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Black Christmas Bob Clark 1974

There's a Stranger in the Manger

I know, it’s downright criminal that I haven’t reviewed Bob Clark’s groundbreaking holiday horror film Black Christmas on this site until now. After all, the film was essentially the springboard for the American slasher cycle (John Carpenter’s Halloween would borrow the holiday setup, the empty house setting, and the faceless killer, not to mention a heapin’ helpin’ of POV shots, spooky phonecalls, and more to kickstart the trend here), not to mention one of the most uncompromising horror films ever made thanks to its wonderfully sustained sense of dread and almost impertinent refusal to reveal anything at all about the killer. Populated by actual actors (imagine that, huh?) and boasting several of the most memorable setpieces ever filmed, this is Grade A horror that goes well with eggnog, a mint julep, or just about anything, any time of year. Talk about a timeless classic. My spoiler-y review below...

Olivia Hussey (still hot from her worldwide success in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet – yes, the one with the hot boy-buns) stars as Jessica Bradford, a rather put-upon sorority sister who is going through a rough patch with her temperamental pianist boyfriend Peter (Kier Dullea, cooled considerably since his star-making turn as intergalactic hottie David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey). It’s the holidays, after all, and a lot of people get emotional – especially when they live in a rather debauched sorority like this one. Barb (pre-Superman and pre-under-bush-freakout Margot Kidder) is a hot, nasty drunk, Phyllis (Andrea Martin) is a classic enabler (and you know there’s something very sinister going on under that ball-perm), and Clare (Lynne Griffin, who would later appear in the gloriously over-the-top Curtains) is… well, she’s dead and stuck in the attic with a plastic bag over her head. And like a bad houseguest, she just stays there… for the rest of the film.

Yes, in a brilliant move, Clark (and, to give credit where credit is due, his scripter Roy Moore) bumps off a pretty young girl in the opening scene (after establishing via a dizzying POV trellis-climb that there’s someone strange in the attic) and then props her in a rocking chair in the upstairs window with a dry-cleaning bag over her head and leaves her there for the rest of the film. Not the most glamorous role, perhaps – but certainly one of the creepiest images in horror movie history. They should change the warning on those bags to read: “Keep away from infants, pets, and Canadian sorority girls.”

Speaking of pets, there’s also a cat, Claude, that lives in the house. He’s the special fella of housemadam Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), a boozy old broad who used to be half of a vaudeville sister act (notice how even a throwaway character like the housemother has a few bits of backstory? Compare to the remake, when no one in the house feels like they’ve existed for more than a few hours). Mrs. Mac is too preoccupied with finding her hidden stashes of hooch and keeping Clare’s worried father busy to notice that there’s a madman living in her attic – so of course she gets it pretty early, in a bloodless but incredibly disturbing hook-to-the-face number that yanks her into the attic to hang out with Clare. Two’s company – who’s up for canasta?

Meanwhile, we get an idea of why Jessica’s got such a stick up her ass – turns out she’s knocked up and wants to get rid of the little bugger. Interesting twist, huh? The heroine wants the abortion and the moody artist boyfriend wants to keep it – not the kind of thing you’d find in the later slashers, which rather stupidly started equating sexual purity with goodness in their Final Girls. Jessica’s not a virgin, and furthermore she’s not even pro-family-values. What I’d give for a whole subgenre of complicated, interesting, adult women like this one. Anyway, Peter starts behaving strangely after botching his recital (he destroys the piano like Joan Jett would destroy a guitar – ambitious!) and drawing attention to his odd behavior. And now the phonecalls seem to be talking about a baby…

Wait, did I not mention the phonecalls? Holy shit! Easily the most horrific thing about Black Christmas is the series of utterly blood-chilling phonecalls that the girls receive at the house. Whatever or whoever is on the other end of the line is either a superbly talented voice artist or a complete loon. And considering that the credits don’t list Michael Winslow from Police Academy as a Special Guest Appearance, we’ll have to assume that we’ve got a first-class nutjob on our hands. The combination of squealing, yelling, baby noises, women’s voices, grunting, crying, and extremely vulgar profanity (there’s lots of talk of “piggy cunts” and the like) is simply jaw-dropping. And anyone who followed the whole Michael Jackson molestation scandal a few years back might have noticed some eerie similarities between these calls and the ones that Michael reportedly made with his onesied houseguests – Michael would apparently call up random women and ask them, “does your pussy stink?” So either the guy in the attic is a deranged psychopath driven to atrocious acts because of a traumatic event in his childhood, or he’s the King of Pop.

