If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl…it’s on too tight!
Black Christmas is a stark and stylish horror/thriller that turns everyone’s favorite time of the year inside out. Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder star among an ill-fated houseful of sorority sisters celebrating the holiday season. Festivities turn fatal when obscene phone calls break the serenity and it becomes clear that a psychopath is stalking the house.
eyelights: its stellar cast. its extremely creepy vibe. the wrap-up.
eyesores: the implausibility of the phone calls.
“No, no, no… no questions. Now just put the phone back on the hook, walk to the front door and leave the house.”
‘Black Christmas’ is a Canadian production from 1974 that is one of the first seasonal horror films (after ‘Silent Night, Bloody Night’) and is widely recognized as an inspiration for the slasher genre. Directed by Bob Clark (of ‘A Christmas Story‘ and ‘Porky’s’ fame), it’s become a cult classic.
Known in the U.S. as ‘Silent Night, Evil Night’, the picture is set at Christmas time and takes place in and around a sorority house, as everyone is packing for the holidays. But a madman stalks the sorority’s halls, attacking its occupants one by one, when no one is around to notice their disappearance.
It’s a cat and mouse game inside a large mouse trap.
I first heard of ‘Black Christmas’ approximately 15 years ago, when I worked in a video store. I made it a duty of diligently leafing through our distributors’ new release catalogues to see what was coming up, and sometimes I’d make recommendations to my boss – mostly based on films I wanted to see.
One day, the first DVD release of this picture was advertised in the catalogue. I had no idea what it was, but I loved the twisted connection of horror and the holly jolly Christmas season. I wanted to see this picture, whatever it was. Thankfully, my boss bought a copy of the DVD for the store.
I still remember watching it with one of my best friends, around and about Christmas that year. The results weren’t what I’d expected: I think that he may have fallen asleep, while I was left oppressed by the picture’s grimness. I liked aspects of it, but I didn’t get the same enjoyment I got from, let’s say, ‘Halloween‘.
Mind you, I was only developing an appreciation for horror at the time.
I had made a copy of it on a VHS tape (the DVD wasn’t copy-protected) and played it a couple of times out of curiosity. Eventually, I decided that I should just buy it – on principle, as I tend to do. Then I found a Special Edition of it, featuring a couple of commentaries and other goodies.
Since then, I’ve watched the picture a couple of times. It was good, but not great.
This time, however, I finally got it; I really enjoyed ‘Black Christmas’. I very much like that we know that the killer is inside the house, even though the characters have no idea. Although a traditional film would use that as the great reveal, we know from the onset and must watch powerlessly as he preys.
We just don’t know where he is, who he is, what his motive is, and when he’ll strike.
The picture sets the stage early by showing us P.O.V. shots of the killer eyeing the house, looking inside and climbing the trellis to gain access to the attic. This not only puts us in the killer’s skin, it also shows us just how vulnerable the girls are; someone is watching them from not so far away.
And when we don’t get the P.O.V. shots, we sometimes see his shadow moving about the house, or we see his form in the background, as the girls obliviously go about their business. We are consistently reminded of his presence even as we don’t see him per se. We just sit on edge waiting for him to strike.
To make matters worse, the madman also calls the sorority from inside the house. There was a time when it was possible to do that (my friends and I would make public phones ring at the mall all the time) and he uses this to terrorize the girls, who at first think it’s “the moaner” who’d been bothering them.
Except that it’s not.
These calls are far more disturbing: the madman says obscene things to them, threatens them, screams, grunts, and cackles – all in multiple voices. It’s akin to schizophrenia expressed vocally. It’s messed up and very disquieting. And, eventually, the girls start to take this seriously, and call the police.
Especially after the father of one of their own shows up to pick her up.
But no one can find her.
(As a side-note, I will always wonder how the killer did all those voices himself, and why he couldn’t be heard from inside the house. But, thankfully, some of that is addressed on screen, with the girls wondering if it the calls are the product of just one person. No answers are provided, but it’s not ignored.)
What’s amazing about ‘Black Christmas’ is how it manages to ramp up the tension and sustain it even though we know what’s going on, its secrets revealed to us. It even does this all the while fleshing out its characters and developing subplots. Pretty good for a horror film, when you think of it.
It’s backed by a terrific score by Carl Zittrer, who mixes some traditional Christmas themes with more eerie atmospheres, especially some dischordant piano bits (he apparently used various objects to get the piano to sound that way), eschewing the clichéd jump scares that are so prevalent these days.
The cast is also excellent, lending credibility to the picture: the ever-delightful Olivia Hussey (I had a serious crush on her after seeing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in high school) is in this, as are Margot Kidder (‘Superman”), Andrea Martin (‘SCTV’), Keir Dullea (‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘) and John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street’).
Margot Kidder is especially memorable, playing a foul-mouthed, smoking and drinking sorority sister who doesn’t take any prisoners. While her acting chops aren’t fully-honed here, she is a force of nature that likely landed her the much-coveted role of Lois Lane. I’ve rarely seen her better.
And then there’s our leading lady, Olivia Hussey, who steal Harrison Ford’s thunder by responding to “I love you” with “I know” half a decade before he did. She eventually gets most of the screen time, even though she initially takes a backseat to Kidder. And I was none too pleased about it.
Of course, their characters aren’t cookie-cutter, with all sorts of real world problems affecting them, such as alcoholism, parental abandonment, pregnancy, failed ambitions, and the like. In just over 90 minutes, we get to understand these people’s strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and failings.
That was smart: By making them three-dimensional, we actually cared for these reflections of the very real people in our lives.
Another reason to appreciate ‘Black Christmas’ is that it isn’t an exploitative horror film: it doesn’t give us gratuitous nudity, and it holds back on the violence and the gore. Yes, there is blood in one scene, but Clarke purposely toned down the violence to make a more psychologically terrifying film.
Kudos to Clark: few filmmakers get the principle that the scariest things are in our own heads.
And this is why ‘Black Christmas’ is as excellent as it is. Yes, it was made on a low budget. Yes, it’s a mid-’70s Canadian production. But it does almost everything it can do with its means perfectly. It trips up at the end by giving us a completely improbable break in, but then it makes it up with its eerie wrap-up.
For the most part, it’s a well-crafted suspense picture.
And it’s the perfect counter-programming for Christmas.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Date of viewing: November 21, 2015