A winter-themed horror film that doesn't have Krampus or Santa Clause.
Limerick of the week
"Sit down and witness this Christmas story. And boy do I hope you like them gory. Your heart will jump the next time your phone rings, as creepy choir kids are trespassing the yard to sing Christmas carols outside the sorority."
Why this prompt?
The holidays are coming and going quicker every year. I enjoy embracing the traditions more as I get older. We go to the tree farm, we find the PERFECT Christmas tree, we decorate, and finally, we watch lots and lots of movies with the only light in the living room being that beautiful beacon of Christmas. I used to think that there weren't many great Christmas horror movies, but as I delve deeper into the genre the more gems I find. Movies like Krampus, Silent Night Deadly Night, and Better Watch Out come to mind. I've heard talk of Black Christmas, but I always assumed it was nothing I hadn't seen, and then in 2019 the remake came out, and I'd finally seen Black Christmas. Let's just say that I had no intention of catching up on the predecessors. One man changed my mind about the original film and his name is Mike Muncer, the host of Evolution of Horror Podcast, who claims that the original Black Christmas is the best slasher ever. My initial plan was not to rope all three films together, but once I found out there was a gruesome remake in 2006 I had to watch it. Now, here I am after witnessing all three films and I'm ready to break down how the original changed horror forever. I may eventually get to the 2006 film that has many interesting takes on the lore, and maybe I'll forget about the 2019 version. Grab yourself a meaty angel cookie, put away the unicorn decorations, unplug the landline and let's get into it.
Black Christmas (1974)
Where can you find it?
I watched this one on Shudder, which is a great app for horror content. This film can also be caught on Peacock with ads.
The most familiar actor in 1974’s Black Christmas is John Saxon. He has made his career off of many horror/action films, most notably his role in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise as Lt. Thompson. He plays the stereotypical authoritative figure that can only help the situation externally.
Olivia Hussey is our protagonist. Olivia cut her teeth on 1968’s Romeo and Juliet where she played the romantic teenager. Here, in Black Christmas, she can increase her reputation by instead playing a pregnant sorority sister who doesn’t want to have the child. I know this credit should mostly go to the writers, but being able to say and act the way she did about such a sensitive situation in 1974 is impressive.
Some other notable actors are Margot Kidder as Barb, who gets to be the loose-lipped drunk girl and she’s having a blast with that role. Andrea Martin is the quirky girl, and also returns for the 2006 film. Marian Waldman plays Mrs. Mac who is the sorority supervisor, she probably has some of the most comical moments, like covering the nude poster as one of the girl's fathers comes to visit.
This film is Bob Clark’s way of paying homage to the Giallo films that came before. The first kill of the film takes place from the killer’s POV, just like many of those iconic Italian films such as Bay of Blood. After murdering the first of the sorority sisters the killer, also known as Billy, hides in the attic of the home. He watches the girls as they come and go, celebrating and drinking on Christmas. The girls begin to get crude and obscene phone calls, but they assume it’s some pervert poking fun at them. We, as the audience, are allowed to witness these girls in a voyeuristic manner behind the guise of the killer. The phone calls persist and soon the girls realize that Clare is missing. The police are made aware and an investigation begins. Meanwhile our protagonist Jess informs her boyfriend, Peter, that she is pregnant, and she doesn’t want to settle down, even after he tries to propose. This rejection sends him into a raging flourish resulting in a broken piano and too very hurt individuals. The outrage happens a bit later in the film, but the tension can be felt from the get-go.
The second murder takes place forty minutes into the movie, which I find interesting because the first killing takes place within minutes of the title sequence. I think that the pace allows for the audience to understand the characters and world enough that when the other girls get picked off it means so much more. Mrs. Mac hears the sorority cat up in the attic and decides to investigate. This is my favorite kill of this flick because we watch from the killer's perspective, his hands shaking, as Mrs. Mac enters the attic and sees the body of the first victim then soon realizes someone is breathing behind her. The hook is then used to hang her in the attic like an old suit.
More phone calls. The cops visit the Sorority, bug the phone, and go off on their merry way. Jess answers the front door and is greeted by a choir that proceeds to distract her while Barb is murdered with a glass unicorn decoration. Why this prop is such a key factor to the mythology of this film, I don’t quite understand. Perhaps it is meant to symbolize purity in a way, yet the person it is first used on, and by, are neither innocent. There is a 6-year-old child murdered in the park, and they suspect Billy to have been her killer as well, so there’s the connection to innocence? The unicorn will make a return in the 2006 version of the film as well.
There’s an odd scene where two men come knocking at the back door of the home, and the last two girls answer the door so nonchalantly, which I can’t help but think how foolish that is, especially when you notice that one of these men have a gun. The girls also comment about the fact that that door is the only locked door in the house, and I fail to understand the importance of the dialogue shared here. I think the film is undercutting the girls here by making them seem careless.
Another call, this one reveals more about the killer, and who is Agnes? The police are finally able to track the call (I must say that seeing all of the outdated technology behind telephones is impressive) and it is revealed that the killer is in the house! The last two girls have been separated at this point, and once Jess goes to find her sorority sisters she stumbles upon their corpses tangled together. Billy’s eyeball is revealed in the crack of the door, and he refers to Jess as Agnes and tells her not to expose what they’ve done, which foreshadows the last death of the film.
Jess runs downstairs where she discovers the front door locked… from the outside? Didn’t these girls comment on the lack of locked doors? She continues to be chased into the basement, giving vague meaning to Billy in the attic, and Jess in the basement like they’re two sides on the same coin. A shadow is cast over the slim basement window, and moments later Jess’s boyfriend, Peter, reveals himself. Jess hasn’t had a solid look at the killer save for his eye through the crack in the door, assuming we saw everything she did. Peter approaches her slowly cautiously, but by this point, Jess is beyond freaked and clutches a fire poker she previously acquired while she was being chased. The police enter the building and discover Peter dead, strewn across Jess’s lap. The closing of this film is the police leaving Jess to rest, back in her bed, cozy and exhausted, meanwhile, the camera continues to pan through the home revealing Billy to still be hidden away in the attic with his posse of corpses. Credits roll.
This film is pivotal to the history of cinema. Bob Clark introduces so many tropes that continue in American horror to this day. From the random locked doors to the head tilt given by Peter as he approaches Jess. So much of this film has the typical tropes turned in on themselves though. These women aren’t treated like their crazy, the police officers listen to them and encourage them to keep them updated. One of the most detrimental mistakes in this film is done by the officer who lets Jess know that the killer is in the home, increasing her paranoia. The film begins with a breakneck pace but does begin to slow down until that forty-minute mark, but everything happening between these moments is crucial to the story or builds atmosphere.
In this film, there is a big push for strong female characters. Would you call this our first final girl?
I don’t have much experience with Giallo, does anyone have recommendations?
This is quite possibly the earliest contributor to America’s slasher genre. Is the killer as scary as Jason, or Michael despite not having a mask and being “unkillable”?