Director: Bob Clark
Writer: Roy Moore
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin, Doug McGrath
Black Christmas (1974) is one of the most overlooked and underrated movies of the slasher genre. Released a few years before the era of the big three (Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street), the cult classic follows a group of sorority sisters who receive harassing phone calls before being stalked and killed over the Christmas season. Arguably the first true slasher film, Black Christmas is one of the strongest entries in the genre, presenting a genuinely scary scenario by appealing to some of our most mundane fears.
With the imminent release of its second remake this month and the festive season in full swing, what better time to revisit one of the slasher genre’s finest moments and examine what still makes it so unique?
Black Christmas sits at an awkward era in the development of the slasher genre. Though one of its first entries, it doesn’t completely match the model popularised by Halloween in 1978. For instance, our final girl, Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey), is not the clean-cut virgin we see in Laurie Strode and Nancy Thompson, and unlike Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, the villain ‘Billy’ is never revealed to the audience. But it doesn’t quite follow the model of earlier horror classics such as Psycho (1960) either. While its unsettling POV shots call back to the horror of Peeping Tom (1960), there’s an unfamiliarity in both Black Christmas’ story and storytelling that makes it so scary.
‘Sergeant Nash: The calls are coming from the house!’
Inspired by the urban legend of ‘The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs’, director Bob Clark and screenwriter Roy Moore use the festive season in combination with an unrelenting sense of dread to devastating effect. The opening shot of the sorority house is still and calm. There are Christmas lights and we hear a peaceful rendition of ‘Silent Night’, only to realise we are sharing the point of view of someone breaking into the house. The simplicity of setting and perspective provides us with a brief introduction to the silent, voyeuristic horror that dominates the film and its strangely perfect fit with the Christmas season.
Similarly, the simplicity of the film’s sound design and score is perfect because the film doesn’t sound familiar. Billy’s unnerving phone calls, the sound effects, the hauntingly performed Christmas carols and Zittrer’s piano-centric score create an incredibly unsettling atmosphere because they don’t feel normal in a horror movie. There’s no Ghostface voice. No iconic Carpenter(-esque) score. Just children singing carols, dramatic piano chords and Billy’s deranged taunts.
Unlike some of its slasher successors, there’s also a surprisingly effective balance of horror and humour. It somehow works in favour of the film’s realism and indirectly reinforces its horror. And it’s not necessarily humorous in the way that Jason Voorhees punching a man’s head clean off his shoulders in Jason Takes Manhattan is. It’s based on a more tongue-in-cheek character-based comedy that, when combined with their more sympathetic traits, renders their murders all the more tragic. Sorority loudmouth Barb (Margot Kidder) and housemother Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman) are examples of this. The former’s sex jokes, and the latter’s secret stashes of vodka are combined with hints of difficult family life and a genuine love and care for the sorority girls respectively. Moore gives us relatable and sympathetic characters who aren’t the film’s final girl or central character, and while that may seem like a standard of good storytelling, it’s a feature that sets Black Christmas apart in the slasher genre. A distinguishing feature that wasn’t really executed as well until the genre’s rebirth with Scream (1996).
‘Sergeant Nash: Excuse me? Could you give me the number at the sorority house? Please?
Barb: Yeah, sure. It’s ah… Fellatio 20880. Fellatio. It’s a new exchange, FE.
Sergeant Nash: That’s a new one on me. How do you spell it?’
Having spoken about the unfamiliarity of Black Christmas, its most defining and effective feature is one rooted in our everyday fears. ‘Billy’ is a slasher villain who taps into the narrative power of the unknown. Those POV shots, the sound design and the setting all work to reinforce the horror of a silent, invasive killer who lacks almost any personification. Billy is the creak we hear upstairs. The eyes we feel on our back. The shadow we see on the landing. Clark’s greatest tool in terrorising his audience is his refusal to show us what we’re afraid of. While ultimately, it means that Billy, and by extension the film itself, lacks the mega-iconic status of the big three, it provides a timelessness to its horror.
The ominous ending in which Jess’ boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) is identified as the killer, only for us to discover that the killer is still in the attic and still watching Jess is a testament to that. Black Christmas is not the type of horror film that gives us a triumphant final girl victory or even escape. While Billy is a real person within the story, as a villain he represents a fear of the unknown. A noise or a shape or a prank phone call that just feels… different. And I don’t know about you guys, but few things scare me like a creak on the floorboards.
You can read more from Kristian by checking out his blog at showmethemoviereviews.com! Find him on Twitter at @showmethemovie2 and Facebook at @SMTMreviews