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Let’s Scare Jenn to Death: Black Christmas (1974)

Let’s Scare Jenn to Death: Black Christmas (1974)

Introduction

(By Guest Writer James Olchak)

Happy holidays, ya filthy animals! It’s Christmas time, and that means an exhausting barrage of carefully calculated, weaponized holiday schmaltz being crammed into all your entertainment holes, all devised to make you feel inferior in either wealth or familial bonds. Wouldn’t you like to celebrate a different way, this year? Perhaps with a cold realization that the feelings of security and contentment you feel when surrounded by your loved ones is a complete illusion, and a farce, and at any point the arbitrary nature of the universe could destroy everything you hold dear, including your belief in love? WELL I HAVE THE MOVIE FOR YOU.

Black Christmas (1974) is an nihilist classic of american horror, largely responsible for the structure of subsequent works (especially slasher movies that heavily feature holiday settings or themes). Directed by genre-straddling homerun king Bob Clark (who directed Christmas juggernaut A Christmas Story (1983) and created the teen boner comedy genre with Porky’s (1981)), it’s a sleek, crisp chiller notable not only for its thematic and structural legacy, but for top notch performances from a clutch of young actors (playing even younger characters) who would go on to long careers, including Olivia Hussey (as conflicted but steadfast protagonist Jess), Margot Kidder (as the drunken daughter of a gold-plated whore, Barb), Andrea Martin (as sweet, empathic Phyll), Keir Dullea (as tortured, controlling piano prodigy Peter), and genre stalwart John Saxon (as Bedford’s lone semi-competent law officer Lt. Fuller). Let’s sneak up into the attic and unwrap this present!

Overview: Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas gets right to the point, opening with a quietly pretty nighttime shot of the festively-decorated Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house. Glimpsed through the windows are the Phi Kappa girls having a quiet christmas party, before the last of them leave for winter break. But the audience quickly realizes that this isn’t the neutral view of an impassive camera, it’s a POV shot from a mysterious intruder as he scopes out the house for an undetected route inside. It’s tragic how quickly he manages to accomplish that goal, climbing up a sturdy trellis into cluttered attic. He is the only character who will enter the attic and survive for the movie’s runtime.

Downstairs, the girls are broken out of their mildly drunken holiday debauchery by an obscene phone call from a foul-mouthed entity the girls are familiar enough with to have named “the Moaner.”

An Aside: Back in the 1970’s a telephone was a far different and worse animal than it is in millenium 3. Not only was it huge and attached to the wall, not only did it ring with a painful, jarring alarm (like the house was burning down), but it kept ringing until the caller gave up or it was answered. It was awful. Not only that, you had no way of knowing who was calling, so “crank callers” could get away with harassing people pretty much indefinitely, kinda like Twitter eggs, now, only you couldn’t log off of your phone.

Anyway, the girls gather around to rubberneck at the call, listening with ghost-white faces as the caller rattles off a litany of non-consensual perversions. Resident Phi Kappa tough girl Barb takes the phone to give the caller some city-girl push-back, breaking “the Moaner” out of his rambling, shrieking reverie long enough to placidly state “I’m going to kill you.” It is not a hollow threat.

Barb says the perv call is “Not Bad.”

Shy Clare rebukes Barb for provoking the caller, leading to a snippy exchange before Clare goes upstairs to pack for her father’s arrival the next day. The girls call an end to the festivities, sending the various boyfriends home, including Clare’s square-jawed hockey-playing boyfriend Chris (played by the hunky Art Hindle), Phyll’s Gene Shalit-looking boyfriend (played, not by Gene Shalit, but by an actor named Michael Rapport). Jess’s Boyfriend, the high-strung pianist Peter, didn’t attend the party because he’s obsessively rehearsing for a very important semester-ending recital at the conservatory. During a tense, brittle phone call, Jess ominously tells Peter that she needs to talk to him.

