I suppose it’s possible to trudge through the holiday season without watching BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) but why on Earth would anybody want to do such a thing? Viewing murder and mayhem in celebration of December 25th may seem like bad taste verging on sacrilege to some, but I’d argue it’s more appropriate than a sled load of sappy modern X-Mas movies bent on selling you the idea that having your every indulgent fantasy realized is the reason for the season. Keep your shopping malls, Christmas should be spent in an old dark house surrounded by snow waiting for the appearance of you don’t know what.
BLACK CHRISTMAS, like Christmas itself, focuses on a pregnancy (although this one will end in abortion rather than the son of God) and if that’s not enough to convince you of its fittingness, it’s also got folks with horrible communication skills cursing like sailors and abusing alcohol. Like any holiday gathering, it’s equal parts hilarious and maudlin and yet you don’t need to travel to reach this snuggly destination! Trust me, Jesus would tell you himself if he wasn’t too busy crying his eyes out about the greed-driven travesty his birthday has become that he’s more comfortable being associated with BLACK CHRISTMAS than “Black Friday” (Though truth be known, his favorite horror film remains CARRIE).
BLACK CHRISTMAS has no problem collecting laurels for including tropes that would become ubiquitous years later but its brilliance is worthy of far higher praise than “first out of the gate.” This is no mere sorority house hack n’slash, and ultimately its most essential similarity to HALLOWEEN is that it’s labeled “minimalist” when it’s anything but. The late BOB CLARK built a psychological maze with no clear exit and more primary to its personality than its relationship to any forthcoming body count flick is its unspoken crush on ROSEMARY’S BABY. C’mon, the creepy boyfriend, the invasion paranoia, the raking of religion’s chestnuts over an open fire. What separates BC from the slasher pack and even its own remake is that darn unwanted baby and its mother Jess’s unyielding plans for it. Pretending BC is only an under recognized trendsetter ignores everything that makes it so strangely haunting and difficult to pin down.
Jess, as played by otherworldly beauty OLIVIA HUSSEY (who had just given birth before shooting), is admirable but notably aloof. She knows exactly what she wants, offers no apologies and attempts at swaying her are useless. She’s going to have an abortion and not only does her boyfriend have no say in the matter, he’s lucky she deigned to inform him in the first place. We’re on her side, she’s too stalwart not to align with, but held up against the history of horror heroines, she’s comparatively cold. Jess is going to do what Jess is going to do. Here’s another “final girl” who doesn’t fit the faulty “virgin lives” theory and doesn’t her regality make you feel like a cad even bringing it up? She shows no outward signs of feeling torn about her stance and it seems neither her boyfriend nor the universe she lives in can handle that. The harassing phone calls the sorority house has been receiving get more and more personal and accusatory and the holiday itself, honoring a holy birth, inaudibly sings a preachy Oompa Loompa song in her ear. There’s a growing presence in the house to match the one in her body and it seems devoted to the act of shaking her fortitude.
Whether Jess deserves to be raked over the coals for her adult decision is beside the point, horror is under no contract to be fair and understanding. It’s no accident that nearly every seemingly random act of brutality that occurs will wag a finger at her. The staple-kill that binds this volume together involves Clare (LYNNE GRIFFIN), who bawdy Barb (MARGOT KIDDER) refers to as “The poster child for virginity.” Clare is strangled in a plastic bag (a mockery of contraception?) and propped in a motherly pose in a rocking chair with a rotten baby doll in her hands (I’m assuming that’s the same doll briefly glimpsed earlier in the film trapped in a birdcage). Boozy Mrs. Mac climbs into the attic womb and is gauged on a hook. As Jess cherishes the cherub faces of innocent carolers, Barb is penetrated with a symbol of fragile uniqueness, a crystal unicorn (while a death skull observes above.) “Like having a wart removed,” Jess hears as she clings to the phone’s umbilical cord. The granny voice isn’t just quoting a conversation between Jess and her unborn baby’s father Peter (KEIR DUELLA), it’s backing up his condemnation. She’s being punished all right but is it because of her decision or because she fails to broadcast the required level of socially sanctioned maternal emotions?
We’re meant to suspect the Biblically named Peter. He bashes a piano in a rage and CARL (PROM NIGHT) ZITTRER’s shivery understated score echoes his tantrum throughout. He calls Jess a bitch, stalks about the premises and is filmed in menacing shadow. He does everything short of chomp on a red herring sandwich. But this stubborn to confirm anything film does gift us at least one solid fact, that Peter’s hands are as clean the ones on Jess’ sweater. After being led to believe that the horror is over with Peter’s death, we linger to learn that the squealing beast still exists (is resurrected in a way) in his nest upstairs. Our last glimpse of Jess and Peter together is a curious one and it more than a little resembles Michangelo’s masterpiece “Pietà” which depicts the ultimate pure mother Mary cradling her mourned son.
