“I really don’t think you should provoke somebody like that, Barb.”
‘Tis the season! SAW is getting into the spirit with The 25 Days of Christmas (in which today’s film appears at Day 14), Guess That Image and Romona Comet’s reviews of Four Christmas’ and The Knight Before Christmas. I’m getting all tinsel-eyed and egg-nogged as well, but Fear Flashback is taking a slightly… darker path for the holidays.
Holiday themed horror movies are a sub-genre all their own and have a pedigree that reaches all the way back to the turn of the 20th century, with Walter R. Booth’s Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost. Things didn’t really get cranking until the 1970’s, though, with films like Who Slew Aunty Roo?, Silent Night, Bloody Night, and the film that really made holiday horror a thing, Halloween. The 1980’s were awash in holiday slaying with films set on New Year’s (New Year’s Evil), Valentine’s Day (My Bloody Valentine) and even Easter (Critters 2: The Main Course) (it totally counts). The 90’s had a bit of a lull in the holiday horror (featuring mostly sequels to previous films), but the 2000’s and 2010’s have seen the sub-genre come back with a vengeance.
From my point of view (skewed as it is) this makes holiday horror just as much a tradition as trees and ornaments. (Or dreidels and menorahs – though Hanukkah horror movies are rare, with the upcoming Hanukkah, featuring the late Sid Haig, being the only one I can think of at the moment.) So for the next few weeks we’ll be watching some classic holiday horror films – something to keep us warm while the bodies… er… the temperatures grow colder.
While almost all holidays seem to have at least one horror movie devoted to their particular customs – even Thanksgiving – Christmas is by far the most popular, closely followed by Halloween. Halloween makes sense, being a holiday devoted to all things creepy and horrifying, but Christmas seems like a harder sell. This is, after all, the season of giving, of good cheer, of Jimmy Stewart going on about Zuzu’s petals. It’s society’s (at least in the northern hemisphere) big F-U to the encroaching cold and dark.
But it’s also a season that can make you feel isolated or depressed, a season that’s hard on people without family or with strained relationships, a season so focused on consumer culture that people in difficult financial situations feel morally unworthy when they can’t give what they’d like, or sometimes anything at all. Those bright lights cast some dark shadows.
So I guess it isn’t such a stretch for some filmmakers to set their movies at this time of the year. If nothing else the horror seems all the sharper for the contrast. I mean, why does Santa wear a red suit, anyway? Maybe he’s just trying to hide all the blood.
Our first film in this cavalcade of seasonal slayings is a classic, foundational slasher film that I, sadly, have never seen before. (I almost put it on my list of 5 Movies You May Be Surprised We Haven’t Seen.) Bob Clark’s Black Christmas features a lot of elements that would become familiar in later horror movies – the killer POV shots, the young cast, the ‘final girl’ – and is also famously an influence on John Carpenter’s own classic slasher. (Bob Clark has repeatedly told the tale of describing to Carpenter his idea for a Black Christmas sequel – in which the killer escapes from a mental institution to return to his home town and start killing again, on Halloween!) As one of the earliest examples of the genre you would think I’d have seen it by now, but if I’m honest I burned out on slasher flicks in my teens and it’s only recently that I’ve started watching them again.
I watched Black Christmas streaming on Shudder. It’s currently available for subs on Amazon Prime and can be streamed for free (with ads) on Tubi and Vudu. You can also rent or purchase it digitally on the usual platforms. Scream Factory released a special edition Blu-ray in 2016 with a cleaned up transfer and a ton of extras.
If you haven’t seen it, Black Christmas is going to feel very familiar to you. It’s a straightforward slasher flick – probably the prototypical slasher. During the holiday season a sorority full of young women are stalked and killed by a faceless killer until only a final girl remains to stop him. An ambiguous ending reveals that things may not be over.
There. That’s all the plot there is, really, and in that way it’s pretty similar to any given slasher film. Sure, the location and time frame differs, but the formula does not. Killer. Young people (generally women). Final Girl. ‘Twist’ ending.
Where Black Christmas succeeds where dozens of films that followed do not is in giving us characters we care about, a truly memorable killer (whose identity is never revealed), generally great pacing, and in creating an escalating feeling of tension and fear.
A man sneaks into the attic of a sorority house during a holiday party. One of the girls, Jess (Olivia Hussey) answers an obscene phone call – apparently a regular thing. Barb (an enjoyably foul-mouthed Margot Kidder) takes the phone and goads the caller into increasingly disturbing and obscene language. Clare (Lynne Griffin), a younger sorority member, chastises the drunken Barb for egging the man on, but Barb blows her off. Clare retreats to her room to pack for Christmas break, but the man from the attic is waiting for her.
There are a lot of familiar faces in Black Christmas. In addition to Kidder and Hussey (who was in the classic 1978 version of Romeo and Juliet as well as Stephen King’s IT miniseries) there’s Andrea Martin (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as sorority member Phyl, Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) as Jess’ distraught boyfriend Peter, Art Hindle (Porkey’s) as Clare’s boyfriend Chris and John Saxon as the local police Lieutenant. It can actually be a bit distracting trying to figure out where you’ve seen the actors before.
Clare’s disappearance is only realized late the following day. It’s only the insistence of her father (James Edmond) that gets the police involved. While a search party is formed Jess informs her boyfriend Chris about her pregnancy – and her intention to have an abortion, much to his dismay. An increasingly inappropriate (turtle sex?) and drunk Barb finally admits that she thinks everyone blames her for Clare’s disappearance after blowing her off during the obscene phone call. And house mother Mrs. MacHenry goes looking for her cat – only to find Clare’s body in the attic, wrapped in plastic, as well as the killer.
Bob Clark – who had previously made the cult classic Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and would go on to make one of the most ubiquitous holiday films, A Christmas Story – and screenwriter A. Roy Moore based Black Christmas on the urban legend of the ‘Babysitter and the Call From Inside the House.’ He squeezes every bit of tension he can out of that setup – with chunks of the film following the police and Clare as they try and pinpoint where the obscene calls are coming from. He also does a great job of juxtaposing the holiday trappings with the horror – Christmas songs playing, lights and decorations, even a group of carolers singing while a murder takes place upstairs.
It’s funny – there’s NOTHING in this film I haven’t seen before and yet… it’s all handled extremely well. I actually found myself anxious a few times – not something most slasher flicks can accomplish. It’s not even particularly bloody, there’s just a great sense of pace, atmosphere and tension.
Even the ending, which should feel like a bit of a cheat, given the information the movie gives us, is instead a high point of dread. The film ends without ever revealing the identity of the killer – beyond the strange phone calls in which he refers to ‘Billy’ and ‘Agnes’ and some other details more suggestive than explanatory – and it ends without knowing the ultimate fate of the final character. Its… kinda awesome.
The Bottom Line
Black Christmas is a fantastic representative of the slasher genre and is a cut above (sorry) most of the films that followed in its footsteps. Likeable characters, a memorable killer and a deft hand at the building of tension means it’s still an effective film 45 years after its debut. Well worth a watch, if you like a little chill on a winter evening by the fire.
Black Christmas was remade in 2006 by Glenn Morgan, a film that did not do well with either audiences or critics. A 2019 update by Sophia Takal will be in theaters next Friday, the 13th of December. Hopefully this one does better!