[Jenn’s commentary on the Gene Shalit-lookin’ dude:]

Upstairs, Clare gets her belongings together for a trip home she will never make. Hearing a noise from her closet (and perhaps thinking the house mother’s cat Claude is peeing on her clothes), Clare investigates while a goggle-eyed plush creature from her bed silently implores her to flee.

Always pay attention to your plush creatures.

The intruder quickly smothers Clare in a dry-cleaning bag, then carries her corpse into the attic, sitting it in a rocking chair. She will remain there for the entirety of the film’s running time, undiscovered. Much of the violence in Black Christmas is handled in a shocking, abrupt fashion; almost bloodlessly. The fallout from the violence, conversely, lingers endlessly, weighing down the protagonists with the audience’s unfair awareness of the futility of their actions.

Pictured: narrative inertia in action

The next day, Clare’s stodgy father Mr. Harrison arrives to pick up his no-show daughter. Making his way to the sorority house, he grills the Phi Kappa’s (secret alcoholic) house mother Ms. Mac about both his daughter’s whereabouts as well as the prurient, debauched surroundings he finds in the sorority house (Ms. Mac attempting to cover a dorm poster’s mild nudity is one of the film’s few successful comedic beats). Ms. Mac is no help, quietly bemoaning how little she can control the Phi Kappa’s supposedly boundless libidos, and implying to Mr. Harrison that she’s probably shacked up with her boyfriend.

Mrs. Mac’s level of concern

Unaware of Clare’s disappearance, Jess meets Peter at the Conservatory, where she reveals that she is pregnant. Peter manages to simulate elation at this news, until Jess reveals that she intends to have an abortion, a decision which Peter is reflexively averse to. Peter tries to shove a wedge into Jess’ final decision, but she’s adamant that she doesn’t want to have a baby with Peter or anyone else. Peter simmers with anger, lividly telling Jess that the discussion isn’t over.

An Aside: It’s worth noting that the landmark Roe v. Wade case was decided by the United States Supreme Court almost two full years before this film ostensibly takes place (December 1974). However, Black Christmas is a Canadian production, shot in Canada, with many Canadian actors, and takes place in that weird nether-zone of Canamericada that so many Canuckspoitation films take place in. In Canada, Abortion Law was still quite in flux in 1973, not illegal (since 1969), but not wholly legal, requiring a 3-person tribunal of doctors to sign off on whether an abortion was medically necessary for the mother’s (nebulously-defined) “health.” So, while Peter is clearly high-strung and manipulative, it’s ambiguous how sinister Peter is, here, whether he could be suggesting some kind of legal action or something more nefarious.

The meek Mr. Harrison’s search for his daughter continues, aided by Barb and Phyll, who report her disappearance to a police officer who is both dismissive and inept. With Sgt. Nash again suggesting that Clare is probably just with her boyfriend, it’s up to a (now up to speed) Jess to run down that lead, letting an oblivious Chris know that Clare never met her father, nobody’s seen her, and the police are reluctant to investigate. A furious Chris gathers up his brawny young white man anger and accompanies Jess to the police station, where, faced with someone whose opinions matter, the police finally agree to look into Clare’s disappearance, confessing that a teenage girl has also disappeared within the past 24 hours.

An Aside: Recruiting Chris to Clare’s cause being the only way for the concerned sorority sisters to gain traction on finding their friend is kind of a microcosm for how women’s concerns are addressed in the film. Jess, Barb, and Phyll aren’t slight, “distressed damsel” characters, they have solid characterizations and seeming agency, but the universe they inhabit (also known as 1970’s North America) is just completely unconcerned with what anything ‘girls’ have to say.  

Jenn: God, agree so much. I thought they were really strong, smart, well-wrought characters, and that they were kind of not taking shit from anyone, and yet they still needed men to “handle” things for them because patriarchy. It was infuriating to watch!

Look, are you sure your lady period isn’t making you think you had a friend named Clare?

