It’s one week until December 25th, which means the malls are crowded, stress levels are high, and all is dark and noisy. In that spirit, I give you Black Christmas, Bob Clark’s 1974 seminal horror classic. It’s a mean movie in which several people die for no reason; in which nothing is explained, no clear motive is given, and the police always arrive too late; and in which, most importantly, there is no happy ending. The horror does not stop, it barely even pauses, and as the credits roll, the only feeling left is the unresolved dread of a knife about to plunge. There is no uplift, no resolution, no reassurance that, hey, bad things happen, but it’s okay, because sooner or later the nasty man with murder on his mind will be caught and killed. That does not happen here. Santa does not save the day. Neither does John Saxon.
Holiday movies typically focus on the fundamentals: the importance of home; the safety and comfort of family and friends; and the assumption that, the occasional Grinching aside, peace and goodwill will triumph in the end. Black Christmas sets to work dismantling these assumptions with ruthless efficiency. The movie opens near the end of a sorority Christmas party. As the various partygoers mingle in the warm yellow light indoors, the camera switches to the point of view of a stranger approaching the house, spying on the party from the bushes, and then using a convenient trellis to climb up to an attic window and slip inside.
Right from the start, the whole thing feels wrong, from the distorted, twisted angles of the intruder’s point of view, to the disconcerting abruptness of his entrance. No one else in the house (the cast includes Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Andrea Martin, all very young) knows there’s an intruder afoot. All they know is that someone keeps prank calling them. The voice on the other end of the line is disturbed to the point of incoherence, ranting and groaning and screaming in the grip of a compulsion that is utterly at odds with all those candy canes and comfy sweaters.
Where other horror movies (like this one’s execrable 2006 remake) would have tried to explain the madman’s behavior, or pull a big reveal in the final scene, this killer stays hidden throughout. At a time of year when everyone is supposed to be together and celebrating, he’s at the edges, shrieking with a fury so intense and destructive that it’s barely recognizable as human. Instead of drawing the attention of the authorities, his bizarre behavior makes him invisible. He’s a creature so out of bounds with the season that he can operate with unsettling impunity. And not just impunity. At times, it’s as though some malevolent spirit is working behind the scenes to give the killer free rein, arranging alibis and scapegoats as needed. In other movies, that would play as narrative convenience, arranged by sloppy writers who couldn’t be bothered to redraft the plot. Here, it’s clearly intentional, generating a feeling of almost unbearable pessimism as the story unfolds.
Black Christmas has its flaws (most prominently an over-reliance in the early going on broad, unfunny comic relief), but what makes it such an effectively unsettling experience is that it rarely offers familiar narrative signposts. While it and John Carpenter’s Halloween (released four years later) are often credited with creating the slasher genre that would come to dominate 1980s horror, this film doesn’t follow any of that genre’s assumed rules. Worse, it doesn’t even follow the rules of other subversive seasonal fare. While there are jokes, there’s never any serious effort to wring dark comedy out of the situation. Instead of winking at the audience, or trying to draw humor from the obvious disparity between, say, someone listening to carolers while someone else gets slaughtered upstairs, the murders and stalking sequences play out with direct, vicious clarity. The result is something that feels legitimately subversive, and not just trying to score easy shots off a beloved holiday.
More than anything else, the movie’s mood is what sets it apart: dour, despairing, and cynical, but with just enough humanity to keep from being utterly nihilistic. Clark and screenwriter A. Roy Moore make the viewer perpetually aware of the irony of the situation—all these hideous crimes taking place during what’s supposed to be the happiest, safest time of year—without feeling the need to underline it excessively. Signifiers of nostalgic comfort like colored lights and wreaths dot the landscape, but behind all of them is a lunatic whose presence shatters any sense of security or calm. Worse, he makes the calm dangerous. Instead of victims distracted by the presence of sex and drugs, this killer’s targets are lulled by the presumption that nothing truly bad can happen because the tree is up, the stockings are hung, and the fire is burning brightly.
Contrasting good cheer against the brutal violence inherent in human nature isn’t a new idea, but what makes this version so effective is that the “brutal violence” is so utterly alien. Future slashers would focus on gimmicks and increasingly outlandish murders to hold the viewer’s attention, and this movie certainly has its share of memorable set pieces. (Early on, the killer strangles one girl with a plastic bag, then carries her body back up to the attic, where he leaves it sitting on a rocking chair by the window. Every so often throughout the rest of the movie, the camera will cut back to the corpse, reminding us that she’s dead no matter how many people try to find her.) But Black Christmas sticks in the mind is because its threat refuses to settle into a quantifiable form.
It’s a murder mystery that never gets solved, and one of the smarter choices made in the script is the way characters are so clearly overmatched from the start.Once the father of the first victim shows up, Jess, Barb, and the others do their best to help track the missing girl down, but the search efforts are haphazard at best. The cops (who, Saxon aside, don’t exactly impress with their competence) offer to help, but since there’s no body, and no one thinks to check the attic, the search never really gets going. The closest anyone comes to figuring out the truth is when Saxon has them put a tap on the sorority house’s phone, leaping to the brilliant conclusion that whoever is making the prank calls may have had something to do with the girl’s disappearance. But even that is too little too late.
Which brings us to the ending. Typically, a movie of this sort would wind up with a confrontation between the heroine and the killer; there’d be a struggle, and the killer would be unmasked and defeated. That almost happens here. Jess (Hussey) does confront the killer, and she does beat someone to death with a poker in her basement. The cops decide everything is wrapped up nicely, and a sedated Jess is left alone in her bedroom to wait the arrival of her parents, a lone cop guarding the house outside. As the camera pulls out, we hear the sound of the killer laughing and gibbering up in the attic, where the bodies of his first two victims remain undiscovered. The phone starts to ring, and the credits roll.
The kicker ending has long been a horror cliché: Just when you think it’s all over, the monster suddenly jerks back to life and everyone rolls their eyes. But this is not a kicker ending. The man Jess beats to death in the basement, her tightly wound boyfriend, is never a truly credible suspect for the killings, and there’s no sense of reassurance or closure when the police pin some of the murders on him. No one suggests the possibility that someone else might have been involved, that it’s too soon to jump to conclusions, that they might at least search the whole house before calling it a day. Other movies use the pretense that evil can be defeated to attempt to surprise the audience with the possibility that it can’t. Black Christmas doesn’t bother pretending. Instead of a final girl facing down the beast and barely surviving, we get a terrified woman beating an innocent creep to death, and then waiting, drugged and helpless, while something unspeakable lurks upstairs.
Bob Clark (who died in 2007) would make better movies than this one. His most famous, A Christmas Story, will be popping up on cable channels soon enough; and while little Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Range Model air rifle manages some sharp pokes at holiday tradition and greed, its fundamental message is one of love and joy. It’s a good movie. But consider its darker, far more brutal forebear: Black Christmas may suffer from forced humor and an uneven tone, but at its core, it speaks to a darker truth of the season, a truth that rings clearer with each passing year. People die every day. They often die horribly. Christmas promises happiness and security it has no power to deliver. And when a strange man breaks into your house on a cold winter night, he isn’t bearing presents.