And so, Christmas has come and gone. But with everyone still celebrating I am going to use this opportunity to review my favorite Christmas film. A film I watch every year and one of my all-time favorites. But this one contains very little holiday cheer. In fact, as the trailer said, after Black Christmas, those traditions will never be the same again. So, while everyone is partying, I will be listening with dread for every creak on the stairs. Today I look at Bob Clarks, festive slasher classic, Black Christmas [Minor Spoilers Ahead].
The ladies of Pi Cappa Sig are getting ready for the Christmas holidays, but someone keeps making prank phone calls to the house, setting the girls on edge. But what they don’t know is that the caller is actually hiding in their attic. When he kills sorority sister Clare, the rest of the ladies try to find her. The police also begin investigating the case due to a link with another missing girl. But with everyone battling their own demons and the killer so close, will the girls escape before it’s too late?
What did I like?
It’s hard to review one of your all-time favorite films. Not only do you have to justify why this movie deserves credit as a favorite, but you also must be professional and not gush just because you personally love the film. I say this to give the following review context and state that I tried my best to not be biased.
The main reason I always return to Black Christmas is for the expert way it builds tension and atmosphere. Jump scares aren’t used every few minutes to keep the audience awake. This is a slow burner that uses the Hitchcockian technique of letting us know more than the characters. We know the killer is in the house long before our leads do, so we are constantly on edge. Hoping the ladies realize before another is killed. But it also never drags. From the beginning we are placed in a paranoid state of excitement as we watch the killer break into the house and skulk around upstairs. And Carl Zittrer’s score, though used sparingly, sends chills down the spine due to the angular and off kilter sounds he uses. Making any scene with the killer near, very uncomfortable. So, we are always nervous about what is coming. Lastly, the film remembers a key ingredient that other horror films forget.
It takes time to develop its characters, so we care about them and don’t want them to die. Unlike many slasher films that would later adapt its techniques, the characters in Black Christmas are not simple archetypes. And have multiple layers to them. Jess (Olivia Hussey) is a great lead because she is driven and flawed but never unlikable. Facing a pregnancy, Jess wants an abortion because she still has things she wants to do with her life. This causes her boyfriend, Peter (Kier Dullea) to become angry. He believes she is being selfish and as the film progresses, he becomes more unstable. Giving him ample motive in the characters eyes to be the killer. But you, slowly realize, all he wants is a family, giving him a reason for his madness.
The supporting characters are also quite nuanced. Barb (Margot Kidder), the groups bitchy alpha is shown to have family troubles that impact her emotionally and even blames herself for Clare’s disappearance. Phil (Andrea Martin), although looking like the stereotypical nerd, is just a regular person who acts as a voice of reason for the other characters and she provides some of the most endearingly personal moments in the film. Other greats include the humorous Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon), Sergeant Nash (Douglas McGrath) and Mrs. Mack (Marian Waldman), the house mother. Each character is humanized, and all the performances feel real. Consequently, it becomes easy to invest in them and harder to watch when the killer begins prowling again.
Another reason this film succeeds as a horror film is how it handles its killer. The killer is very much grounded in reality. But what makes him scary is that nothing about him is explained. We never get a reason for why he chose this sorority to attack. And the only insight we get into him are the insane ramblings that we are privy to while he hides in the attic and what he says over the phone. But even that could be lies to scare the girls or the products of a damaged mind. The fact that nothing about him is certain makes him even more terrifying.
The story also features great use of symbolism. The abortion aspect acts as both a reference to the Roe Vs Wade case and ties into the Christmas theme. The idea of birth and family is at the heart of the Christmas tradition. But this film shows that the traditional family way of life is fading. Many of the girls would rather spend time with each other than their families and the unwillingness to accept this is what drives Peter, and arguably the killer, to the depths of despair. But importantly, without reading into it, the film still works as a well told crime story. The characters act in realistic ways, that never contradict their personalities. And everyone is given motivation for their actions, but never are they obviously spelled out for the audience.
What I do not like?
There are things that many may not like about this film. For example, the story has several large contrivances. These include the fact that the police never check the attic for the missing girl and Barb’s false nightmare scare.
Many may also feel the films comedy does not gel with the rest of the film. Because such serious subject matter is juxtaposed with jokes about mating turtles, some may feel the tone is inconsistent.
Lastly, because of all the films that took inspiration from this movie, the film may lack the bite it had when it was originally released for modern audiences.
But these aspects never detract from the overall experience and in several ways, enrich the experience. The extra comedy makes the characters feel more real. The contrivances are either never big enough to dwell on or draw attention to and enrich other aspects of the story. And although modern audiences may recognize a lot of the film from other places, it is gratifying as a piece of history to see the origins of these clichés and how they are supposed to be used.
Some may find certain aspects of the film dated, contrived or perhaps out of place. But Black Christmas (1974) remains a fine example of how to make an engaging and chilling horror film. Relying on suspense, character, mystery and telling an engaging story rather than viscera, jump scares and shock value. It’s a film that, for me, has aged like a fine wine and every time I revisit it during the holidays I always find something new to appreciate and love about it.
Verdict: (5 / 5)
And so that wraps up my Christmas reviews. I hope you enjoyed them and that you have all had a Merry Christmas. Hopefully, these reviews have given you some new films to add to your Christmas rotation. I will be returning in the new year with more retro reviews, so, for now, I wish you all a Happy New Year.