At a horribly uncomfortable dinner, a drunken, porno magazine-skimming Barb lashes out at her friends and Mr. Harrison, feeling that they believe her argument with Clare to be somehow the reason for her disappearance. They put her to bed to sleep it off before joining a search party to comb the local park for signs of Clare and the missing teen. Elsewhere, Peter, having muffed his recital, angrily smashes his piano with a mic stand.

The dissonant sounds of piano-smashing echo on the soundtrack in later scenes, a nice bit of sound design.

While the girls help scour the park (where the murdered remains of the missing girl are discovered, to Mr. Harrison’s intensifying despair), Ms. Mac packs her bags for her departure, becoming distracted from meeting her waiting cab by sounds from Claude, who has been trapped in the attic by the intruder since he first murdered Clare. Finally tracking the source of the Claude’s meowing, Ms. Mac pokes her head into the attic, discovering Clare’s body. She is immediately killed by the intruder, impaled through the jaw by a cargo hook (Which I assume the killer used to get Clare’s body into the attic in the first place). The cab driver knocks on the door in frustration, then leaves. Shortly thereafter, the dispirited Jess returns home (she’s late for a meeting with Peter), to be immediately met with another call from “the Moaner,” who introduces himself as “Billy.” He rambles semi-coherently about someone named “Agnes,” and seems to speak in different voices (one of them high and feminine) as if channeling different personalities. He also blurts out that he “Got” Ms. Mac, which Jess barely seems to register.

[Mrs. Mac’s demise:]

An Aside: “Billy’s” calls are simultaneously a cliche and an innovation, here. While the urban legends about murderous crank callers stretch back at least until the 50’s, the fact that “Billy’s” motivations can only be devised from the few lucid moments in his shrieking, gasping phone calls is something of a wonder. The audience knows that “Billy” addresses Jess as “Agnes” and hints at some kind of bad event that occured between them, possibly involving a baby. And that is all we get, as the audience. That is it. There is a tendency to over-explain in genre films, especially horror (as I understand it, the 2006 remake of “Black Christmas” eschewed all attempts at subtlety and evoking a mood, in favor of an overwritten incest abuse backstory for “Billy;” removing any ambiguity, not only about his motivation, but as to who the killer might be), but this film does not suffer from that, the glimpses we get into “Billy’s”  psyche are enough. Enough to raise goose bumps, enough to conjecture about the events he obliquely references, enough to scare an audience.

Jess, shaken by “Billy’s” call, immediately calls the police to see what can be done about the continuing phone harassment, but is interrupted by Peter, who comes down the stairs behind her, scaring her. Peter, having choked in his recital (for which he passive-aggressively blames Jess) has come to a snap decision. He wants to leave the conservatory (he’s tired of living with 8 other guys, he suggests, lamely) and marry Jess, so they can raise “their” baby. Jess is not here to be emotionally played, though, and points out that not only did he have dreams (that he seems to be willing to abandon), but so does she, and she isn’t willing to abandon them to marry him. She shuts down his repeated attempts to pressure her out of the abortion, Peter accuses her of callously deciding to kill their baby “like she was having a wart removed.”  Peter leaves, threatening that she will be “sorry” about her decision.

As Peter is stomping out the door, Lt. Fuller (John Saxon, hairline already escaping) arrives with lineman Graham (character actor Leslie Carlson, who plays a critical role in an upcoming LSJTD) to put a tap on the Phi Kappa’s phone line. Accompanying them is Phyll, who went (with Mr. Harrison and Chris) to the police to suggest the young girl’s murder, the obscene phone calls, and Clare’s disappearance are all connected, a theory which Lt. Fuller is fully invested in. The phone tapped, Graham tells Jess to keep the caller on the line so the call can be traced, and he and Lt. Fuller leave, stationing a prowl car outside to keep the house under surveillance. Also stationed outside is Peter, who hides behind a tree and watches Fuller and Graham depart. WAT YOU DOIN PETER

