Black Christmas, to me, is the quintessential holiday horror film. Director Bob Clark really knows how to create the perfect Christmas illusion; his work on both Black Christmas and A Christmas Story are widely renowned, and there’s an obvious love of Christmas at the heart of both films despite very different observations of the yuletide season. With Black Christmas, Clark inspired horror filmmakers everywhere, even if it didn’t seem like it in 1974 when the film was released.
I’ve written extensively about Black Christmas, so I don’t want to clutter up this review with another lengthy write-up of the film; my opinions haven’t changed, and in fact have probably grown stronger since the first time I watched the film. I’ve done a traditional review, Blood and Black Rum Podcast devoted an entire episode to the film, and I’ve written about the film’s glacial pace. In lieu of a traditional review, I’ll pull quotes from those past sources.
The trick to Black Christmas‘ plot is that Bob Clark weaves a lot of drama in with the actual horror of the story. The film is a slow burn, and it takes a little while for the movie to really get to its core point – and sometimes, it never gets there at all. But within the context of the slow-moving film, we get the nuances of the characters that never really comes forth in other slasher films because there’s never enough time allotted to it. There’s Barb’s drinking, which is easy enough to depict without spending time with her; however, Clark hints at her unhappiness, the jealousy that she harbors deep inside her, and even the weaknesses she has before she dies like her asthma. The same is true for Peter, who is actually a rather minor character considering the important role he plays at the end of the film. His lust for his pianist dream is overshadowed by the fact that Jess is pregnant, and it’s that edge between them that makes Peter such a prime suspect.
Since there aren’t too many killings within Black Christmas, it’s important for Clark to focus on something else. The phone calls from Billy are the most suspenseful, because they are disembodied from a suspect – no one knows where they’re coming from, and they’re fairly commonplace because they’ve happened before. There’s also the couple of scenes that take place in the attic; it’s dimly lit, a stark contrast to the colorful Christmas lights in the sorority house.
But Black Christmas‘ masterful focus, and the real reason for the slow pace of the film, is the search for motive where there isn’t one. The characters are actually important in this movie; unlike other slashers, where teens become fodder for a killer with their main role being pretty pieces of flesh, these people are suspects. Clark treats them as any detective might during a murder investigation: with an unwavering, suspicious eye. Every moment counts, because any one of these people might be the murderer.
Black Christmas recognizes that, at its core, the murders of these women have no explicit motive. Obviously hidden deeply is a disturbing theme of incest only hinted at by Billy’s nonsensical gibberish, but for the most part, the film refuses to uncover a motive for the killings. The slow pace, in contrast, is Bob Clark’s way of crafting suspense – the viewer expects to find out the reason for the killings, and when there isn’t one, it’s all the more shocking.
Before the slasher genre became as stale and cookie-cutter as it is today, Black Christmas circumvented the obvious – by slowly pushing the viewer towards multiple suspects, it eludes prediction because this crime cannot be explained, and there is no real motive to make sense of the killings. This warrants the slow pace, and on multiple viewings, it becomes evident that, though there isn’t a multitude of events happening at once, there are small layers building to a climax within every scene. The final reveal might be unsatisfying at first, but it’s grimly realistic, and the slow ringing of the phone at the end of the film freezes the blood; the icy bleakness of Black Christmas never melts.