Classics Revisited: “Black Christmas”

Other than David DeCoteau, who’s directed everything from softcore gay porn to Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama to the legendarily terrible family movie A Talking Cat?!?, no filmmaker n had a career as wildly varying as the late Bob Clark. Clark was best known for writing and directing both A Christmas Story, one of the warmest, cuddliest holiday movies of all time, and Porky’s, one of the grossest, smuttiest teen sex comedies of all time, released in theaters within barely two years of each other. He was also responsible for the Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton musical comedy nightmare Rhinestone, as well as the unspeakable Baby Geniuses. And yet, Clark also directed two seminal horror movies, 1972’s Deathdream, a take on “The Monkey’s Paw” set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and 1974’s Black Christmas, a pioneer in the slasher genre.

Though both Halloween and When a Stranger Calls liberally lifted from its plot, even mimicking certain shots and camera effects, Black Christmas is probably the least remembered of the three by anybody other than serious horror fans. That’s a shame, because it holds up amazingly well, with an ambiguous ending even more creepily bleak than that of Halloween.

Black Christmas takes place during 24 hours at a Canadian sorority house. Jess (played by Olivia Hussey) and her 30 year-old sorority sisters, among them Margot Kidder and SCTV‘s Andrea Martin in early acting roles, are enjoying one last get together before the holiday break, and don’t notice that a mouth-breathing creep has climbed up the side of the house and is now hiding in the attic. The festive mood is soon ruined, however, by an obscene phone call. The phone calls are the most bone chilling part of Black Christmas, and you’ll be thanking the Good Lord for the miracle of caller ID when it’s over. Sounding like they were placed from the exchange HEll 6-6613, the calls are a horrifying cacophony of sexual threats, heavy breathing, screaming, weeping, laughing, singing, animal noises, and incoherent babbling about people, possibly children, named Billy and Agnes. Put together a supercut of all the phone call scenes, and you’ve got the perfect background soundtrack for the scariest Halloween haunted house in town.

Shaken by the call, one of the sorority sisters, Claire (Lynne Griffin), goes to her bedroom to pack for her trip home, and is almost immediately killed by whoever it is that’s hiding in the attic. The killer just leaves Claire’s body in a rocking chair in the attic, assuming (correctly) that no one will think to look there when it becomes apparent that she’s missing. He then sets about murdering the remaining girls in the house, as he torments Jess with more phone calls. Already unnerved by her boyfriend’s alarmingly dramatic reaction to the news that she’s pregnant and plans to have an abortion, things take an even more frightening turn when the unknown caller begins saying things to Jess that sound awfully familiar…

It had been years since I last watched Black Christmas, and I forgot how perfectly it tempers horror with scenes of almost goofy humor, like an incompetent police station desk sergeant who’s fooled by Margot Kidder into thinking there’s a telephone exchange that starts with the word “fellatio,” or the feisty sorority house mother who stashes bottles of booze in hollowed out books and toilet tanks. They serve as an almost pleasant distraction before you’re walloped with deeply creepy scenes like Claire’s father having dinner in the house where, unbeknownst to him, her corpse is right upstairs, or another character being stabbed to death as her screams are drowned out by a stone-faced group of Christmas carolers outside.

Even having to suspend some level of disbelief regarding how thoroughly cops would check a crime scene before calling it a night doesn’t really lessen the impact of the ending, and of course, there are those hair raising phone calls. Not knowing who “Billy” or “Agnes” are, or what, if anything, they have to do with the murders makes it all the more creepy–it probably doesn’t matter at all. The inevitable, utterly mediocre remake, released in 2006, created an elaborate backstory for Billy and Agnes, involving mother-son incest and cannibalism, and yet, somehow the original is far more scary. Turns out that the unknown is sometimes more unsettling, and what our minds suggest more horrifying than what a movie carefully spells out.

Black Christmas is currently available on YouTube

 

 

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