Ed. note- As much as I’m a think outside the bun person, I fully realize that on occasion going with the grain is not only the smart thing to do, but the right thing. Capping off our small series of Christmas horror reviews, here’s the only truly scary entry in this subgenre, and the perfect slasher flick.- P.F.
The problem with just about the entire lot of Christmas themed horror movies is that, as a whole, they’re just not scary. Offensive, sure. So offensive, in fact, that the first SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT basically got run out of town when it first came out because parent groups were so offended (though I’m not so sure if 10-year-old Little Jimmy himself was offended). Mean spirited? Absolutely. When Santa stand-in Bill Goldberg impales somebody’s cranium with an icicle, it’s mean to the bone. But none of this is frightening. From the dawn of Christmas horror, where we find 1959’s SANTA CLAUS at ground zero, straight up through Goldberg and beyond, the idea of St. Nick taking on Lucifer or flipping the script and slaughtering carolers is just silly. And yet, there’s one film that absolutely does yuletide terror right, and in the bargain not only became one of the best slashers, but the only truly scary, very BLACK CHRISTMAS.
Bob Clark had previously made two zombie clunkers, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS and DEATHDREAM. Watching those flicks, it would be hard to imagine that he had a feel for how horror really works, and what makes the spine tingle. Then came BLACK CHRISTMAS, and Clark proved the failings of his previous efforts were just a byproduct of being a young filmmaker. His third horror effort hits hard, and creates some of the template for how slashers are done to this day.
The film starts off at a nice sorority Christmas party, with the girls drinking and enjoying themselves. Then the phone rings, and all Hell breaks loose. A heavy breather is on the other end of the line, and this time he’s spewing out obscenities about cunnilingus. Brash Barb rips the phone from more meek Jess and goes right back at the psycho before he threatens, “I’ll kill you!” When the offended Clare storms off to pack, the psycho murders her and places her in the attic. While the French film THEM (ILS) deftly dealt with the horror theme There’s something out there, Clark’s film presents the exact opposite and equally frightening He’s in the house. As the film progresses, the phone calls increase, the killer slides further into insanity, and the body count notches ever upward.
Clark is firing on all cylinders here, and as a result, BLACK CHRISTMAS does everything right. Re-appropriating the image of a rocking chair from DEATHDREAM, he seats Clare’s corpse in one in the attic, where she’ll remain through the film’s very last shot. It’s creepy stuff, as is the music, a minimalistic score also reminiscent of DEATHDREAM, but this time balanced off by holiday classics. He also applies a lot of humor here, which was wholly lacking in DEATHDREAM and awful in CHILDREN (a scene in the film where Barb tells a cop about a new phone exchange turns into a gut buster of a running gag).
He’s also working from a much more complex, more nuanced script from Roy Moore than he was in his two previous efforts. The constant phone games ratchet up the tension, as the killer calls himself “Billy” and keeps talking about “Agnes,” though none of it makes sense. If this relationship has anything to do with his real motive, I’ll never know, but it sure is creepy. As the police get involved and try tracing the calls, it ratchets up the tension that Clark has built and maintained so beautifully throughout.
The introduction of Jess’ boyfriend Peter, a music major, also complicates things, as Jess reveals she’s pregnant and going to get an abortion. To say Peter doesn’t take this well would be a massive understatement. The film goes out of its way to suggest that Peter is really Billy, but Clark and Moore pull one final twist at the end, by never revealing the killer’s identity. There’s no Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees to hang a hat on here, just a freaky, sexually demented killer who’s still out there. Clark shows an eyeball here, or some murderous hands (much of this borrowed from a 1930s slasher, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE), but if you’re looking for easy answers, you won’t find them here.
Credit the actors, too, for bringing their best and making this film the landmark it is. Olivia Hussey is great as always, bringing a more mature attitude to romance than she did in her most famous role as Juliet in Zeffirelli’s ROMEO AND JULIET, and a sensitivity. As Peter, Keir Dullea is frightening, whether he’s the killer or not, defined by his rage and his love for Jess. As Barb, Margot Kidder plays a drunk, horny college student with the best of them, adding the sass that would become Lois Lane’s trademark in Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN years later. John Saxon is solid as a cop (though isn’t he always?), as is Canadian mainstay Art Hindle (of THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS 1978 version and Cronenberg’s THE BROOD) as Clare’s distraught boyfriend. These are not the cardboard cut-outs who would be victims in all the 1980s slasher franchises, but actors giving genuine performances.
Usually I would now discuss what didn’t work in BLACK CHRISTMAS, but I have nothing to say. It is the perfect slasher, for all those reasons above. I can’t say it better than this: zombie movies are my favorite horror, and I generally disdain slashers, but I love this film and don’t really care for Clark’s two undead efforts.
One more thing: If Santa Claus can go by Old St. Nick, Father Christmas and a slew of other titles, so can BLACK CHRISTMAS. It was previously called STRANGER IN THE HOUSE and SILENT NIGHT, EVIL NIGHT, establishing it as perhaps the classiest entry in the whole Horror Movie Relocation Program. Perhaps Santa is hiding out in the Mythical Character Relocation Program…
There are several versions of BLACK CHRISTMAS out on DVD. The copy I own has some of the most poorly executed extras I’ve ever seen. There’s a Q&A with Bob Clark and a few others at a showing of the film, where Clark spends most of his time promoting the new BLACK X-MAS, a pathetic excuse that shares only a name with this one. There’s a featurette narrated by John Saxon reading off a script. And then there’s the highlight, the trio of interviews. Olivia Hussey and Art Hindle are asked meandering questions which I couldn’t even hear, as the camera bounces around (why is the camera moving at all?). These interviews go on forever. In fact, I think they’re still on at my house, which I left yesterday morning.
But the crown jewel is by far Margot Kidder’s chat. It suffers from the same problems as the others, but it’s balanced off by certifiably insane Margot Kidder! The highlights include her discussion of how she and Andrea Martin would smoke pot and drink booze before they showed up to the set, but swearing it would be unprofessional to drink while filming a scene. As she sits by poolside and the pool cleaner shows up in the background of the long shot, her head bobs to a 45 degree angle to the right, and the camera jarringly zooms in for a close-up of Margot and her dentures. God bless crazy people.
BLACK CHRISTMAS may be the best slasher ever made. It stand shoulder to shoulder with Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, which Clark claimed right up until its death that his film influenced greatly. It proved that Clark could make a truly great horror film, and that Christmas horror can be scary after all.