Slashers

Black Christmas (1974)

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Black Christmas may well be one of the best holiday themed horror films ever and it truly sets the standard. It was directed by Bob Clark, who also directed  A Christmas Story and Porky’s, and it reflects his frank style and sense of humor. There will be spoilers!
It’s Christmas eve at the sorority house and the women are celebrating and preparing. They are a pretty cool group headed by Olivia Hussey (she was Juliet in the fantastic Zefferelli version of Romeo and Juliet) as Jess, Andrea Martin as Phyl (yes as in SCTV Andrea Martin) and the wonderful Margot Kidder as Barb who is both too old and yet too immature to be in college. Barb is especially interesting, she seems to have the authority of a house mother, but there is already a house mother, an older woman who is often off swigging from a flask. For the record, Barb is constantly drinking and smoking too. Honestly, this makes me wish I had joined a sorority, these gals seem super fun.
In the midst of these festivities they get a call. And while they immediately recognize it as a prank call (do those even happen anymore?) this call is extremely disturbing. In fact, every time I watch this film, I am struck by how ugly the caller is and the horrible things he says. Silence falls upon their celebration as the call continues, but Barb diffuses the tension by taking charge and talking back to the perv. She puts him in his place, but before the call ends, he threatens to kill her.
Always a champ, albeit a drunk and loudmouthed one, Barb dismisses the call as nothing which eassures the others, and the party resumes. But suspicious things continue to occur and before we know it, one of their sisters, Clare, is murdered. But the others are unaware of it. They just know that when her parents come to get her for the holiday break she is missing. So they report this to police who promptly dismiss them and patronize them. Maybe she is shacking up with her beau, or another guy, or just got busy elsewhere.
So we have our set up: a large somewhat labyrinthine home, a routine that is disrupted by holidays, and a group of somewhat vulnerable women on their own.
The slashing and the mystery continue. In fact, dead bodies are hiding in this home and when they do get a cop to help them, Detective Fuller, played by badass John Saxon, this fact is still overlooked. Most of the investigating continues away from the sorority house, in part because a girl’s body has been found in a park.
But an excellent subtext is emerging. Jess is fighting with her boyfriend, Peter. She does not want to become more committed to him until she spends more time pursuing her education and career. But he is a temperamental musician who is frustrated by this. Moreover, Jess admits she is pregnant and plans to abort. It’s the worst time in her life to start a family and she has other plans. He is outraged. Peter escalates his emotional attack on her, even calling her a baby killer. But Jess remains calm and insistent, it’s my decision and you are irrational. He storms out.
Now Saxon and his crew cross paths with him as he leaves and they enter to investigate further. Saxon notices his angry demeanor and begins to ask about him. Also by this time, Clare’s boyfriend, a handsome goalie with a fur coat out of some 1940s frat (his confidence level in that is inspiring) has joined her parents in insisting she must be missing.
And Saxon is wisely making a connection to the prank calls, so they are tapping the phone lines. We are down to our final girls here, and Jess is taking the lead. The calls come, but it’s a manual trace, so she has to keep the perv on the line for a long time and that’s a fairly horrible experience for her. In one of the calls the speaker calls her a baby killer, piquing suspicion that Peter, aka Red Herring, is responsible. Several calls come before they can trace it and then, and then, and then……they realize the calls are coming from inside the house!!! Whaaaaa?!
This may be the very first film that utilizes this great gimmick, I can’t be sure, but I don’t think I have seen it in anything dated sooner. And it’s brilliant. Saxon realizes this first and gets dispatch to call Jess so she can leave the house. The officers are 5 minutes away and the cop staking out the house is not responding. The dispatcher can’t seem to get Jess to leave without spilling the beans. When she understands the killer is in the house with her she runs up to grab her friends, despite being told not to. Of course that doesn’t go well. At the same time, Peter reappears to confront her again. Mired by the fear of the killer and knowing he is a suspect, despite her doubts, she reacts to defend herself. Moments later we see her standing and Peter dead, and the police finally arrive to close the case (what did they do again?)
But is it really closed? They still haven’t found the bodies in the attic, in fact you can barely see the silhouette of a head with a plastic bag over it through the attic window (look up, people!) And Jess was certain she could alibi Peter for an earlier incident. But the relief they feel is real and the story ends. Yet as the camera pans away, we hear the phone ring…..
Black Christmas is A+ horror and exactly how you approach a theme, like Christmas, within the genre. The acting is excellent and it has great portrayals of women. It’s a holiday classic worth revisiting year after year.
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