Like good smart college girls, the ladies have gotten the police involved, and consider they’ve managed to get humpy-swarthy Lieutenant Fuller (played by humpy-swarthy John Saxon) on the case, they’re dean’s list material. With only three girls left in the house, Saxon puts a man outside in a car and has Jessica try to keep the caller on the line as long as she can in order to trace the calls. In what sounds horribly boring on paper but actually makes for a wonderfully suspenseful few sequences, we actually see the man at the phone company hunting through banks and banks of clickety-clacking machinery to find the source of the calls. Risky idea, executed beautifully.

Speaking of executed, whoops – there goes Barb! Yes, our sweetheart the drunk is next to get hers, in yet another impeccably-conceived sequence in which Jessica, listening to a group of decidedly Canadian-looking carolers, is intercut with Barb, being gored to death with a crystal unicorn. First off, the choice of weapon is inspired – as is the way that the murder is shot (notice the completely random skull in the background, likely from a rock poster of some sort? Awesome near-subliminal detail.). The cross-cutting of the frosty-breathed carol with the stabbing is wonderfully macabre – they really don’t do it like this anymore. Seriously, what’s with that? The extent to which anyone in horror uses any kind of editing for dramatic effect these days is limited to spastic, meaningless overcutting or the overdone “cut from a stabbing to a knife slicing a steak” cliché. Boooo-ring…

Anyway, Phyllis (or Mojo, as I like to call her – seriously, Andrea Martin’s stint on SCTV will haunt her until the day she dies – oops!) gets hers offscreen (it’s really creepy, though) and Jessica gets the good word that the killer is… wait for it… IN THE HOUSE. Being a good friend, she of course tries to get Mojo and Drunky Crow out of the joint, but she finds their corpses piled in a bedroom – at which point we are treated to one of the scariest moments of horror history, period. The shot of Billy’s over-eager eye peering through the crack behind the door is seriously one of the most brilliant shots ever conceived, and to this day it still makes my genitals suck up into my body cavity. I’ve included it above as a special treat (and as the first and only inter-review screenshot on this site), for those of you who love the moment or have only seen the pale ripoff used in Saw.

The finale, in which the increasingly suspect Peter kind of loses his shit and is subsequently gunned down by his own pregnant girlfriend, is the stuff of holiday miracles. The cops are called away, a guard is left outside to watch Jessica, and before too long someone sneaks downstairs from the attic to claim his last lone victim. It’s so wrong it’s right – I have friends who flat-out refuse to watch the film again because it’s just too disturbing to think about. The killer is never caught (in fact, a complete innocent is both killed and wrongly determined to be a demented multiple murderer), a pregnant girl dies alone, and we never learn a thing about why any of this batshitcraziness happened in the first place. It’s nasty stuff, and that’s why it still manages to scare the life out of people to this day. Nearly bloodless, mercilessly plotted, and horrifyingly plausible (seriously – these people behave perfectly rationally and no good comes of it), it’s a timeless horror flick that still stands head-and-shoulders above most of the pack a good 30 years after its release.

Maybe it’s due to the fact that Clark is himself one of the unsung geniuses of cinema (seriously – that the man could give us this, Deathdream, Porky’s, A Christmas Story, and Baby Geniuses is a testament to his utter derangement). Or maybe it’s the cruel use of all the trimmings of the most beloved of holidays to juxtapose the atrocities that the mysterious Billy commits. Or maybe it’s just lightening in a bottle – a fortuitous collision of cast, script, experimental score, camera (the innovations in POV are simply stunning), and the chilly Canadian winter – that resulted in this beloved and highly effective holiday gem. Whatever the case, Black Christmas is truly the gift that keeps on giving, year after year.

Rating (out of 5):