After all the presents are opened and while the caramelized ham is digesting, most people like to settle in with their favorite Christmas movie. I’m no different. Okay, maybe I’m a *little* different. For some, that movie is A Christmas Story. For others, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. For even others, it might be Miracle on 34th Street. For me? It’s Black Christmas.
For many fans of the slasher movie sub-genre, Halloween (1978) is ground zero. Pre-dating Halloween by four years, Black Christmas (directed by the eclectic Bob Clark, who also made the wholesome and hilarious “A Christmas Story”) creates the modern slasher movie template. Black Christmas is a ground-breaking horror film. When it was made its clichés weren’t clichés yet. While much of this film may seem old-fashioned, much of it still holds up well, particularly as it pre-dates a lot of the classic slasher movies. Black Christmas paved the way for all the Jasons, Freddies, Michaels, and others who followed in the slasher genre.
Black Christmas begins with a party at a sorority house to mark the beginning of Christmas break. While the party is going on, we see an unknown man (from a first-person viewpoint ala Halloween) sneak into the house via the attic. Within minutes he has already claimed his first victim and begins making a series of very disturbing calls to the other inhabitants of the house… and what follows is worse than getting nothing but slipper socks and Cosby sweaters for Christmas.
Shot with a $620,000 budget in Toronto during a wintry eight weeks in 1974, Clark weaves a holiday setting, point of view shots, the ambiguous character of a sexually deranged stalker, elements of the final girl theory, and the creepy “crank-caller in the house” motif into a splendid tapestry of horror.
Now you may know this film under one of its other titles as Black Christmas has shared as many identities as the killer it introduces. Its original script was titled, The Babysitter, and then mutated into Stop Me. The current moniker emerged but that title was changed to Silent Night, Evil Night because Warner Brothers feared viewers might mistake it for a blaxploitation film, which in the mid-1970s was possible. However, the film didn’t find popularity until the title was switched back to Black Christmas. When the film was later released for television, the title switched again, this time to Stranger in the House.
Why is this my go-to holiday horror film? This film is great. And when I say great, I don’t mean in the esoteric realm where only my warped mind would enjoy it. Black Christmas is nuanced and technically accomplished from start to finish. It is subtle and understated but with the competence of execution to make it comparable to some of the greatest horror films of all time. It’s horrifying and disturbing but not afraid to explore moments of black comedy. The characters are not so much “over-the-top” as they are slightly more pronounced versions of regular folks; making them entirely believable and amiable.
It’s frightening from the opening scene right up until the surprising ending. The scenes in the movie have such a crazed, grim, and atmospheric punch to them. The creepy atmosphere in Black Christmas is built to create a sense of unnerving calm in the dead of winter and is set up perfectly for a seriously disturbing horror movie. Although the snow and weather are never a focal point, they do linger in the background to remind us of how cold and oppressive this narrative is.
The killer is genuinely creepy and the obscene calls that he makes, which seem to include different voices mixed together, are particularly unsettling. We never actually see who the killer is. He is never revealed like Jason or Michael Myers. He is just a shape that looms out of the dark and disappears at the end. We never do find out all the answers to the killings at the house. This may be frustrating to some, but I believe it to be a concept of genius, keeping the evil untouched and ready to haunt our minds on the night of December 24th.
There is an open-endedness that many later slasher films shun. There is no Hollywood happy ending and we’re left just as, if not more, disturbed as we were when we began. There are many horror movies out there that give you a genuine but not particularly deep scare. Then there are some that really disturb you – to the point of turning on the lights at night, checking behind corners, etc. Then there are those rare few that creep you out so badly that you feel like you need to take a shower immediately after viewing them. Black Christmas is the last two examples in one movie and THAT is why I hold it so dear to my heart.
I don’t want to spoil the ending but there is a moment where the film reaches a clear crossroad. It could favor finality and disclosure or it can uphold that which makes the best horror villains iconic; ambiguity. The movie can end traditionally and relegate itself to standard horror (delivering all pertinent exposition about the killer when it does) or it can leave the scariest details to the imagination of the audience. The latter is the stronger choice and Black Christmas employed it even before it became commonplace to choose the former.
Remember those idyllic scenes out of your childhood? Crisp winter nights, sleigh bells… crackling Yule logs, remember those? Remember them well. After “Black Christmas,” they’ll never be the same again.
In this season of holidays, check it out with some eggnog and remember, Christmas gifts are not the only things hidden in the attic.