What could be more entertaining to watch on Christmas Eve than following the misadventures of a psychotic killer stalking and murdering sorority girls during the Xmas season? Not a darn thing, that’s what. It just fills your heart with that warm and fuzzy holiday feeling, doesn’t it? At least that was my opinion, and even as I sit and write this piece a good month after the fact, I stand by that.
Question: what do you immediately think of when you hear the following three words: Christmas. Horror. Movie. More than likely, the first thing in your head was a guy in a Santa Clause costume wielding a bloody ax, right? Well no such luck. Instead of some rather blasé jolly axe murdering by Santa flick, you get this oddly unique, slightly psychological, low-rent horror thriller where the story itself sort of ends up being least interesting thing in it, but for what the slow building, stress inducing creepy vibe that envelops the entire picture more than makes up for, and it’s that very atmospheric spookiness that turns the movie from a run of the mill slasher into the fascinating piece of cult horror cinema.
It’s only in retrospect that you come to realize just how groundbreaking this movie actually was at the time of its original release. Not many movie had done horror like this before, nor since, really. At least not as effectively. It’s also noteworthy that Black Christmas had much influence on many later slasher classics, such as John Carpenter’s Halloween.
One of the first things that you notice while watching Black Christmas is how everything about the way the movie chooses to portray the killer feels surprisingly ahead of its time, especially in terms of how much they put effort in never properly showing him on screen. At best you only see his eye ball (which is incredibly terrifying when it happens) and parts of his hand, thus keeping his identity a mystery throughout the entire movie. It was a stroke of genius to start the movie from the killer’s POV, as he lurks outside the sorority house before he slowly and awkwardly breaks in, setting the stage for the carnage that is to come. You’re immediately disturbed by the combination of the shaky camera and the killer’s heavy breathing and the uneasy, eerie feeling you get from it never really goes away. In fact it just grows once once the killer starts to make the deranged calls to the house, terrorizing the inhabitants with his sleazy, psychotic ravings, of which you can’t really make heads or tails of. It’s a marvelous trick that truly makes the killer feel so much more threatening early on to the story, without needing to immediately rely on brutal, bloody murders to establish the killer as a frightening adversary.
As I already briefly mentioned earlier, the story itself is nothing particularly special. You’ve seen one slasher movie, you’ve seen them all and in Black Christmas’s case you get exactly what you expect, a very straight laced rendition of the familiar formula. But from the viewer’s POV, in this instance, this actually works in favor of the picture rather than be something you would hold against it. By keeping the story simple, the movie can then focus entirely on creating the atmospheric horror feeling throughout the movie that very effectively makes you bury into your seat in a defensive fetus position, terrified of what each new creak of sound and surprise plot twist might entail, keeping you slightly unhinged and terrified until right up to the moment the credits start to roll. I don’t want to oversell the movie too much, but the horror in this is exceptionally well handled and as someone who usually has major issues when the story lacks any real substance, this was surprisingly satisfying viewing experience. I especially like the way they ended the movie on such an ambiguous note, you never truly discover the identity of the killer, nor why he was killing people, making everything even scarier in the process as you can’t put a face on the killer and nor understand his reasons. It transforms the killer from a generic bad guy to more of a mythical force of evil, someone who embodies everything that we fear of the unknown and what may lurk in the darkness.
What else could I talk about? One thing I certainly was not expecting from this was the occasional quirky humor. The blatantly alcoholic sorority house chaperone/housemother who had bottled hidden everywhere proved to be a decent source for some easy laughs even when the gag itself was entirely one-note, and not even that funny. Same can also be said of the desk sergeant working at the police station. Him screwing up repeatedly by being a clueless idiot about everything was kinda endearing in my opinion. It was the contrast between these few small bits of humor to the encompassing murder and terror that truly elevated the oppressive, ever present terror to new heights in the course of the movie. As a side note, it was also kinda peculiar to realize that Margot Kidder starred in this, some years before she was cast as Lois Lane in the first Christopher Reeves Superman movie. It is still hard to picture her in a “cheap” slasher flick, but there she is.
In essence, Black Christmas is a true holiday classic that every parent should show to their underage kids if they want to give the little rascals some long lasting nightmares and ruin Christmas. And the adults will find it entertaining as well! This is right up there with It’s a Wonderful Life, Jingle All the Way, Die Hard and Bad Santa as a traditional must see Christmas holiday movie, if you ask me.