BLACK CHRISTMAS would remain a stunning movie even if CLARK had followed advice and tagged Clare’s boyfriend Chris (ART HINDLE) as the culprit, but by sticking to his guns and allowing the killer to remain ambiguous, he lifts the tale into the arena of the poetic uncanny (where it’s felicitous roommates with HALLOWEEN.) Our killer Billy could be anyone, could be anywhere. He is free to change forms each time you watch. Sometimes I imagine due to a few shots of a framed record that Mrs. Mac made with her sister (The MacHenry Sisters!) that Billy is her estranged nephew. With his judging, all-seeing-eye he might be a stand in for the notably absent Santa Claus or even God. Is he giving voice to Jess’s raging to be born baby or is he a physical manifestation of her suppressed guilt? Neither and both. Shadowy silhouette killers are nothing new but CLARK’s representation delivers a singular identifying shard, Billy’s intense penetrating eye; a cinematic pitfall into a bottomless chasm of meaning. If the frequent point-of-view shots place the audience inside the head of the killer, then the stark flashes of Billy’s eye amounts to the viewers catching a glimpses of themselves in a mirror. If Billy can indeed be anyone then that includes us; the judgmental, voyeuristic audience.
I’ll never be able to explore every room of this address. I didn’t even mention my favorite character Phyl (ANDREA MARTIN) the heart (and co-patriot observer) of the joint, who I suspect CLARK had similar affection for since she’s granted an off-screen kill. You probably don’t want to get me started on JOHN SAXTON, especially if I’ve had some eggnog; it can be embarrassing. I’m moved by the plight of Clare’s father and it kills me when he gets hit in the face with a snowball. Then there’s that little girl’s worried mother and the volunteers braving the cold for a literal search for lost innocence in the park. Luckily we get some comic relief thanks to Sergeant Nash (DOUG McGRATH) and his limited knowledge of sexual terms. You could devote a whole book to KIDDER’s Barb and her shenanigans. Maybe I’m biased and when am I not? BLACK CHRISTMAS just happens to take place in a space that reminds me of my grandma’s seventies-era abode and it’s occupied by people who look like I remember they did while my favorite X-mas memories were being carved in my head. Even the posters on the girl’s walls enthrall me.
Let me close by giving a final more definitive shout out to OLIVIA HUSSEY’s Jess who I think is often shortchanged. No, she’s not a warrior badass and yes, Sidney Prescott in SCREAM was probably referring to her when she complained of those who are “always running up the stairs when (they) should be running out the front door.” Still, she’s a sleeping giant in the horror heroine department for so fully claiming ownership of her herself from introduction regardless of how she might be perceived by Peter, Billy, Santa, God or us. Appraising a character on the strength of their personal convictions rather than their defensive fighting skills? Jesus would totally approve.
What a wonderful review! Have loved this film since I first saw it, many years after it was originally released. I was just a baby when it first came out, but I “get” so much of the style and setting, remember things in life being that way, if that makes sense. So, yeah, I hear ya when you say it feels like your grandma’s place. Christmas woudn’t be Christmas anymore without a visit back to that house.
Yes. This is a GREAT reading of the movie. Now I’m going to go about my day with the image of God re-watching his favorite film “Carrie” as he shoves popcorn in his mouth while sitting in a crowded theater.
Just thought of this: what if this movie had just been called CHRISTMAS, as a precursor to HALLOWEEN’s just-name-it-after-the-holiday convention? How hardcore would that have been?! “You want Christmas, movie-goers? Well HERE’S your Christmas!! [choke choke stab stab]”
I can sort of see how Unk can enjoy the 2006 remake of BC, but …
Well, not really.
The original is one of those films that is somehow far better than it has any right to be. I’m really not sure that it was intended to be as good and relevant as it is – it strikes me as one of these films that starts off with mediocre intent and mutates into something memorable as the production goes along. I can’t tell how much of what I like in it was intended as inventive and how much was a happy accident – the weird, creeping POV shots, the nutty color scheme, the strange score and the ambiguous ending. And the cast is so great and weird. John Saxon, Keir Dullea (of 2001 fame) and Margot Kidder still had her mojo on.
Clark produced the remake and, IMHO, it serves to show how badly the original could have turned out. I dunno, maybe I’m being too harsh.
Great post! I just watched it a did grabs to do a post on the house – and some of mine are exactly the same!
Every time I watch that movie (sometimes more than once during xmas) I am never able to not be thoroughly creeped out by the caller’s line “What we must know is….” God there’s something sooo creepy about the way it’s said.
THANK YOU, Unk, for this review! I’ve been waiting for it. I’ve seen BC a kazillion times and never thought about some of your take-away insights, but you write about it in a way that makes me wonder “how the heck did I NOT think of that?” I’ve rattled many ‘a skeptic with a home screening of BC and was lucky enough to see it on the big screen last year here in Cleveland. After being introduced to it by a friend (to whom I’m forever thankful) a few years ago, I’ve become a dorky superfan, so this unique review is one I’m sure I’ll return to next time I watch it.
Wow! A lot of stuff there that I’d never considered before despite counting the movie amongst my horror favorites. For whatever reason Jess’ pregnancy and impending abortion never really loomed large for me in relation to anything else that is going on… but then, of course, why bother, except to set up a possible motive for the red herring (which my friend dispelled immediately, noting that the eye behind the door was brown, not blue).
Darn… now I’m gonna have to watch it again!
Unkle L, as usual, this is simply wonderful! I saw this for the first time four years ago and now it is part of my usual holiday viewing.