By Patrick Crain
Sometime deep in December, my wife and I park in front of the TV and spin Black Christmas. This has been a tradition for the past ten or so years and it’s as much in our normal holiday rotation as White Christmas is for some decent Americans and Die Hard is for showboats who feel arguing the point of Die Hard being a Christmas movie is some sort of personality trait. It should be said that Black Christmas is not on my annual schedule in the same, ironic way that, after consuming one too many glasses of wine and overtaken with the insatiable desire to feel colossally stupid, 1984’s loveably dreadful Don’t Open Till Christmas finds its way into my programming schedule. And neither does it occupy the same nostalgic space as Roland Neame’s Scrooge from 1970, a film so formative that after forty solid years of viewing, two or three frames of it have probably somehow and someway become part of my actual DNA code. Instead, outside being just a damn fine horror film, Black Christmas earns such a vaunted position precisely because of the film’s tactile production detail which makes it feel more or less what Christmas from our collective youth felt like.
Don’t get me wrong. As we both grew up in Del City, Oklahoma where we violence right out in the big bright open while using our real names, my wife and I never spent a childhood Christmas in the film’s native Canada while being stalked by a killer. And as far as having any clear memories of 1974, the year the film was made, my wife was barely two and I was less than one so it’s unlikely that we would possess any. But there’s something intoxicating in the film’s production design, most of which looks like it could have been purchased in a TG&Y. The dark interiors of the sorority house, draped with department store tinsel, are routinely punctuated by candy-colored C5 Christmas bulbs that, as any 70’s kid knows, would indiscriminately show no mercy in burning the entire hell from you if you touched them. Mostly lost to time is the prevalence of things such as holiday carolers, rotary phones, and cross-hatched windows all which factor into the look, feel, and function of Black Christmas. Beyond those details, Black Christmas also plays on a theme of physical, disconnected isolation, a feeling and a sense that was available in abundance once upon a time but is almost impossible to fathom today.
For the uninitiated, Black Christmas is the story of a group of sorority sisters who are stalked, terrorized, and picked off by an unknown killer who routinely punctuates his moments of violence with some of the most unsettling prank calls ever committed to popular fiction. At the center of the story is Jess (the radiant Olivia Hussey), the plucky, raven-haired Brit who is the girlfriend of Peter (Keir Dullea, sporting a Klute haircut and mostly looking like he spent the night in a bus station) a temperamental music student. On the peripheries of their domestic drama is the search for Claire Harrison, a sorority sister who vanishes ten minutes into the film, and a further subplot regarding a missing girl from the town.
For years, Black Christmas (initially released in America as Silent Night, Evil Night) languished in a kind of semi-obscurity, slowly finding a wider and wider audience as home video accessibility collided with word of mouth which eventually led to the internet elevating its profile to a degree where it’s now damn near impossible to ignore. In fact, the film has become so popular that it remains one of the only horror films of its generation to have been remade twice.
But in a world in which we’re so connected, it’s hard to imagine that any contemporary rework could mimic the specific, time-specific isolation that gives the film its most sinister power. Black Christmas was no doubt something of a subversive idea back in 1974, a year when the oldest of the baby boomers was not yet thirty and, like most of the long-standing customs of the generations before theirs, the idea of turning Christmas upside down was something with which to experiment. So here was a Christmas film where, instead of the standard familial coming together in the spirit of the season, the characters do their level best to achieve the inverse.
This is a film that tracks each character’s desire to temporarily escape their situations (Jess from the controlling Peter, Claire from the abrasive Barb, housemother Mrs. Mack from anything that’s not booze) and then masterfully moves its characters into scenarios where their temporary escapes are isolated death traps. Almost paradoxically, it’s only the brusque, streetwise Barb (a fantastic Margot Kidder) who emerges as the loneliest character in the film and who also does not crave isolation; a ribald wild child who would be 10/10 hot if she weren’t 15/10 pitiful.
Director Bob Clark also manages to generate a sly sense of tension, as well (helped along by an unnerving score by Carl Zitterer that sounds closer to musique concrète than anything hummable). Almost like an episode of Columbo, the search for sorority sister Claire Harrison (the engine that drives a ton of the plot) is sort of a MacGuffin as the audience has already watched her fall victim to the killer and likewise knows she’s stashed in the attic. Similarly, the big reveal to a horrified Jess that the prank calls that have become more amplified and disturbing as the film has worn on have been coming FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE is already known to us. The “who” is still relevant, but Clark curiously doesn’t set up a myriad of red herrings, despite there being enough of a character pool to justify doing so. Instead, the central mystery wisely becomes a question of “yes or no” and it is smartly complicated by both impossible-to-deny circumstantial evidence and frustratingly real spatial incongruities. But by immediately establishing that the killer is in the house and can slip unnoticed from room to room, we’re never once at ease and there is a slow choking sensation that begins to become apparent when Jess’s orbit rapidly shrinks in the film’s final third.
Christmas movies evoke all kinds of memories and feelings and, for the most part, my Christmas schedule is festooned with titles that bring the requisite, seasonal laugh and tear. But in the quest of that visceral sensation of being utterly isolated, for my money, there’s nothing that pierces the deadly quiet of a Christmas Eve night quite like Jess hopelessly screaming for Phyl and Barb to answer her. Among all of the nostalgic tchotchke embedded in the mise-en-scene, her palpable fear serves as a chilling reminder of that time so many years ago when one could feel truly alone and the terror that could come with it would freeze you into place.