Inside, Jess and Phyll are left to wait for another call from “Billy.” Phyll is exhausted and distraught, convinced that Clare is dead. In addition, she’s got a cold, with the medication she’s been taking “knocking her out.” She goes up to bed, leaving Jess alone to watch the phone. Afterwards, the intruder climbs down from the attic and sneaks into Barb’s room. Barb, still sleeping off her drunkenness, wakes up having an asthma attack, alerting Jess, who comes upstairs to check on her. Convinced that the man she saw in her room was a nightmare, Barb goes back to sleep, while Jess goes downstairs to greet carolers who have arrived at the house. As the children carolers briefly cheer Jess, the intruder returns to Barb’s room, spying a glass unicorn on a shelf with an oversized, needle-sharp horn. He uses it to stab the sleeping Barb to death, with the Christmas carols drowning out her screams.

Billy

One of the caroler’s adult handlers rushes the children away ( just now having heard of the young girl murdered nearby), and Jess gets another phone call, which Lt. Fuller listens in on. This time, Billy ends his rantings with “…JUST LIKE HAVING A WART REMOVED!” which Jess is rightfully shocked by, letting out an “Oh my god!” Receiving a follow up call from Lt. Fuller, Jess declines to express her new suspicion that the call was made by Peter. Having failed to trace the call, Lt. Fuller tells Jess that they’ll get him next time, before dealing with an unrelated crisis at the police station.

Jess confesses her suspicions to Phyll (who is having trouble sleeping with all the noise in the house), who reassures her that Peter “isn’t that sick.” Another call for Jess comes in, this one from a crying, overwrought Peter (his ears were burning), who again pleads with her to not abort their baby. Jess (as stalwart as ever) non-committedly tells him that they can work things out, and not to be so upset. She also tries to get him to say where he is (and fails). He hangs up before the call can be traced. BUT NOW The upshot of Peter’s call is that Jess has to explain the context of Peter and her conversation to Lt. Fuller (a mortifying prospect). Fuller, to his credit,  is only interested in how possible it is that Peter is involved in the various crimes in and around the Phi Kappa house. As she and Lt. Fuller put their heads together trying to break down when the various obscene calls were made, Jess is gladdened to remember that Peter was in the house when one of the calls came, taking his presence as a sign that “he couldn’t have made the calls,” a faulty conclusion as we will find out.

An Aside: One of the ways this film excels is in establishing certain facts early on that no one in the film are privy to, then allowing the characters to come to perfectly reasonable and logical conclusions based on the faulty, incomplete information they’ve been given. Rather than having characters making bad decisions because they’re simply stupid, we can see quite clearly how one missing piece of information skews everyone’s ability to make good decisions. Like other films we’ve examined in LSJTD, Black Christmas has a feeling of inevitability to it, not because the decisions the protagonists make don’t matter, but because they’re making decisions based on faulty premises, which leads to increased audience empathy: instead of going “Dammit, why are those idiots doing that?” this setup gives an audience the insight to say “Dammit, if only they knew what we know.

Jess and Phyll are alarmed to spot two men creeping around their ground floor windows, but the men turn out to be part of the earlier community search party, now patrolling the area looking for suspicious characters. After the men remind them to secure their doors and windows, Jess and Phyll set about doing so, at which point Phyll goes into Barb’s room, discovering the intruder who promptly shuts her inside. We do not see how Phyll is killed.

Another call.

Billy again speaks in a high, womanlike voice, seemingly reenacting an event from his past, referring to himself in the third person, and repeatedly asking “WHERE IS THE BABY?” This time, Graham successfully traces the calls,…TO THE PHI KAPPA HOUSE ITSELF OH MY GOOOOOOD MS. MAC HAD HER OWN SECOND LIIIIIIIINE!

