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Bob Gale’s Black Christmas

Bob Gale’s Black Christmas predates Carpenter’s Halloween by four years as the first slasher film, they both take place on a festive holiday night where a shadowy killer stalks people in quiet suburbia and they *both* open with an eerie POV tracking shot, and while Halloween is the more polished and notorious film, Black Christmas is definitely my favourite. Halloween opened up suburbia wide and had the boogeyman roam free in daylight while this one keeps it tight, dark and constrained to the shadows, attics and resoundingly atmospheric hallways of a giant Tudor mansion where a group of sorority sisters are celebrating Christmas. Extremely obscene phone calls herald the arrival of Billy, possibly the scariest slasher villain ever thanks to the hair raising voices on the other end of the line, provided by Canadian acting legend Nick Mancuso in one of his first gigs. Billy more or less kills like your average, well adjusted horror villain, but he vocalizes like a disturbed demon straight out of hell and it contributes to the freaky atmosphere so much. Olivia Hussey makes an absolutely gorgeous beauty of a scream queen as the proverbial ‘final girl’ Jess, her melodramatic, theatrical approach to the role only makes me love her more and gives the character flourish. Margot Kidder is hysterical in a lengthy cameo as another sorority sister with a huge potty mouth who seriously gets her Christmas drank on, as does curmudgeonly house mother Marian Waldman, who has an extended solo traipse through the dimly lit house that’s a fine example of physical comedy and inspired improv. Legendary John Saxon, who also headlined yet another iconic horror franchise, plays the intrepid police captain who tries to trace the calls and capture Billy, he always provides tough guy charisma. There is just so much to enjoy about this film; the quiet, ambient Yuletide stillness of the mansion in which you just know that even though no creature is stirring, not even a mouse, Billy is in there somewhere waiting and chuckling maniacally to himself, which makes my skin crawl to this day. The nervous score by Carl Zittrer includes objects like forks and combs tied to string instruments, giving them a warped, spooky timbre. The production design, or maybe it was simply a lucky find with the house as it was, is so beautifully mid 70’s and filled with colour, decorations, garish wallpaper, strange artwork and knick knacks, it feels lived in and authentic, as does the easy breezy camaraderie between the sorority sisters and the police banter, all part of a believable atmosphere. The lighting, or partial lack thereof, is something to behold, every few metres holds an army of shadows and murky artifices for Billy to hide in, and the camera drinks it all in slowly for maximum effect. I could go on all day about how much I love this film and what it means to me, but you get the idea. It’s everything a slasher should be and more: funny, morbidly scary, terminally weird at times, visually audacious, sexy, bizarre, festive and packed with atmosphere. Another interesting thing is that although this gathered the steam of a cult classic like other famous horror films, it never generated any sequels which makes it feel kind of special in the genre, like a sacred mile marker. Having said that, there is a remake out there that is absolute fucking festering garbage, it’s worth zero interest and only stands as en example of what not to do in service of a bona fide, enduring classic like this.

-Nate Hill

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Black Christmas: A Review By Nate Hill

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Before John Carpenter’s Halloween, there was Black Christmas, and no it’s not a Tyler Perry holiday special. It’s a slick little slasher set in a 1970’s sorority house during Christmas break, when many of the girls have gone home. Suddenly mysterious phone calls start to plague the ones still there, and one by one a murderous, unseen prowler starts to murder them. The phone calls themselves aren’t overly threatening, but instead sound like the nonsensical babbling of someone who is a couple reindeer short of a sleigh, making them all the scarier. I remember watching this years ago and being far more creeped out at the phone calls rather than the actual murders. That is a perfect example of using atmosphere to get under your audience’s skin rather than straight up gore, and a testament to the fright films of the 70’s and 80’s, which really seemed to have all the atmosphere vs. gore dials in the right positions. This positively drips with tension and ambience. The silences in between screams are almost deafening in their vacuous anticipation of terror to come, and strange as it sounds, there’s actually a nice Christmas-y feeling in places where the fear hasn’t yet struck, despite it being a horror movie. Olivia Hussey plays Jess, the main target of the killer with appropriate wide eyed intensity, Margot Kidder is briefly seen as the house mother, and horror regular John Saxon shows up as a suspicious Police Chief as well. I’d say this one achieves a state of suspense and atmosphere that can step up to the same plate as Halloween any day, it’s just a little overlooked I suppose. The house they are in is the perfect setting, a sprawling Yuletide manor of creaky hallways, desolated basements, dark, dingy attic space and an uneasy thrum of awaiting gloom that gives the words Silent Night a new meaning. The poor girls just never know when a shrill telephone ring will slice through the eerie corridors, forcing them to answer it and hear an unnerving voice warble out “It’s me, Billy” on the other end. 
PS: avoid the remake at all costs. It takes everything that was creepy and restrained about this classic and turns it into a disgusting nightmare.