Black Christmas

all is calm, all is dead

Black Christmas
aka Silent Night, Evil Night
aka Stranger in the House
aka Noël tragique
aka Un Natale rosso sangue
Director: Bob Clark
Released: 1974
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, John Saxon
Running time: 98 minutes
Genre: horror, slasher

Co-eds dying near an open fire: It’s time for Christmas break, and none too soon. The sisters of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority are celebrating with a post-finals and pre-break party, all unawares of the mumbling creep climbing a trellis into their attic. While they cozily guzzle cocktails and discuss plans for a Christmas charity event the next day, the mysterious stranger stumbles through an attic filled with childhood debris and makes his way into the house proper.

Downstairs, Jess answers a prank call from The Moaner and calls most of the ladies over to listen.  The caller says a lot of filthy things and, after some verbal pwnage from Barb, ends his call with a dead serious, “I’m going to kill you.”  Professional virgin Clare, upset by Barb’s constant razzing and cavalier attitude toward the rape of a local girl, and provocation of the nasty caller (and unaware of the nutter hiding upstairs,) breaks off from the rest of the girls and heads to her room to finish packing.  The rest of the sorority, making merry and bestowing gifts on the housemother, Mrs MacHenry, don’t hear a thing as the attic mumbler Laura Palmer-izes Clare and carries her corpse into the attic.

Clare’s disappearance is discovered the next day when her father looks for her at the sorority house after she fails to show up when he was supposed to meet her.  They head to the police station for help, where Barb mocks a lunkheaded cop with sexual innuendos while some townie woman reports her 13 year-old daughter missing.  Their efforts aren’t taken seriously until the tween’s body is found in a nearby park, and the capable Lieutenant Fuller takes over. With more prank calls coming in, a rape, a missing girl, and one dead body already found, the police connect the dots and tap the sorority house phones. It’s beginning to look a lot like Jess’ intense pianist boyfriend, Peter, might be unhinged and violently upset after she reveals to him that she’s pregnant and wants to get an abortion.  In the midst of all this and unknown to everyone, the murderer is already in the house and he’s going to kill every single one of the Pi Kappa Sigmas.

all bobby wants for christmas is agnes

Extremely influential, with some interesting characters and subplots, loaded with booze and wicked laughs,  a healthy mean streak and enough suspense to make Bumble piss himself, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas holds up well even today and is still a disturbing little package of holiday fear for any of us weirdos from The Island of Misfit Horror Hounds.

Bill: Black Christmas was a landmark in the development of the Slasher subgenre.  Without it, there would be no Halloween, no Friday the 13th or The Burning.  Now, I could explain the why and how of that, and Fisty and I will likely do so in a minute or two, but first, I’d like to talk about dirty words.  Filthy, nasty, deliciously perverted words.

“ho, ho, FUCK”

Sometimes, when I’ve got a few movies lined up that I’ve never seen, I’ll glance at the parental advisory notes on imdb to help me decide what I want to watch.  I’ll compare the amount of nudity, violence, gore, rape, alcohol and drug references and watch whatever has the most (or the most creative,) because I love all that stuff.  I know, however, that no matter how nude the nakedness and how bushy the bush and how bloody the bodies and violent the violence, it won’t be anything that I haven’t seen before in, like, over 9000 other flicks.  However, movies that are willing to go all out with their language are a little more uncommon.  I’m not talking about shit and fuck.  That’s nothing.   No, fuck is boring.  I’m talking about real raunch.  It may be common in certain areas of the internet, among your friends, sometimes (if you’re lucky) in the bedroom (though, even there you occasionally have problems with blushing, downward glances and mumbling,) and on Deadwood, but non-pornographic, cinematic raunch talk is a little more rare.  That’s probably why it still packs a bit of a punch and can be so memorable, maybe even more so now, than it would’ve been, since the P.C. Armies have sterilized the entire country.  Think of Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant demanding, “Show me how you suck a guy’s cock,” or Clarice explaining to Dr. Lector that Miggs said, “I can smell your cunt,” in Silence of the Lambs, or little possessed Regan in The Exorcist saying, “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Karras.”  It can be jarring for the audience as well as the characters in a movie.  It even works in comedies, like Clerks, with Randall’s video ordering scene.  So it’s great when The Moaner busts out a few phrases that even make the girls in the ribald Pi Kappa Sigma house think he’s a creep.  This guy isn’t just breathing heavy or asking if they have Prince Albert in a can, he’s saying things like, “I’ll stick my tongue up your pretty pussy!”  Fuck yeah!  Even if Black Christmas weren’t the suspenseful, influential shocker that it is, I’d still have to give thanks to Bob Clark for giving us a horror movie that uses the line, “Let me lick your pretty piggy cunt!”  That’s good stuff.

“you fucking CREEP!”

