25 Days of Christmas: ‘Black Christmas’ earns its spot as the granddaddy of slashers

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Throughout the month of December, TV Editor Kate Kulzick and Film Editor Ricky D will review classic Christmas adaptions, posting a total of 13 each, one a day, until the 25th of December.

The catch: They will swap roles as Rick takes on reviews of television Christmas specials and Kate takes on Christmas movies. Today is day 22.

Black Christmas (1974)

Written by A. Roy Moore
Directed by Bob Clark

What’s it about?

In one of the original slasher films, the residents of a sorority house are attacked and killed off, one by one, over the holiday break.

How is it?

Reviewer’s note- I don’t watch horror films, in general. I don’t enjoy being scared and I don’t like having disturbing images and ideas stored in my memory. Due to this, my reactions to the film may differ drastically from one more familiar with the genre. (i.e., I’m a scaredy cat and YMMV.)

It’s difficult to imagine this film as it was originally seen, without the context provided by the films it would later inspire. At this point, most audience members know how these things work- seeing a movie created before that general cultural awareness is interesting. Described by many as the original slasher film, Black Christmas offers little insight into many of its characters, particularly the killer, and is perhaps best described as a slice of life film, if one took that slice from a particularly violent and painful part of a very unlucky person’s life.

Some overlooked-as-holiday-films are Christmas movies that happen to be of a thematically surprising genre (Die Hard comes to mind). Black Christmas is a horror movie that happens to be set at Christmas. From the first post-credits frame, we’re in a slasher. Clark very effectively puts us on edge far before the characters have any inkling something’s wrong, using first person POV, hand-held camera work, and sound design to build the tension. He puts the viewer in the shoes of the killer before taking that perspective away and putting us smack dab among the girls, clueless as to what’s to come. Switching back and forth between these two styles allows him to have his cake and eat it- we know just enough to make the not knowing incredibly stressful.

Most of the scares in this film come from that tension. There are a few gruesome images, but for the most part, it’s the not knowing that is unsettling. By the end of the film, astute viewers can piece together some bit of the psychology of the killer, but for the most part he remains unknowable. The most we see of him are a few glimpses of his hands, his shadow, and a memorable Act Three shot of one his eyes. He is clearly confused and disturbed, but he’s also patient, watching the girls calmly until he snaps, unprovoked. Clark doesn’t revel in the murders themselves, cutting away from most of them almost immediately, relying instead on the suspense and later reveals of the bodies to ratchet up the scares. The most iconic image from the film is of the first victim, Clare, her face wrapped in the plastic she was suffocated with, propped up in a rocking chair with a doll placed almost lovingly in her arms. It’s a strong image, repeated several times in the film, and one of Clark’s several nods to Psycho.

Though it’s an effective thriller, Black Christmas has some distinct flaws, particularly in its denouement. What has been a fairly intelligent film falls apart in the final minutes. One gets the sense Moore and Clark knew how they wanted the film to end, but didn’t have a logical way to get there, resorting to a frustrating reliance upon character stupidity and then audience stupidity, asking the viewers to not think even remotely about a ridiculous out-of-protocol decision by the police. The sour taste left by this final moment nearly ruins the film, but on the whole, Black Christmas is a scary, suspenseful ride- it’s easy to see how it sparked an entire subgenre.

How Christmassy is it?

It’s set at Christmas and this is felt throughout the film, from several story points to the decorations and set dressing to the music, particularly the Christmas carolers whose singing drowns out the sound of one of the murders. Granted, this setting acts as a stark contrast to the content of the film, but on the Christmas movie scale (1=Brazil, 5=A Christmas Story), this is a solid 3.

You May Like It If…

You like horror or slasher movies, are interested in the history of the genre, or are looking for a scary break from the standard seasonal fare.

Other Observations

It was fun to discover this film as the originator of the, “The call is coming from inside the house” horror cliché.

Speaking of, the calls are mega-creepy, both in content and delivery.

Final Thoughts

While it’s not perfect, and certainly not for everyone, Black Christmas is an effective and suspenseful horror flick and those who seek it out will probably enjoy it.

Kate Kulzick

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