[Wherein Jenn thinks the mystery is solved:]

Lt. Fuller tries to contact the patrolman outside the Phi Kap house, but he’s been killed, his throat slashed while  seated in his patrol car. Lt. Fuller is thus forced to rely on his idiot subordinate Sgt. Nash to contact Jess and get her out of the house while he rushes to the scene. Nash tries his damndest, telling Jess to not ask any questions, but simply put the phone down and walk out the front door, but Jess is too loyal to her friends Barb and Phyll to leave without them, even after Nash yells that the caller is INSIDE THE HOUSE WITH HER.

When neither Phyll nor Barb respond to her plaintive calls, Jess arms herself with a fireplace poker and intrepidly goes upstairs to check on them.

Prying open the door to Barb’s room, Jess finds both their bodies. As she stares in disbelief, she hears a voice coming from behind the door…

Slamming the door into the intruder, Jess flees to the front door, but is unable to get it unlocked before Billy reaches her, nearly snaring her by her hair. Escaping to the basement, Jess secures the door against Billy, who briefly attempts to break it down before seemingly abandoning pursuit. Hiding in the basement, Jess clutches her poker and watches as a figure prowls the basement windows, attempting to peer inside. Rubbing a clear spot in the frost-covered window, the figure reveals himself to be…Peter.

An Aside: It is important to note that neither the audience nor Jess has gotten a clear look at “Billy’s” face. While it seems unlikely that Peter could be responsible for events inside and outside the Phi Kappa house, nothing in the film explicitly precludes the possibility. This is a quandary for Jess! Not too many horror films maintain this level of ambiguity into the third act.

AM I HERE TO HEELLLP?

Peter breaks the basement window, climbing down, calling for Jess. Spotting her, he asks why she’s hiding in the basement, and that he thought she had already left. Despite Jess’s obvious reluctance to respond to him, Peter continues to approach her, as the police race across the lawn, breaking down the door, and deploying into the various rooms in the Phi Kappa house. Racing to the basement, Lt. Fuller finds Jess, collapsed against the wall, under Peter’s lifeless body. Jess has beaten him to death with the poker. Seeing her “rescuers,” she passes out. WELL THAT’S OVER THANK SANTA.

Soon, the house is abuzz with activity. Jess (sedated, and still unconscious) has been put in bed (the attending physician says she’s unlikely to wake up until the next day) while the bodies of Phyll, Barb, and Peter have been removed from the house. Reporters, police and assorted public servants bustle about, discussing which next-of-kin needs to be contacted, where bodies need to be taken for autopsies, and so forth. The inexplicably present Mr. Harrison passes out, and Chris helps carry him to an ambulance. With the crime scene investigators due shortly, everyone soon clears the building, with a single officer guarding the front door.

Jess is left alone, in bed, helpless. The camera lingers on her before slowly panning away, to the reverberating echoes of Peter smashing his piano. The camera gazes into Barb’s room, at the pools of blood left on her mattress; into Clare’s room, with the nondescript wide-eyed plush creature still staring; to the attic ladder, which creaks with unseen footsteps as the camera rises into the attic, where Ms. Mac and Clare remain undiscovered. A familiar voice:

It’s me…Billy.

As the camera pulls out from the attic window, the phone begins to ring.

AUTOPSY

RINNG RINNG, Jenn, RINNG RINNG scary movie opinion-having is on the line, and RINNG RINNG it’s time to pick up! I love how quickly Black Christmas gets its narrative feet underneath it, with the killer POV shot essentially opening the film, and Clare’s murder happening in the first ten minutes. Now, I’ve never seen the 2006 remake, but you accidentally watched the first ten minutes of that before starting the correct film. I’m curious, you seemed to have a pretty negative opinion of the remake even after that short exposure. Comparing the first ten minutes of Black Christmas (1974) to Black Christmas (2006), what would you say the general attributes are of each?

