My first encounter with Black Christmas was under the wrong circumstances. After having gone through a slam-viewing of My Bloody Valentine, Don’t Open Till Christmas, and Happy Birthday to Me, I ventured into Black Christmas expecting more of the same — entertaining murder sequences, silly killer and character motivations, and that late ’70s/’80s sense of fun that seemed to be missing from more modern horror.
That didn’t happen.
As Black Christmas played on, I continued to anticipate schlock to hit the screen, but all this goodkept getting in the way. Instead of exaggerated characters and head-fall-off murders, I kept getting subtle, eerie, and even disturbing scenes, one after the other — and, when mixed together, they were forming something…yeah, good. Great even. I expected coal and instead I got a bonafide present.
From the director of A Christmas Story and Porky’s comes an unlikely and effective horror film made by a director whom one would assume had spent his entire career working in the horror genre. But he was a director who worked in only two genres, horror and comedy, and that makes sense when you realize that the two are more alike than they are different — mostly because they both live and die by their sense of timing.
Black Christmas is more of an Agatha Christie mystery filtered through the sensibilities of a slasher than something more traditional (even though the slasher as a concept was still in its infancy at that time). The murders are there, of course, and they’re certainly grisly, but a lot of emphasis is made on the who of it all. Who is this person who continues to call and sexually harass the girls, saying the most awful things, but while also referring to himself in the third person as Billy? Added to that is an almost supernatural sense to his presence, in that Billy seems to be having entire conversations with more than one person on his end of the phone — so much that they manage to overlap each other Exorcist style.
Above all, Black Christmas is eerie across the board — from the opening titles set to “Silent Night” to the disturbing phone calls to the unsettling murder sequences. A dead girl with a bag tied to her face sitting unseen behind an attic window is still one of the eeriest images ever birthed from the genre, and this in a low budget slasher that recently turned 40 years old.
For years an urban legend about Black Christmas has circulated the net involving its much more famous slasher sister, Halloween. The legend suggests that Bob Clark and John Carpenter knew each other personally, and had even begun collaborating on a possible project together that Carpenter would write and Clark would direct — a Black Christmas sequel, which saw Billy escaping from a mental institution and wreaking havoc in a small suburban town. Allegedly this collaboration fell apart, yada yada yada, and then Carpenter made Halloween. Mind you, this legend wasn’t chatter on IMDB message boards, but was being perpetuated by Clark himself. Carpenter has gone on record for years refuting this story, stating that conversations with Clark in any kind of professional or collaborating manner never happened, even later describing Black Christmas as “how not to make a horror movie.”
While Halloween being Black Christmas 2 is a dubious claim to begin with, especially when you take into consideration that Carpenter was actually provided for the basic story details for Halloween by its eventual producer Irwin Yablans, the similarities between the two films can’t be dismissed. The unseen killer stalking a group of teenagers on a major holiday is enough to get us started, but even the films share a similar opening sequence — from the point of view of the killer, the audience, seeing through his eyes, creeps around a house looking through windows before entering, unseen, to commit a grisly murder. (The optimistic way to come away from all this second-guessing is that we’ve got not just one but two holiday-themed horror classics to enjoy over and over, so let’s maybe move on.)
Black Christmas isn’t obvious programming for the holiday season — not just because young people being picked off one by one seems like an odd choice for celebrating Santa’s coming — but because of the deeply disturbing undertones about the killer’s history which suggests familial physical and possibly sexual abuse, which has left him with a damaged psyche and severe issues with the opposite sex. But, subject matter aside, Black Christmas is a very well made and eerie little horror number with an undeniably wintry aesthetic. (Thanks, Canada!) During the Christmas season, some households put on Clark’s own 24 hours of A Christmas Story or throw in their DVDs of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (or Die Hard!), but for the more…adventurous of us, Black Christmas feels right at home. Take note, however, that along with its jolly-less tone, Black Christmas isn’t a very pretty looking production. Low budget and not particularly colorful, the film is dark and dour, taking place mostly at night in dim interiors. If you're the type to wander around the house depressed on Christmas, like me, Black Christmas will suit your festivities just fine.
Cinephiles and genre buffs who enjoy counter-programming come the holiday probably have a whole list of Christmas-themed horror that gets frequent yearly play. For me, Black Christmas is one that gets a heavy rotation in my house during those yuletide months. (Because yes, in America, Christmas lasts from end of October to mid-January.) And it’s not just because Black Christmas is holiday-themed, but because it’s a tremendous and sometimes overlooked horror classic that never loses its ability to unnerve. How a static shot of a house set to a traditional recording of a choir singing “Silent Night” can be effortlessly eerie is — much like the unseen killer — a complete mystery, but Bob Clark managed to fill Black Christmas with little moments like this, giving it an undeniable ability to set its audience at unease.