Move over Ralphie for Bob Clark’s original Christmas story. Released in 1974 and predating John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years, Clark’s Black Christmas is actually the the first modern slasher film. In fact, many have argued that Carpenter’s iconic holiday horror film, that made Michael Myers a household name, is an unofficial sequel to Black Christmas. Bob Clark laid the groundwork for Michael to terrorize Haddonfield; but, both Black Christmas and Halloween along with 1979’s When a Stranger Calls collectively created the foundation upon which the 1980s slashers were built. Although I had heard of this film prior to this year, I did not make time to watch it until many of my podcast friends talked about it. So, for the weekly film screening with my cinephile penpal a couple of weeks ago. Originally, I had not intended to review it since so many others have covered it this Christmas season; however, after being encouraged to review it by a few of my friends in the #PodernFamily community, I’m going to talk about my opinions on this film. In short, it is one of the most terrifying horror films that I have ever watched. And it’s not because it’s particularly violent or gory, but because of its incredibly unsettling atmosphere caused by the mysterious, vulgar phone calls and the creepy POV of the slasher entering the sorority house during the Christmas party. That bit of dramatic irony paired with the sequence of disturbing events, work together to generate nightmare-inducing thoughts and imagery in the mind of the audience.
Now for the IMDb summary before we dive deeper! As winter break begins, a group of sorority sisters, including Jess (Olivia Hussey) and the often inebriated Barb (Margot Kidder), begin to receive anonymous, lascivious phone calls. Initially, Barb eggs the caller on, but stops when he responds threateningly. Soon, Barb’s friend Claire (Lynne Griffin) goes missing from the sorority house, and a local adolescent girl is murdered, leading the girls to suspect a serial killer is on the loose. But no one realizes just how near the culprit is.
The first moment in the movie to truly catch my attention was the POV of the serial killer. Before watching this, I was under the impression that the first horror film to open with a POV in this fashion was Carpenter’s Halloween. It was at that moment that I looked up the release year and shocked to find that Black Christmas was released four years prior. The unnerving atmosphere of dread is generated in part by the dramatic irony of the killer being in the house and the vulgar mysterious phone calls that consistently plague the sorority girls. Although there are scenes that take place outside of the house, the horrific events largely take place inside a house. A house–more specifically–a home–where you should be and feel safe. The invasion, the penetration of safety is a terrifying prospect for anyone who has ever walked into their home alone wondering if someone may be there. The idea that someone may be in your house sticks with you long after the movie ends. And that is the power of the unnerving horror of Black Christmas. I argue that the level of terror is higher in this movie than Halloween because of just when this story takes place. Both Halloween and Black Christmas concern themselves with a serial killer sneaking inside the home unbeknownst to the owners but Black Christmas takes place at the time of year that we should feel the warmest and safest. It’s that stark contrast between the magic of Christmas and the horror befalling the sorority house that impacts us more than the events in Haddonfield on Halloween. Halloween is a time that we expect to be scared, whereas Christmas is a time that we expect to be warm and safe.
Unlike the merciless or meta-kills of Jason or Freddy, the killer only known as Billy specializes in psychological horror. Although there is more to Jason than just killing teens and college students, he essentially seeks to rack up as many kills as possible. Much in the same way, Freddy enjoys increasing his kill count too. However, Billy stands in contrast because he is not merely concerned with racking up a body count as he is truly terrifying the girls and their house mom. The actions of Billy are a vehicle for the fears of the audience. His victims and methods of execution, if you will, comment on the character types that he’s going after. Moreover, the beauty of Billy’s true identity remaining mysterious is that he can be whomever you want him to be. Furthermore, the victims can be whomever you want them to be. It’s the type of horror film that provides the audience with the ability to place themselves in the shoes of the killer. But Billy isn’t the only star of the film, we spend sufficient time with each of the characters to understand their personalities and desires. This makes them more than just eye candy for Billy or the audience. We can empathize with each of the victims and those with him they have friendships or a relationship. There are few moments that we get to see Billy. For the most part, we are always looking through Billy’s eyes. Billy has nothing distinct about him. No motive, mask, backstory, proprietary weapon–nothing. And it works so incredibly well! It’s this lack of anything in particular that would make him out to be someone unique that terrifies us. He can literally be anyone who is simply terrifying these girls because “they were home” (where have we heard that before?) or they left the door unlocked or a window open.
Hitchcock stated stated on more than one occasion that (and I am paraphrasing) there is no greater fear than that of an opened door. Bob Clark takes a queue from Hitch in that he relies heavily upon that which in unseen or unknown. Relying upon that which is unseen forces the audience to engage the film on a personal level by creating scenarios for the violence off screen. Another quote of Hitchcock is related to Clark’s approach in this film, “always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” And there are plenty of scenes in Black Christmas that will induce suffering in the minds of the audience. We aren’t given a backstory on or motives of the killer, but evidence suggests that he has a preoccupation with the idea of pregnancy or motherhood. Moreover, there are different types of mothers or maternity examples in the film from a sorority house mother to a knocked-up college student contemplating an abortion. Interestingly, this is where Black Christmas refuses to conform to the morality play underscoring many horror films in which teen and college students engaging in deviant or indiscriminate sexual behaviors are the ones killed off. The point-of-view movements and kills take you out of your seat and into the narrative as a quasi accomplice to the murders. Of course, we are not prevued to all the murders as there is a rape and murder in the same area that is said to be linked to Billy but we never truly learn the origin of these murders or even the true identity of Billy.
Although Black Christmas is a serious slasher, it is not without its comedic moments. The sorority mom and her booze will keep you laughing while one of the police officers will have you rolling over in your chair with his complete incompetence and lack of knowledge of fellatio. The film never falls into the area of self-aware or parody, but it does successfully balance out the dark narrative with the more lighthearted elements.
If you’re looking for another holiday horror movie to add to your list of Christmas films to watch, then you definitely want to add this one to your lineup. It’s perfectly dark and sinister, takes place in an ominous sorority house that provides us with an incredibly creepy atmosphere, and infamous ending. Instead of shelving it until the holiday season each year, it should be treated like Halloween and other slashers. It’s good year-round! It’s an important film in the horror library because it was the first to give us so many of the tropes that would show up later, and even thought to be originally attributed to later films.
Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!
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