Director: Bob Clark
Cast: Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon
Spoilers Within: Yes
There’s very little in seminal psychological slasher Black Christmas that doesn’t creep me out. Everything about Bob Clark’s critically panned release unnerves me in the most unique way, and almost a decade since I first saw it, I’m finding that the list of disturbing audio and visual patterns keeps on growing.
During a Christmas party at a sorority house, an unidentified, volatile someone enters through the attic and near-silently watches a company of women from an unsettling Peeping Tom-style POV. Through heavy breathing and hostile muttering, we’re introduced to a character that we don’t ever fully see, but are given enough to understand that he’s a huge threat to the existence of this sisterhood, led by matriarch Barb (Margot Kidder). I don’t think I’ve seen many films that pull off this kind of introduction to an antagonist quite so well: in fact, those that I have seen owe a huge debt to Clark’s prominent horror. Black Christmas isn’t just an influential film, it’s also an important one: one that allows the cast of women to act on their own volition and address choice, rather than be the kind of fodder that innumerable horror films would have (and have done) since. We’ve got Barb – the acerbic, pragmatic leader – as well as Olivia Hussey’s Jess, whose confidence in herself and her personal choice is something rarely seen without repercussion: Jess is considering aborting an unexpected pregnancy, insisting to her petulant boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) that she go ahead with it and refusing to yield to his whiny threats. This callous character isn’t so much her ‘other half’ as he is a peevish ass, though he’s not entirely unsympathetic either, even though he’s smartly yet dubiously implicated as the killer. The rest of the cast are all sympathetic too, acting as teenagers would in such unconscionable situations, yet still seeking fun where they can: whether it’s softly making fun of a police officers’ naivety, or joking about two strange men who visit their home as part of the search party.
The fact that these women are picked off at random heightens the mounting pressure, eschewing the ‘Final Girl’ indicators and offing those that initially seemed the least at risk. None are killed for their sexual promiscuity, nor as retribution for bullying or sexual assault (I hear the 2006 remake – Black X-Mas (groan) – is ingrained with this kind of hyperviolent backstory), but rather they’re simply living in the wrong house at the wrong time, with someone very unhinged lurking on their top floor. There’s an uncertainty to ‘The Moaner”s history, with only brief flashes of insight coming from his spiteful muttering or speculation from neighbourhood chitchat, but this level of ambiguity is fully in keeping with the unpredictable nature of the killings.
On cinematography duties, we Reginald H. Morris, bringing a superb – and back then a unique – approach to the horror, from the aforementioned POV of the murderer to the brisk shots of empty interiors of the sorority house, the police station and the concert hall, but it’s the intensely chilling transitions from our victims faces to that of a Christmas wreath, or blending the screams into a ringing telephone or door-to-door carolers that really give the film an edge over other horror films of the 70s. Additionally, the sound is absolutely brilliant. Firstly, we have ‘The Moaner”s voice: eerie, agitated and desperate all at once. Each time I’ve seen it, it’s crossed my mind to skip these parts of screeching audio because of how much they unnerve me, and that’s not something that I can say about many films (I probably would have done had I been watching it alone). These short flashes of conversation fluctuate between animalistic profanity, depraved insinuations or the implied disclosure of an incestuous past: they border on (and sometimes cross into) the obscene, but thankfully the character’s response to these phone calls prevent them from being disturbing without cause.
This isn’t the only instance of provocative audio used in the film: Carl Zittrer’s original score – created by tying cutlery to the strings of his piano – is supremely effective in wringing even more tension out of simple scenes such as a midnight search party, or each perfectly framed attack on the house’s residents. These consummately designed components all fit together without flaw, and even at 42 years old, Black Christmas constantly feels revolutionary.
Black Christmas is very rarely gratuitous, with the phone calls being the most explicitly unpleasant scenes in a film littered with them: the scenes of violence never relish in the bloodshed, instead are stylishly framed with a long, insidious shot of a shadow, or focusing on the murder weapon as it withdraws from plunging into the victim’s flesh. It’s extreme violence without the glorification, and it works so, so well. Furthermore, Roy Moore’s screenplay is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, which is such a relief to its dour seriousness. There’s Marian Waldman’s closet drunkard house-mother Mrs. Mac, whose expertise in hiding booze everywhere in the house is constantly amusing; an inept, naive police officer who learns the true meaning of ‘fellatio’ to the hilarity of others, and even Kidder’s furious nonchalance at The Moaner’s crassness elicits laughs. It’s a dark, uncompromisingly pessimistic film, so these moments of levity – though few and far between – alleviate the gloom.
The final shot – a slow, focused zoom from the grisly images in the attic while a phone rings empty – is as darkly comic and unpleasant as the film that preceded it: there’s no compromise here, and there’s no happy ending. It’s a horrible end to a horrible film, and the bleakest, blackest Christmas you could ever hope to have.