Fisty: Speaking of cunts, lets talk characters. Barb is going to get a lot of attention for being a Grade A cunt at least for the line, “Darling, you can’t rape a townie,” but she’s really not that bad. Sure, she’s outrageous, but thanks to her convo with her skank mother, we know she’s just acting out because she feels unloved and alone, hence her forlorn bid for company in inviting her sorority sisters to go skiing with her. Though she seems to be alienating First Girl Clare with her vulgarity, Barb also invites her along skiing because she’s desperate for affection; she’s a classic Poor Little Rich Girl. Notice the dichotomy between Barb’s room and Clare’s: Barb’s is almost a little girl’s room, abundant in flounces, purple, and crystal animals, while Clare’s features rock posters, alcohol, and sexual permissiveness–all the things her daddy dreads about college and growing up. Who is really the professional virgin here? Despite Clare’s shyness about some things, Barb appears emotionally stunted in contrast, a bratty little girl drunkenly spewing profanity at the dinner table, but a sad and pathetic one, too.

twelve ladies of pi sigma kappa

Bill: I liked Barb quite a bit.  She’s probably the deepest character in the movie and Kidder absolutely gives the best performance.  She’s a hoot, too.  I’d totally hang out with Barb.  She and Future Barb, aka Mrs. Mac, who is my second favorite alcoholic in the film, both kind of reminded me of Fisty.  Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic, but I was secretly hoping that Mrs. M and Clare’s father would get it on.

Fisty: I am SO flattered.

Notwithstanding Barb’s barbs at Clare (haHA!), something I dig about the Pi Kappa Sigmas is how they really do have a sororal feeling. Too often a slasher set in a sorority house or other all-female environment is an excuse for boobs n’ butts, and a showcase for the worst possible catty female behavior. But Barb’s an equal opportunity needler, digging in on anyone within range, and she does harbor some affection for Claire. All the other sisters still in the house seem to genuinely like one another, and don’t sink into a mire of bitchery when the going gets tough.

Maybe because it’s an ur-slasher, Black Christmas features a pretty wide range of developed characters, 3D all the way (no glasses required). Outside the world of Black Christmas, they could be in other movies, other stories–shit, they could be real. The sole exception to that, though, is our Final Girl, Olivia Hussey’s Jess. Is it Hussey’s odd lock-jawed, Gloria Upson-esque delivery? Or her expressionless face? Is it just that Jess is kind of a bore, other than the abortion subplot? I just don’t know.

“and she STEPPED on the BALL”

Bill: Oh god, The Abortion!  As any American fan of Degrassi knows, Canadians aren’t afraid to address the abortion issue in entertainment the way Americans are.  When it’s mentioned that Debbie is pregnant in Friday the 13th Part 3, rather that explore that and find out more about it, whether she wants the baby or not, flesh out the character, and turn it into the highly dramatic subplot it deserves to be, they instead completely dropped anything else about it from the rest of the movie, because that is way too potentially offensive of a topic to deal with in a movie that is ABOUT BRUTAL SPREE MURDERS!  Ugh.  Thankfully, even though it came six years earlier, Black Christmas doesn’t do the same.

Fisty: No, Clark dives right in, but without sensationalizing it. Let us recall that Roe v. Wade was hardly a year old when Clark started work on Black Christmas, yet he resists the urge to make Jess’ pregnancy a moralizing force in the movie. Her pregnancy has no bearing on whether she lives or dies, and only she and Crazy Peter give a shit about it. It’s refreshing to see abortion not take over the entire film (perhaps Steve Miner was taking notes, Bill?).

i’m crazy sensitive, and i will MAKE you love me

Bill: Nah, he was just pussying out.

Fisty: You’re probably right; I mean, it came up like, zero times after it was mentioned. What the hey?

Now, I debated with myself whether the abortion thing might be some of why I don’t like Jess, and I don’t feel that it is. After all, who am I to judge; I did the same myself at her age. She comes across as cold not because she knows she doesn’t have her shit together enough to bring a baby into the world, or because she dismisses Peter’s frankly hysterical and unbalanced reaction, but because she’s a total snore of a person and Olivia Hussey was replaced by a mannequin for this role.

However, Jess’ plight is actually important to the movie. It’s symbolic of that of all the killer’s victims: They are young women venturing out into the great wide world for the first time, and they have a great deal to overcome. Second-wave feminism and women’s lib had young women not simply translating themselves from their parents’ home to that of their husbands, but making their own ways. Instead of the working on their Mrs, the girls of Pi Kappa Sigma have plans for careers–one of the reasons Jess refuses to give in to Peter’s demands (and my god, it is a relief to not see some “trapping a man with pregnancy” thing come up). But because they’re out in the world, in the public sphere, they are also endangered, and that’s the crux of Black Christmas. It juxtaposes the coziness of a family- and hearth-oriented holiday like Christmas with the cold, unreasoning brutality of the Killer. Notice how in virtually every scene there is a nod to the season: crackling fires, candles, wreaths, snow, twinkling lights and decor. The domestic sphere is where he strikes the Pi Kappa Sigmas, and that is where they’ll die; they aren’t hothouse flowers too delicate to survive  outside, but rather a leggy species that thrives on neglect and withers under too much attention. At Christmastime, when other families cozy up and love one another, the Pi Sigma Kappas die in their home, together.

death by unicorn

Where are the Pis (heh heh) threatened and killed? In their home. What is central to the Christmas holiday? Being home. It’s not because they’re out in the world that these girls die; it’s not that they’re being strong, adventurous, or sexually liberated that kills them. They die because we all can die, anywhere and at any time. That’s just how the world is, my friend.