1974 and 2006 both have a murder very close to the beginning; I don’t remember names from 2006 but probably it’s “Clare” or her equivalent. Everyone in the 2006 remake is a bitch, seemingly, I didn’t like a single character. They’re all like predictable mean girl caricatures. Also the 2006 remake flashes back and forth from the sorority house to an insane asylum where they setup that someone named William something or other is there in solitary confinement because he MURDERED HIS ENTIRE FAMILY ON CHRISTMAS. It’s really pretty bad especially in comparison to the original. I like when things are less explained, at least in this kind of story, because it makes it more scary. It seems like the remake was trying hard from the start to completely explain everything. Also, he killed a guard at the asylum with a candy cane so. That’s ridiculous and ridiculously CHRISTMAS-Y.

1974 seems much more thoughtfully developed while 2006 just seems to be a slasher that wants to show us hot girls dressed skimpily and getting killed.

I love the cast of Black Christmas, especially the three primary Phi Kappa girls, who each get a sizable chunk of characterization. It’s a definite step up from many horror films (compare how little we knew about the similarly small cast of characters in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, earlier this year). But I found that Jess, our “Final Girl,” was somewhat cold, compared to the hot & messy antics of Barb or the gentle human concern of Phyll. Obviously, Jess has a lot on her mind, but (much like George C. Scott in The Changeling, which we also watched earlier this year) I feel like Jess might be a bit too stoic for a movie like this. I enjoy her unflappability when dealing with the manipulative Peter, but I feel like her reactions to Billy’s recurring torments (and the trauma of her friend’s sudden disappearance) were  muted, as if Jess had a heavy Valium habit. Any thoughts?

I don’t know, I feel like maybe Jess is just someone who is calm in emergencies. She certainly freaked out at the end, yes? Maybe I am biased as I find that I usually am someone who can remain calm when there is a crisis even though I might freak out later. It did sort of seem like she always had something else on her mind. I was actually a little disturbed by her bizarre accent? I mean, was she British? Was she attempted some other kind of accent? Was she weirdly dropping her Rs? That was a little strange.

Here’s an example of Jess’s weird accent:

Yeah, Jess’ actress Olivia Hussey is British. She was also legit young, as opposed to Margot Kidder (Barb) and Keir Dullea (Peter) who were both a solid 15 years older than she was. Margot Kidder said she was kind of a sweet flake on set, and was trying to get Paul McCartney to fall in love with her psychically. Fair enough, since her psychic had told her that she would be in a Canadian Movie that would make a lot of money, leading Olivia to take a role in Black Christmas.

Black Christmas has (fairly?) been described as a “feminist” horror film. While I’m not sure how true that is, I do appreciate the inversion of typical percentages, regarding the general competence of the female characters (who are mostly on the ball) versus the male characters (who are super not). This was pretty rare in 1974, but have things changed that much since?

Not most of the time? I mean I’d have to really think about it. There are certainly movies where women are on the ball and men are a mess but I’m not sure how many of them are horror. I mean in Hereditary we had Annie leading the entire film as the main protagonist and in many ways she did have her shit together, she wasn’t a damsel in distress waiting for a man to rescue her, but of course the end of the movie was her sawing off her own head so… that didn’t really work out. In Possession we have Anna, who is trapped in a lot of ways by her role in society as a woman, but also completely rejecting almost everything about that role in order to… satisfy a sexy squid devil monster?

I mean when I was in college my favorite movies were about groups of women who basically rolled their eyes at mens’ collective incompetence in one way or another. If you’d like to get a good idea of Jenn in her formative years check out Boys on the Side, Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias, and A League of Their Own. You’re welcome.

Among the nigh-useless men in the film, cops get the majority of the shame heaped upon them. Not only do they have to be bullied by a goalie into doing their job, not only are they effortlessly pranked by a hungover (seventh year) Senior, but they fail at every juncture where a life could be saved by their actions, right up until the final seconds of the film. Is the failure of anyone in authority to think to search the fucking attic a narrative failure, or is it an acceptable level of disinterest from small-town cops?

Hmmmmm. I don’t know, it seems like a pretty giant fail. Don’t all cops, even small town ones, know to check ALL of a house? I mean I wouldn’t expect them to crawl under a house in a crawl space maybe but the attic is sizeable and standing room height. It seems ridiculous they wouldn’t look there especially when Clare is still missing! (And Mrs. Mac but they don’t know that because the setup is that she left for the holidays.)

