Black Christmas (1974)
“If this movie doesn't make your skin crawl... It's on TOO TIGHT.”
by Inci German
Welcome back to Horror Revisited!
Holidays are almost over and you’re all mushy and still full of Yule spirit? Don’t worry, I have a movie recommendation to sort you out: a neglected gem, the first of the slasher kind – Black Christmas (1974).
Black Christmas is an unfortunately very underrated 1974 Canadian low-budget psychological horror movie directed by Bob Clark. The story is loosely based on the urban legend of “the babysitter and the man upstairs” and follows a group of sorority sisters during Christmas season, who receive creepy phone calls and are killed by a psycho-murderer who hides in their attic.
A calm and friendly Christmas party in a house.
Outside we hear gasps and pants; someone runs around the house looking for a way to get in and finally climbs through some grid structure into the attic.
Major creep factor: We ARE the villain in this movie! All scenes related to the murderer were shot from a first person point of view, so that we never fully see him (apart from his hands, his shadow and his left eye) but we are him and are experiencing his surroundings with him. This is a very effective technique and scarier than you might think; re-watching this movie I actually felt pretty uncomfortable being a psychopath.
The great impact of the psychopath-scenes (which are filmed with fish eye lenses to create a vertiginous effect) is mostly due to the majestic camera works. Not only did cameraman Bert Dunk truly play the part of the killer, he also did an excellent job filming everything else – especially the indoor shots. In an interview director Clark says that the aim of the cinematography was to create a “circular” effect; and in order to avoid the killer, the camera often goes circling around the house. Considering that the camera is in the general sense an important indicator as to whom the audience will identify with, it is quite genius that the camera circles around, switching between main girl Jess and the monster, and so does the story; beginning and ending with Billy the killer.
So there’s a party going on inside the sorority house. Jess (Olivia Hussey) receives a disturbing phone call from someone the girls call "the moaner", a man who has been calling lately and terrorizing the girls by moaning, gasping, snoring, laughing and saying obscene things. She lets the other girls, including Barb (Margot Kidder), Phyl (Andrea Martin) and Clare (Lynne Griffin), listen in.
The phone calls are the second creep factor and Nick Mancuso, who lends the killer his voice, is another hidden genius in this movie. There are sounds Mancuso produces that will chill you to the bone; the killer apparently repeats certain scenes from his childhood and swears, pants, snores, laughs a lot, so you only understand fragments of what he’s uttering. And you never know whether it’s a man, a woman, a child or even all of them together that are speaking!
Talking about “obscene” phone calls, I mean literally OBSCENE. Some of the things the moaner says in this 1974 movie would never be allowed on screen today. But this boundlessness in showing the momentary leakage of a very sick mind is what makes the phone call-scenes so verisimilar and eerie. The moaner starts describing sexual acts he wants to perform on the girls in a very graphic way, which isn’t surprising really: 99% of movie (and probably in real life too) psychopaths are sexually frustrated and canalize this frustration into violence. The mixing, confusion of many voices may even hint at multiple personalities. So the moaner is in all likelihood someone you don’t want to mess with.
The girls don’t really know whether they should be horrified or amused by these calls. After Barb takes the receiver and provokes him, he says he will kill them all and hangs up. Barb and Clare have an argument over whether or not he’s seriously dangerous. Clare goes upstairs to pack her stuff since she will go home for Christmas. While the other girls give the housemother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) her Christmas present and cheer with joy, Clare goes after a noise that she thinks is the house cat, Claude, and is attacked and killed by the murderer. He wraps her up in transparent plastic foils where she suffocates; shrink-wrapped by her own breath… The killer than takes her into the attic and places her in a rocking chair.
The next day her father Mr. Harrison arrives to pick her up and everybody is dumbfounded as they thought that she had left already.
Jess meets her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea), a music student, and tells him that she is pregnant and that she will have an abortion. He doesn’t want to leave it at that but she’s determined.
The moaner calls again and says creepy things again. “Billy” he calls and among numerous scary sounds “where did you put the baby?” Jess is visibly distressed.
Meanwhile Barb, Phyl and Mr. Harrison go to the police station to report that Clare is missing. They’re not being taken seriously though, since according to the police most of the girls that are thought to have disappeared usually have run off with their boyfriends.
One of the truly remarkable characters in this movie is Barb. At first I wasn’t sure if I like her or not, but in time I guess she grew on me. She is the most outspoken, if not foul-mouthed of the bunch. Some of her antics are actually pretty funny, despite the underlying sadness of her situation; in the beginning of the movie her mother calls and tells her that she won’t be spending Christmas with her and she obviously has a drinking problem.
I especially enjoy her constantly teasing Mr. Harrison who is the most prissy, stuck-up man you can imagine. In fact Mr. Harrison’s smugness is a major juxtaposition to the whole atmosphere of the sorority house and often leads to slapstick-y situations, such as when Mrs. Mac tries to cover an obscene poster while talking to him or his irritation at Barb making a little boy drink her alcoholic beverage at a charity event.
Later Jess finds Clare’s boyfriend Chris (Art Handle) and they discuss the case with Lt. Fuller (John Saxon). They find out that a local mother has also reported her thirteen year old daughter Janice missing.
Meanwhile a raging Peter smashes his piano.
At night everybody joins a search party for the two missing girls, of which only Janice’s body is found.
