Back in the glory days of the slasher genre, Christmas themed stalk and stab flicks were suprisingly prevalent. Such sleazy gore fests such as Silent Night Deadly Night and Christmas Evil decked the halls with boughs of gory with varying effectiveness, but the mac daddy of all seasonal slayers had to be Bob Clark’s relentlessly grim and hugely atmospheric Black Christmas.
A decade later Clark would manage to score with another Xmas classic with 1983’s polar opposite A Christmas Story, but back in 1974 he brought us chills that had nothing to do with the Canadian temperature…
It’s Christmas Eve, and the girls of a canadian sorority house are either packing to go home for the holidays or are preparing to dig in for the festive period but are all dealing with their personal shit while carol singers ply their trade and fresh snow litters the ground.
Jess is enduring a controlling relationship with her incredibly intense pianist boyfriend (tsk, musicians eh?) and is deciding whether or not to end the toxic relationship, loose lipped Barbara has a stratospheric booze intake and Claire is just painfully shy but all are being plagued by the obscene phone calls by a deranged mystery man whose rabid utterings succeed in freaking them all out. What would probably freak them all out even more is that unbeknownst to them, the maniacal caller has scaled their Rose trellis and has snugly camped out in their cluttered attic and believe you, me, his mental state is as soothing as a fibreglass loofer.
Alternating between popping downstairs to murder the odd, unsuspecting co-ed and unleashing more of his chaotic mind set through yet more obscene phone calls, the killer (who’s name we assume is “Billy”) manages to remain completely hidden due to the fact that no one realises what the hell is going on until this particular brand of crazy is breathing down their neck. Even when Jess starts to get suspicious and finally approaches the police, she’s either rebuffed by an idiotic desk sergeant or her worries are overshadowed by the news that a local 13 year old girl has gone missing.
As the characters slowly start to put the facts together and the police finally start to pay attention, “Billy” may have to finally give up being the worst squatter ever; but Black Christmas isn’t a story that’s interested in happy endings or justice for it’s characters and the only thing these luckless people can hope to find in their stockings are cruel twists of fate and an death at the pointy tip of an abnormally large ornate crystal unicorn….
Firstly, let’s get the facts out of the way before we fully enter the attic of haunting shit this movies enthusiastically unloads on you in order to burrow successfully under your skin. While not the first slasher ever made, Black Christmas managed to beat Halloween to the seasonal punch by four years and is pretty much the prototype for the gold standard that John Carpenter’s classic would become. While this techinally makes Black Christmas Dr. No or From Russia With Love to Halloween’s Goldfinger, there’s no doubting the superior style and polish in the latter that made Michael Myers a household name; however, you could argue that decades of sequels, rip offs, remakes and reviews have dulled Halloween’s edge and that’s where the relatively less known Black Christmas manages to shine. Simply put, even after all these years, Black Christmas still manages to chill the blood and pucker the anus thanks to an inhuman amount of restraint from the filmmaker as to not take the more flashy route and keep the film shrouded in utter mystery. All the POV shots and dark spaces we’re all overly familiar with after watching Halloween 342 times are present and correct, but the way Black Christmas handles it’s shadowy killer makes Michael Myers look as reclusive as Ryan fucking Reynolds and it’s tremendously effective in making “Billy” a legitimately scary character. The killer is, for lack of an adequate medical term, is crazier than a shithouse rat and the film gives us virtually no information about him except for the sexually explicit screams he gibbers down the phone in multiple voices as he constantly relives whatever godless experiences made him into whatever the hell he’s become. This tact of making the slasher completely and utterly unfathomable works massively well, even by the end of the film we’re no wiser as to who “Billy” is, what he wants or even what he fucking looks like despite the fact that we the audience has any clue he’s even there.
Also working extraordinarily for the film is the fact that entire cast is utterly oblivious to “Billy’s” very existence, which makes the usual ploy of having characters just wander off make hideous sense. It’s Christmas eve, you’re blasted on shitty eggnog and you’re the only one home, why wouldn’t you let your guard down? It gives the whole film a sense of hard edged realism and it also has the confidence to let you piece together things on your own in order to really drive that slow burning dread home – the simple, haunting, final exterior shot of the house as a lone phone rings gets more unsettling once you’ve fully understood what it means and the subtle, unflashy murders are genuinely unnerving. The movie’s signature shot of an early victim, suffocated in plastic and plonked in a rocking chair in the attic window going unnoticed by passers by never loses it’s power to pour frigid ice water down your spinal cord despite even being used as the image on the frickin’ poster.
The characterizations are suprisingly forward thinking for 1974, with all of the players feeling like real, flawed, human beings. Olivia Hussey’s Jess in particular feels way more fleshed out that your usual “final girl” as she’s seriously contemplating aborting her pregnancy in order to carry on with her studies while her boyfriend (Kier Dullea from 2001) gaslights her and demands she give everything up to support his dreams. On top of that, Margot Kidder’s Barbara seems to suffer from incredible alcohol addiction that would bring Oliver Reed to his knees and Claire seems ensnared by her disapproving prude of a father; with all this going on it’s no bloody wonder that no one realises there’s a lunatic in the attic!
Defiantly resistant to any form of campery whatsoever (a sub-plot concerning a murdered a child is handled as serious as a heart attack) and even scoring a bonus by featuring the legend that is John Saxon fumbling a murder case a full decade before simularly screwing up with Freddy Krueger Black Christmas may not considered the slasher masterclass that Halloween is, but is still an overwhelmingly magnificent creeper that still effortlessly manages to to make your epidermis crawl like a crab under machine gun fire….