while softly singing to himself.
The clearest look we ever get at “Billy” is that of a dark silhouette with a single visible eye. Even when Billy has left the shadows, the camera takes precautions to obscure or cut off his face (and the choreography ensures the characters never get a clear view of him, either). By the time the credits begin to roll, you know just as much about the killer as you did when the flick started. The approach reminds me of the more recent horror film, The Strangers, which implemented a similar tactic with its titular killers. Even after the villains remove their masks, you never see their faces or learn their reason for killing. It’s a chilling and effective concept, as a truly faceless adversary is far more inhuman and intimidating than a devil you know.
Black Christmas boasts a strong cast, headlined by Olivia Hussey as Jess, the lead sorority sister. Margot Kidder plays a foul-mouthed, drunken alpha female who provides some levity during the first half of the movie but is wisely sidelined once the tone shifts to a more perilous gear. The only character that felt somewhat artificial was Marian Waldman as Mrs. Mac, the house leader. Her habit of hiding bottles of scotch in various places all over the house was funny, don’t get me wrong, but it did rub off like goofy comic relief in a movie that’s surprisingly grounded and authentic, otherwise. John Saxon plays a no-nonsense police lieutenant; a role almost identical to the one he’d play ten years later in A Nightmare on Elm Street. He’s good, but the role doesn’t call for much personality.
Going back to what I said about “authenticity”, the kills in Black Christmas eschew the over-the-top or the silly and are strictly realistic, brutal slayings. A girl gets suffocated with a dry cleaning bag, a woman gets bashed in the head with a metal hook on a rope, one gets stabbed repeatedly with a glass unicorn, a police officer has his throat slit, etc. The gore is likewise subdued as, again, Black Christmas isn’t about buckets of blood and gross-out imagery. Director Clark puts more emphasis on atmosphere than red Karo Syrup and you’ll find that this is a slasher film that’s genuinely creepy and not just an invitation to laugh through a high bodycount (I love me my Jason movies, but I don’t think anyone would ever call them “scary”).
At nearly 100 minutes, Black Christmas does feel a little long, but none of that screentime is particularly wasted, either. Most of the main characters are well-developed and even the obligatory red herring is given reasonable motivation for qualifying as a suspicious individual. I’d be hard pressed to think of any moment that could warrant being cut, save perhaps some of the comedy relief during the first half (not that I didn’t get a good laugh out of the “fellatio” gag). It’s a very tight movie that uses its runtime well. And if you manage to invest yourself in the story, it’ll pretty much fly by.
Nowadays, calling something a “slasher” film automatically saddles it with some fairly unflattering baggage. The glut of assembly line slasher films of the 80s pretty much narrowed the subgenre down to a specific formula and that doesn’t do the good and innovative slasher films any favors in terms of reputation. But Black Christmas is really as much a slasher film as Psycho and Silence of the Lambs are slasher films. It’s a great, eerie movie with a well-assembled cast, a tight script and some damn good direction.
And that ends my 6-part series of Holiday horror reviews. It’s nice to end on a positive note. If you’ve taken anything away from these articles, it’s that at the very least, the original Silent Night, Deadly Night and Black Christmas should be a part of your Christmas Special viewing rotation, right along with the Grinch and Charlie Brown.