While getting ready to leave for the holidays, Mrs. Mac also goes after the meowing Claude and is killed in the attic. Claude on the other hand, has found the shrink-wrapped Clare. I’m not entirely sure it’s Claude who’s meowing – the killer is so good at making noises he could as well imitate the cat to lure his victims.
Even though Mrs. Mac is murdered by a hook and dragged into the attic, there is not one drop of blood in this movie. Instead, Clark plays with different methods of building and relieving tension such as connecting each murder with a much more profane, contrasting scene: Clare’s screams as she dies with the girls shouting with joy as they give Mrs. Mac her present; the hook hitting Mrs. Mac and the cab driver knocking on the door. Also there are no jump scares and the musical support is very sparse. It’s very clever and quality filmmaking, really.
After having killed Mrs. Mac Billy suffers some kind of breakdown and starts throwing and pushing objects that come his way. He calls Jess again and this time utters sentences like “Help me!” “Bad Billy, I know what you did”. The calls gradually increase in intensity and this time Jess freaks out and calls the police.
While she’s on the hold, Peter surprises her by sneaking into the house and confronting her about the abortion.
Now this whole situation between Peter and Jess is refreshingly astonishing for a horror movie as Jess is clearly our final girl: the girl who at the end of the movie will survive all. It is important to note that Black Christmas is considered the first slasher; so everything you think you know about slashers was constructed after this one.
Let’s take a look at some stereotypes about slasher movies:
- people are being killed off sequentially, usually in brutal and bloody ways,
- the victims usually share specific features; mostly female, young, sexually active, often promiscuous,
- the protagonist and sole survivor is always female (thus Carol J. Clover’s designation “final girl”), usually not sexually active, or at least not as much as the other victims, more introvert, more courageous and somewhat smarter and stronger,
- the killer is sexually frustrated or ambiguous.
The promiscuity of female characters plays a central role in their being killed, which in the past has lead to criticism that the genre is essentially misogynistic and puritanical. John Carpenter, who is widely accepted to have established the slasher genre with his Halloween franchise, has even been accused of killing the sexual revolution (Whether women’s liberation equals sexual revolution is another question that I won’t address here).
What I’m trying to get at is that in Black Christmas women are depicted in a very different way than we’re used to see in the “conventional” slasher: All characters are very real, they truly could be your roommate or classmate; they’re smart, plain-spoken, strong women. Not one of them is silly or over-sexualized as women have come to be caricaturized in later movies.
So our final girl is pregnant and she wants to have an abortion.
Peter, who obviously suffers from some kind of neurosis, tries to put pressure on her and is being rather pushy, telling he wants to marry her, as if the main problem was a premarital child. And Jesse explains that there are other things she wants to do in life and goes “I don’t want to marry you.”
Although quite ahead of its time, I personally think that this doesn’t bare any political message one way or the other; the director doesn’t want to promote abortion nor imply that women get punished for being the way they are. It is only a string that is to mislead us to believe Peter might be the killer and is “provoked” by Jess’ behavior; a trap the police will fall into at the end of the movie. Still, with Jess Clark manages to create one of the most independent, strong and rational female characters in horror history.
Later in the evening Lt Fuller arrives with a colleague and they tap the phone at the sorority house in order to trace the caller.
While Jess listens to children sing Christmas carols at the door, the murderer stabs Barb to death in her bed and calls many times “Agnes” while doing so. Again, Barb’s screams mixing in with the Christmas carols; two contrasting pictures, innocent children singing and bloody murder, merging into each other.
After the murder Billy again calls Jess and this time he quotes from her argument with Peter. Lt Fuller now focuses his attention on Peter and wants him investigated. Big mistake, I say.
Phyl wants to check on Barb and gets dragged into the room, so we guess she too is killed. Almost simultaneously Jess gets another phone call and hears screams, which could be Billy’s but also Phyl’s. “Where’s the baby, where’s Agnes?” he asks over and over.
Lt. Fuller is informed that the phone calls are coming from the inside of the sorority house. He immediately orders his men to call Jess, telling her to leave the house at once. When she starts asking questions the gawkish officer tells her that the caller is in the house and she needs to leave. Not wanting to leave her friends behind, Jess arms herself with a fireplace poker and discovers the bodies of her friends and also the killer. Failing to escape through the front door she locks herself in the cellar.
Peter appears outside the basement and enters after breaking the window. Jess is now convinced that he is the killer and kills him with the poker. The police find them in the basement.
In the following scene Jess is exhausted and sleeps in her bed, while the officers puzzle on why Peter would start killing people and call Jess after each murder. The bodies of Clare and Mrs. Mac, which are in the attic, haven't been discovered. The police leave Jess alone while they take Mr. Harrison, who has passed out because of the shock, to the hospital. They turn off the lights and leave. Only one officer is to wait outside the house until the forensics arrives. In the quiet of the house, the killer reveals his name by saying “Agnes, it’s me Billy”. Then Jess’ phone starts ringing again.
As if the movie isn’t scary enough, the open ending makes it all the more nerve-wracking. We know nothing about Billy’s motives and his background, except that he doesn’t like girls and there’s something going on with Agnes. There’s no satisfactory solution, no justice done in the end – only a beautifully made film.
At least I know now that my skin isn’t on too tight – because only writing about this movie made it crawl all over!