It’s hard to separate the aura of Black Christmas from its legacy as a horror movie. Coming before Halloween and Friday the 13th, it’s apparent that the film has had a lot of influence on countless slasher films after it, thanks in part to its lean, uncomplicated approach to a slasher film and the ways it uses camera positioning, suspect clues, and phone calls to encourage a sense of dread and fear in the viewer. And let’s not forget that after Black Christmas, Bob Clark went on to direct one of the most successful Christmas movies of all time (A Christmas Story). The knowledge of the film’s influence is intertwined within Black Christmas, but it must be set aside for an unbiased look how the yuletide terror stands up to the passage of time.
To be honest, Black Christmas is one of my favorite movies, and that’s because of all of the elements in it that make it seem like such a dark Christmastime. Now that’s not exactly what a movie is supposed to capture you with, but I will say that Bob Clark really knows how to set a Christmas scene. And yet everything feels very cold.
The film is set in a sorority house at Christmastime, and the girls are either moving out for the holiday or are getting ready to, when they receive some obscene phone calls from a man with many voices. Eventually, it becomes apparent that the man is more of a threat than his moans and groans from the phone, and the girls call in John Saxon(!!!) as a cop to sort the mess out. Meanwhile, we’ve got a couple of missing girls around town, a rape in the park, and an angry boyfriend who is bound and determined to force Jess (Olivia Hussey) to have her baby rather than abort it.
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.
And as I said before, it’s mostly a simple plot that Clark creates, something that we see over and over again as a pattern for these types of movies. But the creation of such strong character roles allows the viewer to look past the common tropes of horror to see the nuances of the drama within. The killer, Billy, is never explicitly shown, nor does he have an extensive backstory or an expositional break devoted to him. Instead, the story is told by the obscene phone calls, veiled within the killer’s own strange depiction of his past. It’s not a very descriptive version of Billy’s past, and it requires a lot of piecing together from the viewer, but it’s a more rewarding backstory for the audience than simply telling them exactly what’s happening.
It also leaves some work for the viewer, who must put together the thematic qualities of Black Christmas in order to understand motivations. Even then, the idea behind the murders is subject to viewer speculation, meaning that one can watch the movie again and again to find new themes inherent within the script. Some are the same as the current trend in horror movies: police negligence, the dangers of being a woman. But there are also a number of devices Clark uses to show deeper imagery, like his structuring of camera angles and the distance of audience to characters. The colors are cold, even for their seasonal exuberance. And the death scenes are equally as chilling because of their realistic brutality.
Slash to the Point: Despite its slow meanderings through character development, Black Christmas is a seasonal horror favorite; it’s a film that exemplifies how horror can create a realistically frightening experience by capturing true human emotion. It’s also a perfect opposite to the yuletide tradition of Santa – instead of a wanted stranger sliding down the chimney, an unwanted stranger is secretly stowing away inside the attic. It’s certainly not presents that Billy brings in Black Christmas, but it is a treat to watch the whole thing unfold.