“During their Christmas break, a group of sorority girls are stalked by a stranger.” — IMDb
Black Christmas, also known as Silent Night, Evil Night (the title they initially gave it for the first American screenings so movie-goers wouldn’t mistake it for a blaxploitation film), is generally considered to be one of the first classic slasher flicks, and apparently even had a hand in inspiring John Carpenter’s Halloween. But you might know director Bob Clark from a very different Christmas movie — one that will probably be playing on at least one 24-hour loop on some basic cable channel this week — A Christmas Story.
It’s a shame that this movie didn’t get the recognition it deserved at the time, but it has gone on to become a cult horror film in the years since. It’s smart, well-acted, wonderfully shot, terrifying, and even genuinely funny at times.
** SPOILERS! **
I knew I was in for a treat during the opening shots, moving seamlessly between the inside and outside of the beautiful sorority house and showing POV shots of the mysterious killer making his way around the home (I especially loved the shot of him climbing the trellis). There’s a great theme throughout of happy, celebratory, or even just mundane things going on in the house while the killer lurks within… super creepy. I think the whole “Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” legend in general is TERRIFYING so the use of it was great — it’s one thing to know that the threat is outside trying to get in, but what about when you’re locking it inside with you? The search party coming by and almost cheerfully reminding the girls to “just keep your doors and windows locked and you’ll be safe!” was a chilling reminder.
The phone calls were surprisingly scary — and surprisingly vulgar. The killer’s alternating between multiple voices/personalities, seeming to scold himself at times, crying, screaming… the calls became more and more frenzied and his incomprehensible fury makes him unrecognizable as even a human threat. There’s no way to know his background, his motives, which makes him terrifying in a much less tangible way. We can’t relate to him, we can’t see our own pain or shortcomings in his motivation, which makes him completely unpredictable and alien.
I enjoyed that, aside from the (possibly unrelated?) girl being killed in the nearby park, the main characters don’t have any idea that murder is afoot until it’s too late. The victims themselves have NO idea, but even Jess (Olivia Hussey) has no indication that anyone has been killed until she finally swings Barb’s bedroom door open in the last 15 minutes or so — we’re the only people privy to that information.
Speaking of which, the kills — surprisingly few, really, considering its status as a slasher film — are all creative and well done. There’s no lingering on blood spurting from knife wounds, no over-exaggerated looks of horror that go on for too long, no shirts being ripped open for no reason besides showing a hint of breasts. They’re quick and effective but still fun. My favorite is probably Barb being stabbed with her own crystal unicorn grabbed from behind her bed — shot beautifully and the juxtaposition of Jess listening to a young choir singing carols downstairs is just awesome — but the image of Clare in the rocking chair with the plastic garment bag sucked into her mouth is classic for a reason. That reveal definitely got a gasp from me, and the occasional return to the attic — showing his hand rocking the chair her corpse sat in, or her cat innocently licking the bag she was contained in — was a cruel reminder that the search for her was hopeless.
There’s no denying that there’s a strong feminist undertone to the whole film — or, really, far less subtle than that. This movie taking place in the early 70’s — and just a year after Roe v. Wade was decided — is important context for its content. Women being terrorized by a dominating and violent male presence is par for the course for countless horror and slasher films, but it feels more relevant here, more close to home. Barb’s murder being the most intimate — taking place in her own bedroom, practically in the throes of sleep, with one of her own belongings — was no accident considering we saw her crassness offend multiple male authority figures (Clare’s father and a local sergeant, most obviously, but she fights back — verbally anyway — against the crazed prank caller, too).
In addition to the more direct threat of the looming killer, we have more pervasive examples of men attempting to silence women in a variety of ways. The bumbling sergeant first ignoring Clare going missing because she’s probably shacked up with some guy and then ignoring the prank calls because it’s “probably one of your boyfriends playing a joke”. Clare’s father is basically just walking disapproval throughout the entire movie, turning his nose up at Mrs. Mac’s language, posters around the sorority house, and Barb’s attempts to be humorous in her slurred, drunken state.
And, more directly, there is Jess informing her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), in no unclear terms that she is pregnant with his child and seeking an abortion. Again, the freshness of Roe v. Wade in American society informed his hateful response — “don’t you think about anyone but yourself”, and later “let’s get one thing straight: you are not going to abort that baby”. He’s outraged at the idea that she dare make a decision about her own body without his express approval, and is pushed further into his own spiral of deflecting blame when she rejects his very matter-of-fact marriage proposal. He’s belligerent to the point of being rightfully suspected as the killer — especially after seeing him destroy that piano after his unfavorable recital.
The irony of such gruesome acts being carried out during what is supposed to be the happiest, coziest time of year is constant but not obnoxiously so — it’s more something that we notice rather than something that is being told to us, if that makes sense. The warm glow of the colored Christmas lights, the metallic tinsel on the wreaths, the campus emptying out as people scurry off to see their families… it all feels incredibly nostalgic until we remember there’s a goddamn psychopath holed up in the attic.
Which leads us to the ending, which is amazingly dark, even for a horror flick. There is so often some kind of humanization of the villain, or maybe a dramatic standoff between the final survivor and the killer. We almost get that, or at least we think we might, when Jess is cowering in the basement after Peter smashes his way in. When the police find her slumped over with a dead Peter on top of her, we think there’s a chance — albeit small — that the nightmare is over. Jess has not only defeated her would-be killer, but she’s defeated this domineering male presence that is trying to control her. But as the camera pans away from her, sedated in bed, and glides by the attic — mumbling and giggling echoing off the walls — and eventually outside, we hear the phone ringing and ringing as the credits roll, and we’re reminded that evil often does prevail.
Ultimately, a brilliant and sorely under-appreciated film. Go watch it now, get into the Christmas spirit!
Rating: 8.5/10 | Director: Bob Clark | Writer: Roy Moore | Music: Carl Zittrer | Cinematography: Reginald H. Morris | Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin, Doug McGrath, Lynne Griffin, Michael Rapport