Killing doesn’t stop for Christmas in the first of Bob Clark’s December-set stand-outs.
HORROR CLOSES IN
ATMOSPHERIC SEASONAL standard, Silent Night plays over the credits, and we are presented with the night time image of a large, apparently isolated house. Coloured lights festoon the branches of the few trees that surround it as well as frame the roofing above the front door. Closer, it is possible to see through the sorority house windows to a party inside, and Jingle Bells can be heard too.
Within the first minute of Black Christmas (18), a man’s shadow has fallen over a ground floor wall and his breathing can be heard: frighteningly, we realise we are sharing his point of view. He starts climbing up the side of the building. The terror begins with a run of murderous obscene phonecalls that unsettle the female inhabitants, and is ratcheted up as one by one, the teen students and an old soak of a supervisor are gruesomely dispatched.
Game-Changing Horror Classic
Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) is deservedly beginning to be recognised as a Christmas-themed horror classic and game-changer. The film has experienced a few name changes over the years including Silent Night, Evil Night and Stranger In The House, and it was originally planned to be called Stop Me, presumably after unseen protagonist, Billy’s lack of control.
Clark has admitted that he eventually came up with Black Christmas since he enjoyed the irony of a dark event occurring during a festive holiday. The jaunty flickering coloured lights also provide a visual contrast with the oppressive blackness, too, of course. (Interestingly, Clark is the director of the similarly acclaimed, very funny A Christmas Story (1983): both films happen to make it into my own seasonal top ten movies.)
Black Christmas is genuinely scary, and although the actual body count might be slow-paced and not especially high by today’s standards, this is still a tense slasher. What’s more, its handheld wide-angle camerawork that enabled a murderer’s eye view preceded John Carpenter’s Halloween’s (1978) acclaimed use of the same technique by four years.
The soundtrack and editing is smart too, for example, juxtaposing the murder of a screaming young woman in her bed amid shattering glass ornaments with youthful carolsingers lustfully come-let-us-adoring-Him at the front door. Until I have contradictory evidence, I’d like to suggest too that the film features the first cinematic example of a sweary Santa Claus.
The Times They Are A Changin’. Fast
It is just not the innovative camerawork and styling that are of note. Shot in 1970s Canada, Black Christmas is as much a record of how the dynamics of men and women’s relationships and the role of authority were being challenged by women’s rights and sexual liberation. The young women who live at the sorority house are fast establishing their own pathways through life. (It is has been suggested that these women’s ‘transgressions’ in not fulfilling traditional sexual and especially maternal roles cost them their lives.)
Getting a handle on who’s who is a bit confusing but stand-outs are the mouthy, drunk-too-much sex-obsessed Barb’ (Superman’s Margot Kidder, scene-stealing), and Jess who is determined to have an abortion (Olivia Hussey, whom Zefferelli cast in more virginal roles in Romeo and Juliet and acclaimed tv series, Jesus of Nazareth as Mary, his mother). A missing girl’s father visits the house and appears taken aback by the free-love posters that paper various walls.
A Continuum Of Terror
What is interesting about Roy Moore’s often humorous screenplay, and notably in comparison to the film’s later remake, is how he draws the characters out into the community, whether that’s at the local police station or university canvas. This is not an hermetically-sealed horror story.
There is a strong suggestion that the murderer left a bloody trail before reaching the house; there is a local hunt for a missing girl. And Pete (Keir Dullea), Jess’s heartbroken angry musician boyfriend, in smashing up his conservatory piano and threatening his partner because she neither wants to get married nor keep their baby, expresses how violent acts and murder are on the same continuum.
Fear In The Ring Of A Telephone
Nevertheless, the sorority house is a suitable murder venue with its creaking floors and darkened corridors. The telephone is cleverly used to convey terror whether that is via the strange and obscene calls, crying and demonic screams down the line, the plea by the police officer to Jenny to leave the house this second, or simply the unanswered ringing of a phone. A very creepy Christmas, indeed.
Black Christmas is not the darkest of yuletide shockers, or even the earliest but it is a strong contender for one of the best.