Bill: The Pis manage to die pretty well.  Plastic bags (with the vacuum-sealed corpse placed by an attic window for creepy effect), metal hooks to the face, crystal unicorn stabbings…  It’s creative stuff.  They tend to stick with the Texas Chainsaw model of onscreen murder, using very little blood and gore (or nudity *pout*), instead letting the twisted nature of the killings creep you out rather than gross you out.  In a lesser movie, this might disappoint me, since I love the red stuff, but BC is a solid flick, suspenseful, and works just the way it is.   I’d have loved to have seen Margot’s tatas though …  Sigh.

I want to talk a bit about the end of the movie, so, for those that haven’t seen it or hate spoilers:

LOOK AWAY NOW!  SPOILERS! SPOILERS FOLLOW HERE!

Bill: They use Peter as the big red herring of the movie, but, in fact, he just ends up another victim.  The identity of the real killer, Billy, if what he says can be believed, is never revealed.  You never see his face.  You never learn his motives or what he’s talking about when he mentions Agnes or what he and Agnes did.    It’s never even clear if the rape of the townie or the murder of the tween in the park are even related to him at all.  Billy, maybe even more so than The Shape from my lord and savior’s Halloween, is the perfect faceless bogeyman.  He’s crazy and he kills and he’s still out there and that is all there is to it, no spoon-fed explanatory (or even worse, justifying) backstory about flesh-eating bacteria on his face or a vulgar stripper mama.  In the real world, crazy doesn’t always have a reason, killing doesn’t always have a purpose and survivors don’t always get closure.  That, to me, is way scarier than an over-explained, cliche revenge motive.

Fisty: When I first saw Black Christmas back in high school, I wasn’t terribly impressed. In fact, I was infuriated and found it aggravating, in large part due to the ending. It seemed totally ridiculous to me that everyone would just wander off and leave Jess like that–and with The Killer still in the house! I must have been mental, though, because as an adult, it makes perfect sense and that ambiguity works for me. It works HARD. After all, Lt Fuller and the rest of The Authorities have every reason to believe there are no further threats; Peter was evidently the killer, and he’s dead. The doctor states that he’ll stay with Jess until her parents arrive (and presumably Chris, too–there always seems to be a little more going on there than is ever stated), but Mr Harrison’s sudden collapse necessitates his being borne away by the doc and Chris for medical attention. As the camera pans out on the now silent and peaceful house–inhabited by only an unconscious Jess and a Killer–we see a lone police officer standing guard on a Christmas light-festooned porch. The Authorities are doing their job, see? That phone ringing? (He must have made a phone call after each murder.) Nothing to worry about … all is calm, all is bright.

away in a sorority house

Watching that final shot now, as the credits start to roll, I get chickenskin every time. Every. Time.

OK, YOU CAN LOOK NOW!  NO MORE SPOILERS!  LOOK NOW!

Bill: Oh, we were supposed to talk about all of that early slasher groundbreaking stuff that everyone else has already said, huh?

Fisty: Pioneering killer POVs, discordant slasher soundtracks, undiscriminating and incomprehensible killers, Black Christmas deserves its reputation as one of the ur-slashers, and makes a delightful seasonal entertainment. It’s smart, cunningly photographed, and genuinely disturbing, and with some of the most iconic images and tropes in American horror, etc etc etc.

Bill: Wow.  You’re good at that.

Fisty: I’m hoping if I get better, I’ll get to bone John Saxon.

sergeant nash, lieutenant fuller, and officer chuckles

Happy Christmas and Merry New Year, everyone!

4 thoughts on “Black Christmas

  1. You really pinned it down, the characters in Black Christmas have a sense of reality to them that a lot of other slashers don’t even try for. It’s one of the rare movies where you feel bad when the “bitch/jerk” character dies, because you see her as a person and not just an archetype.

    • I felt so bad for Barb just now as I was watching it again. She really was a very sad character. I want to give her a hug. Pre-unicorn though, because I don’t want to get all messy.

  2. Wow. What an incredibly thoughtful piece about one of my favorite, way too overlooked, proto-slashers. I watched BC with my sis and her hub—and my 13 year old niece and 10 year old nephew–on Christmas Eve last night-/ and you guys are right–I’ve never seen my Sis and brother-in-law, both flaming liberals and seasoned horror vets–squirm like they did during that first filthy, brutal phone attack.

    BC deserves major points simply because it is so inventive, and nasty, and funny, and it holds up even today. Thanks for the awesome reviews.

    • Thanks for reading. I actually just finished rewatching it right now. Man, that end credits sequence is chilling. It’s way worse than any gotcha, jump scare ending.

      Anyway… glad you enjoyed and merry Christmas! Oh, and I’m curious what your nephew and niece thought about the movie.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s