Obscene phone callers. The police asking permission to tap your phone. Tracing a phone call requiring several minutes of running through a massive interlock farm. Many narrative elements that drive the plot of “Black Christmas” are obsolete. Does a time capsule film like this suffer from being no longer technologically relevant? Are we trying to sell buggywhips to Tesla owners, here? Is technology’s steady advance ruining the ability of genre writers to construct compelling scenarios?

I do at times find myself annoyed in various movies that people aren’t using technology that they should have available to them, but that means I think something set in the past (whether it’s an older movie or a current release specifically set at an earlier time) is actually more fun to watch. These people don’t have *69 on their home phone, caller ID on a cell phone or any other better way to trace what’s going on. They don’t have a Ring camera watching their front door or attic. Jess can’t secretly turn on Google maps tracking on Peter’s phone. There are so many ways people could have be caught with modern tech that didn’t exist then. I think it makes the movie better.

By the way – an aside; when I was in college at Smith, we had the “whispering woman” prank caller.

See, I’d love to see a horror movie where a protagonist like Jess secretly turns on Google tracking on her sinister boyfriend’s phone. Sounds like a plot point writers could take advantage of.

Obviously, I love the vagueness surrounding Billy and what is going on in his head. The general indecipherability of his rambling calls combined with the fact that he is not caught means that the audience knows no more about Billy at the end of the film than we did at the beginning. Is this unsatisfying?

A little bit? I was initially angry that we didn’t really know what happened, but in a way isn’t that often good? While there have been many movies where I felt unsatisfied by the ending at first, I also often think after I have a little time that maybe it’s better that way. It leaves more to your imagination and that often makes it scarier or more interesting.

From what I understand, the remake exhaustingly, tediously explained everything about Billy and Agnes and their background and motivations and it has 15% on rotten tomatoes (compared to the original’s 71%).

Yeah, I mean even in the small portion that I watched it was already over-explained and it wasn’t any good.

Black Christmas does something I love, in shorter-form fiction where personality traits and narrative functionality are split up, almost mechanically, to give something important to each character. Barb is a belligerent instigator, Phyll is a quiet peacemaker, Jess is self-assured and intrepid. (Compare these archetypes to Bones/Spock/Kirk, from Star Trek, for example) What I like even more is that the antagonist in Black Christmas is similarly split up, between “The Intruder” that quietly invades the Phi Kappa house to kill, “Billy” whose perverse calls open up questions and confusion about the narrative, and Peter, who has explicit motivation to lash out at the girls, and demonstrates identifiable violent tendencies. It isn’t clear until the third act which of these traits match up with whom! How do you feel about the cast and how character traits inform the way they move the plot?

It’s funny because I almost wasn’t sure at first if the calls WERE the intruder, because it didn’t initially make sense. I thought maybe it was just, you know, another creepy thing that was happening to set the tone and spook everyone. Especially because the first call came almost immediately after we saw the guy climb into the attic. I think it’s a good tactic to keep everyone off-balance. Let’s review when I thought Peter was definitely the killer:

There’s almost no blood in this film. I love a gory, bloody movie, even if those moments of gore are few and far between (like in something like Hereditary), but I’m not bothered by the lack of explicit violence in Black Christmas. Does the film’s momentum suffer from a lack of showy kills and bloody spectacle? Would it be more cathartic with a couple spurty throat scenes?

No, I hate gratuitous slashing and gore in movies. It’s actually why I was unwilling to watch any horror for so long. I don’t need to see the sinews snapping to understand what’s going on. Stop showing it to me. I don’t think a lack of gore hurts the movie at all.

