This time of year, scary-movie fans have many go-to favorites: Gremlins; Silent Night, Deadly Night; Christmas Evil. But there’s one holiday horror classic that stands above the rest: Black Christmas, a hugely influential early slasher film that has a distinctive tone and unusually textured characters, both of which make it unique.
The story will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a splatter flick made in the last 40 years: A group of sorority sisters, stalked by a merciless killer, are picked off one by one until the final girl remains. And there are other elements—drawn from urban legends and true-crime headlines—that weren’t so warmed-over in 1974, when Black Christmas made its debut, but are now bona fide clichés. This includes the third-act realization that the deranged phone calls that’ve been terrorizing the young women the entire movie are coming from inside the house. (When a Stranger Calls, which used this same twist, paid homage when it came out in 1979.)
However, the bones of Black Christmas’ story, which are more or less repeated (with style and plot alterations, of course) in films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Scream, aren’t really what make it memorable. This might not have been the case back in 1974, but watching the film today, there’s so much more going on than the fiend in the attic.
The Christmas theme is as important as the title implies, but in a more abstract, scene-setting way. Black Christmas takes place in the last few days before the college shuts down for winter break. Everyone’s rushing around trying to finalize their plans, not really keeping track of anyone else in the chaos. This confusion factors into the first couple of murders, as the victims’ disappearances aren’t really noted at first. The slowly-emptying sorority house—for all its colorful Christmas decorations—takes on a kind of somber hush that extends to the neighborhood around it. “Townies” are the butt of a few jokes early in the film, but when a local girl is found murdered, the pallor hanging over the proceedings turns to dread.
This menacing atmosphere, however, is more immediately apparent to the audience than it is to the characters—as it should be in any truly suspenseful horror movie. And those characters are probably the biggest reason why Black Christmas has become such a cult hit. Though director Bob Clark’s career included another holiday favorite (A Christmas Story), Black Christmas actually also foreshadows a different Clark classic: Porky’s.
Top of the class is Margot Kidder’s performance as the perpetually drunk, mischievously raunchy Barb (four years prior to her turn as Lois Lane in Superman: The Movie); it’s still one of the greatest horror-movie supporting performances of all time. All of her scenes are gold—sassing back to the obscene phone caller, slurring at a cop that his “attitude really sucks,” pretending (?) to give booze to a pint-sized guest at a holiday party for underprivileged children. But as funny as her scenes are, she’s not just there for comic relief. If you watch the film closely, you see that while Barb may be a bit of a party girl, there are reasons behind her behavior. There’s a moment early on where she grumbles dejectedly after her mother calls to tell her she’s made other plans for Christmas; later, she feels heartbreaking guilt over arguing with one of her sorority sisters who’s since gone missing.
The main character is Jess, played by Olivia Hussey; she keeps a level head despite all of the danger, and she’s the person the top cop, Lt. Fuller (John Saxon), puts in charge of keeping the caller talking once the police tap the line. But Black Christmas is careful not to make Jess merely a goody two-shoes who’s only in the movie to scream and stare at the phone (though, admittedly, she does a fair amount of that). Jess has her own problems, above and beyond any murderous stranger. Her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), is a high-strung music student who goes off the deep end when Jess very calmly informs him that she’s pregnant but plans to get an abortion, and that it’s not up for discussion. This subplot mostly serves as a way to get Peter into the movie—he’s teased throughout as possibly being the weirdo in the attic. He seems a likely suspect, though the dots don’t ultimately connect in the end. But the relationship also adds layers to Jess. She doesn’t want to marry this guy, and she sure as hell doesn’t want to have his baby. That doesn’t mean she’s always going to do the right thing—like, say, immediately fleeing the damn house as soon as she learns the calls are coming from you-know-where!—but she has her emotional priorities in order from the start.
Barb and Jess are the flawed, yet likable characters who get the most screen time. But Black Christmas manages to make even its supporting characters who get just a scene or two stand out. I am very fond of jolly sorority house mother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), who drinks even more than Barb via a stash of bottles she keeps creatively hidden around the house; the poor phone-company tech who has to frantically race up and down aisles of blinking boxes, trying to nail down exactly where the calls are coming from; and a background actor who’s just identified as “Laughing Detective,” who convulses with uncontainable guffaws in response to one of Barb’s dirty jokes. But there are so many more.
These characters—all reacting in their own way to a situation that’s only just emerging as something unimaginably awful—ground Black Christmas in a way that’s unusual for a horror movie, where the main objective is usually just to scare the pants off the audience. It suggests that even in times of crisis, when real people are involved, sometimes humor will sneak out. Sometimes it makes people uncomfortable, like when it comes from Barb’s sailor mouth; other times it diffuses the tension, as when Jess and one of the other sisters think they’ve spotted the killer at the door—but then collapse into giggles when they realize it’s just a pair of goofy old men helping with a search party.
But Black Christmas is not a horror comedy. It is a full-on horror movie, and a frightfully effective one at that. The disembodied voice that taunts the girls is incredibly terrifying and disorienting; it doesn’t just make X-rated comments or spit out death threats. It goes way beyond that, babbling, shrieking, sounding like an insane chorus of multiple voices screaming at each other, calling itself “Billy” and making references to “Agnes.” Who? We have no idea! When we do get a glimpse of the killer, he’s shown only in shadow and, on occasion, via shaky POV shots that would later become de rigueur for the genre. Many later slasher films would let the killer get away at the end (all the better to make as many sequels as possible).
Black Christmas not only does that—it also never reveals the killer’s identity, never mind his motive or his origins, or why he keeps some of his dead victims posed like dolls in his gruesome lair. And somehow, that’s exactly the unsettlingly eerie ending this standout film requires. Black Christmas, with its occasionally wacky characters and its ever-shifting uneasy tone, exists in a specific time even before its own genre really did, and that’s a quality that can never be duplicated.