The Twelth Day of Christmas: Black Christmas
Twas the night before Christmas,
And all through the sorority,
A killer was stalking the girls,
And thwarting the authorities.
Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974) is very much in the vein of typical 70s horror. Taking its cues from the highlights of the genre’s textured history (with references to everything from Nosferatu [F.W. Murnau, 1922] to The Exorcist [William Friedkin, 1973]), Black Christmas employs a grainy, handheld aesthetic that makes the viewer feel thrust into the heat of the action while simultaneously creating the impression that evil lurks at the edge of every frame. Thus, from its opening shots, which are from the point of view of the killer entering the sorority house, to its ending, which takes us back outside into the darkness while a phone rings with increasing insistence, making us anxious that the last remaining survivor hasn’t managed to escape her fate as we had hoped, the film is drenched in exactly the sort of tension you get in the best examples of the genre. This commitment to horror is unlike anything I have seen in my other examples of Christmas fright-fests Krampus (Michael Dougherty, 2015) and Anna and the Apocalypse (John McPhail, 2017), and the clash of the holiday season with creeping evil makes for a fascinating dynamic. In some scenes, the stark contrast makes for a very special atmosphere, extreme tension and dread playing out to the sound of Christmas carols, and with fairy lights transformed into little beacons of colour-tinted danger. In other ways, however, the focus on horror means that the film doesn’t feel Christmassy at all, particularly as it nears its climax and the themes of the holiday season increasingly fade into the background. With the season, of course, go the values it represents, and, as a consequence, Black Christmas might be the only one of the alternative films I have reviewed here that truly lacks the Christmas feel despite its setting. It is the only one that successfully subverts the Christmas magic, and, by the end, potentially transforms it into something supernaturally and viscerally horrific.
As I hinted to in my terrible poem above, the film centres around a sorority house and the girls who live there as they are secretly picked off one by one by an unseen killer who is, unbeknownst to the girls, actually hiding inside the house. Until the coda, the threat seems very human, and indeed the police are the rarest of things in a horror movie – semi-competent. As such, the film becomes almost as much a murder mystery as it is a slasher, though it very swiftly becomes obvious who is supposedly doing the killings. This predictability, both in terms of the villain (I’ll give you a hint, it’s the only male character who is given significant screen time in the film’s first half), and the narrative structure (the girls are slaughtered until only the highest-billed one is left, and she manages to confront the killer and survive – or does she?) is a definite weakness, as is the way the movie picks up and then drops certain threads and characters almost at random. Though the character of Jess (Olivia Hussey), becomes the focus of our attention, you sometimes feel the film is heading a different way, and you also definitely feel that some of the sorority girls are not given enough chance to show their personalities beyond that of caricatures before they are killed off.
Nevertheless, it is perhaps the undercurrents of Black Christmas that give it its true value; the things left unsaid, but which bubble beneath the surface narrative. These are largely open to interpretation, but it is easy to point towards sex, misogyny and controlling masculinity as all being extremely relevant to the film’s secondary meaning. Furthermore, the concept that the threat exists within the household and the problematisation of the budding family, with the prospective mother eventually killing the threatening father, really sticks a stake into the heart of the Christmas values. Here’s another not very Christmassy thought that perhaps explains the thrill of such movies: the carnal pleasures we as an audience may subconsciously feel in voyeuristically witnessing the brutality of the crimes inflicted on the beautiful, sexually open girls might lead us to challenge and/or satisfy our own darkest desires. Heart-warming stuff, isn’t it. Truth be told, the film isn’t actually particularly gory. All the murders happen predominantly off-screen, and us as spectators witness only the first moment of assault and the remarkably bloodless aftermath. Perhaps then, the film doesn’t quite fully satisfy any of our base carnalities. It is too obvious to be a satisfying mystery, too bloodless to be a gratuitous slasher, and too steeped in the genre of horror to allow us the resolution and safety of Christmas magic.
At time of writing, Black Christmas is unavailable to watch for free on any of the main streaming platforms, but you can rent it from Amazon Prime Video, or add it to your DVD collection.