When director Bob Clark was shopping Black Christmas for distribution in the US, through Warner Bros., he had to deal with studio interference, such as having the title changed to “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” because studio execs were afraid audiences would otherwise think it was a blaxploitation film. One change that Clark managed to keep from making was the suggestion that Chris (Clare’s boyfriend and only competent male character) appear at Jess’ bedside at the end of the film, say “Don’t tell them what we did, Agnes” and kill her. How would this studio mandated ending have changed your appreciation for the film?

Ugh I would have hated it! That’s a terrible ending! It would just feel like everything was misdirection, it seems cheap. Oh, you thought he was a good guy? Just kidding!

Even without “Billy” turning out to be Chris, the ending is pretty bleak. Do you think Jess lives?

Good question. I didn’t think about it too much but it seems unlikely. I mean, the guy isn’t gonna just sit in the attic with dead Clare and Mrs. Mac forever, is he? Also WHAT ABOUT THE CAT? 

CAUSE OF DEATH

Okay, Jenn, now that you have unwrapped a COFFIN for Christmas, before climbing in (because you are certainly dead by now), could you rate this film according to how much Dread, Shock, and Horror you found under the tree, using our traditional scale of 1-5 plastic wrapped Acadia faces?

Dread:

I think for dread it was pretty effective. It starts immediately and you spend the whole movie really not knowing what’s going on or when the killer will next strike. I give it 4 out of 5 Acadia heads.

Shock:

I guess by our official criteria I’d say it’s about a 3 out of 5 on the shock scale. There were some jarring moments but I didn’t really ever get the kind of incredible shocks I did in Hereditary, for example.

Horror:

Hmmm. I would also probably give this about a 3 out of 5 for horror I think. Mrs. Mac’s demise and seeing dead suffocated Clare rocking in that chair were pretty disturbing. I feel like again Hereditary maybe set a standard that I’m not sure how anything can top. 

 

EPITAPH

Finally, when you think about the most nuanced film ever made with the premise of “sorority girls stalked by a crazed killer during a holiday break,” what do you think you’ll remember most?

Honestly? Maybe Barb! I kind of loved her from the start. She was pretty much my hero. She had zero f***s to give the entire movie. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out so well for her, but she pretty much said and did what she wanted the whole time, and seemed very unflappable.

POST MORTEM

There’s really only one film I could mention in this post mortem, 1981’s My Bloody Valentine. Much like Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine has a superficial horror plot (and a holiday theme), but it’s executed with a surprising amount of subtlety.

My Bloody Valentine takes place in a small town that has outlawed Valentine’s Day celebrations for twenty years following a preventable mining disaster caused by Valentine’s day-related negligence (really!). A miner, Harry Warden, became trapped during the accident and only survived by resorting to cannibalism. Harry was committed to an asylum after he developed a murderous rage towards red-wrapped candy, paper hearts, secret admirers, and everything else related to Valentine’s day. Since he’s been in that asylum for twenty years, the local youth (many of whom are trapped in joyless dead-end mining jobs themselves) want to resurrect the Valentine’s day festivities, only to be targeted by a mysterious pickaxe-wielding killer. Has Harry Warden escaped? Or is there someone else with a grudge against the sexiest holiday?

It’s bolt solid, even clever at times (even after studio meddling removed 9 minutes of the goriest footage) and it nails the hopeless blue-collar vibe of a small mining town where escaping death might be easier than escaping poverty. Give it a view, if you care to.

About The Author

Jenn Martinelli

Don't let Acadia tell you he's the boss. I'm the real boss.

1 Comment

  1. Robyn

    I think the phone calls are just about the scariest thing ever. They leave a cold weight in my stomach, and I think are a clue into the underlying mystery of Black Christmas: the why of it. Why does Billy do what he does?

    Is his trigger something to do with the college? The sorority? One of the girls in specific? Did Billy kill that other young girl?

    I desperately want to get my hands on a legit production script of the flick (found a couple of what looks like transcribed best guesses on the internets) or for somebody to listen to the calls and see what they can pick out. But it won’t be me; them shits are scary, and I like to sleep sometimes.

    Reply

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