Black Christmas – Review
During their Christmas break, a group of sorority girls are stalked by a stranger.
It’s Christmas Day and officially the end of our Awful Advent 25 Days of Christmas Horror feature. First of all, Merry Christmas to those of you that celebrate Xmas. Happy Holidays to those of you who are celebrating other events this December. It’s been a cool month with a ton of excellent horror movies and some absolutely shite ones too. We are wrapping things up with one of the best Christmas horror movies of all time – Bob Clark’s Black Christmas from 1974.
Obviously there could have been a few movies in this spot. Gremlins would have been a good shout. Rare Exports obviously fits the bill pretty well. Personally, however, this is my favourite Christmas horror movie of all time. I absolutely love Black Christmas so it seemed obvious to me. We reviewed the sub-par Glen Morgan 2006 remake earlier in the month. We followed that up with the awful Sophia Takal 2019 version a few days later. It’s about time we actually looked at a decent version of Black Christmas. Without further ado, on with the review. As always, I will give a quick spoiler free breakdown which you can skip if you like.
This is a bit of a milestone review for me. Black Christmas represents our 100th horror movie review. That’s pretty neat and, while it isn’t a great deal of reviews, it is fun to celebrate. I started this site back in 2019 fully intending to put my all into it. Life happened almost immediately and I was knocked right off track. Every time I picked it back up, something else happened to throw me off again. I would have loved to be at 500 reviews by now but life didn’t work out that way. With this in mind, the site is still pretty much new.
Now, coming off of around 70 reviews since the beginning of October, I feel I found my stride. Coming up in 2023 I aim to throw up at least 4 reviews a week, every week for the entire year. I really want to lean into more Ending Explained articles as well. Expect feature months, lists, and lots more as the year goes on. I want to make this a full year of awesome Horror content. Hopefully I can grow the site and offer up more content for you guys. Thanks to anyone who has taken the time to read any of my reviews or articles. Here’s to many more horror movies.
Awful Advent is Done
Our Awful Advent 25 Days of Christmas Horror feature is all done. For those of you who missed it. We have been reviewing a Christmas themed horror movie every day of December. 25 reviews leading up to, and including, Christmas day. It’s been fun to check all of these movies out. Some I have never seen, a few I have seen once, and a bunch I have seen many times.
If you joined us at any point, thanks a lot for looking. Naturally, this feature will likely be seen more in future years. If you happen to be catching it at a later date. Why not check out a few more films from the feature? I will be compiling all of these movies into a list for easy access. This is likely the only time I will ever be able to do this. Christmas themed horror is not that common. I will always look for festive themed films to cover around Christmas, though. See you all in the new year.
Black Christmas – Synopsis
Black Christmas starts with a man climbing into the window of a sorority house. The women downstairs are sharing drinks. Christmas is almost here and there is a bit of a party atmosphere going on. All of a sudden, the phone rings. Answering the phone, Jess, played by Olivia Hussey, calls the other girls over. She states it’s “The Moaner” again. The person on the other end of the phone is making sexual noises and generally being disgusting. Barb, played by Margot Kidder, tells the caller to stick his tongue in a plug socket. This prompts the caller to say “I’m gonna kill you”. Clare shouts at Barb for antagonising the Moaner.
Clare heads up stairs while the other girls carry on drinking. Shortly, the house mother Mrs. Mac, played by Marian Waldman, returns home. The girls have a gift for her and want Mrs. Mac to open it straight away. It turns out to be a thin robe. The girls make her put it on which she does. Dancing around in the piece of negligee, the sorority sisters laugh at her. She retreats to another room and pulls a bottle of alcohol out of the middle of a book.
Upstairs, Clare is getting ready to leave for the holidays. Packing her bags, she is due to return home. Suddenly, she hears something coming from the wardrobe. She walks over to see what it is before the large house cat Claude appears. She places the cat on the bed. Walking back over to the wardrobe to retrieve more clothes. Clare is suddenly attacked. It seems the person responsible for the phone calls may be closer than the girls realise.
Christmas Slasher Fun
Black Christmas is a slasher movie set on Christmas eve. It follows a group of sorority sisters and their house mother. Some of the girls are set to leave for Christmas. Others are staying. A killer has climbed in to the house and hides in the attic. Slowly, one by one, he picks the girls off. The killer is, apparently, completely motiveless. We are given no back story. There is no exposition. We don’t even have a clue as to what the killer looks like. Somehow, this makes him all the scarier. There is a sense of chaos to what he is doing. He is merciless and simply looking to harm people.
The girls receive obscene phone calls. During the calls we can hear multiple voices. We are to assume, however, that they are coming from the same person. The sheer thought that a person would go to this length to torment his victims is unsettling. The content of the calls is explicit leading to a sense of unease. Almost instantly, the random obscenities turn to threats. Foreshadowing what is to come.
The interesting thing, however, is that the girls are only aware of the calls. They do not realise what is happening in the house. They have no clue that their friends are being meticulously picked off. Oblivious, they just believe they have left or are asleep. They are completely unaware of the threat. When it becomes apparent that one of them has disappeared. Their natural inclination is to search the local town. Little do they know, the explanation is closer than they think. It’s brilliant stuff and a very unique way to build tension.
Nowhere is Safe
Written by Roy Moore. Black Christmas places its characters into a somewhat claustrophobic environment. The sorority house that the movie is set in seems, initially, to be quite large. A big open plan living space. A large attic. Many bedrooms and bathrooms. It seems spacious and accommodating. As the girls suddenly fall victim to an unknown killer, however, the walls begin to close in. It suddenly feels much smaller and much less safe.
The fact that someone could be killing people in their home is terrifying. This is the place that people are supposed to feel the most safe. The women should be secure inside their home but they are not. This creates a palpable sense of tension. The viewer is fully aware of what is happening. The women, however, are totally oblivious. Naturally this leads up to the film’s famous twist. Expertly paying off over an hour of scene setting.
Black Christmas feels quite different to other slashers. It is tremendously self contained and, chronologically, very tight. Murders have taken place outside of the sorority house. The women are aware of this and groups of people are searching the streets. They are told to stay in and lock the doors and windows. Little do they know that they are trapping themselves in with the killer.
Black Christmas is in no rush to get anywhere. It builds tension slowly and very deliberately. Sure, we see a kill fairly early on in the movie. Indeed, said kill leads to one of the most iconic horror movie shots of all time. But, aside from that, it makes the viewer wait to get to the action. The women have been receiving obscene phone calls, seemingly, for a little while. They have become somewhat numb to them. This leads them to a sense of complacency, despite the news of girls going missing. The fact that the characters, in question, have reasons to be out of the house causes yet more complacency. The women don’t realise that anything is untoward within the house.
The viewer, on the other hand, is fully privy to what is going on. We see much of the action from the eyes of the killer. We know where he is hiding and we know how much of a threat he poses. The obscene phone calls keep coming and the women keep dismissing them. As the movie goes on, they become more and more sinister. Eventually, Jess realises something is wrong and the police are brought in. It is fantastically tense. The fact that we can see what is going on but the girls can’t builds suspense wonderfully. We know that certain characters are about to make dreadful mistakes. It is brilliant scream at the TV “Don’t go in there” horror fun.
The Original Proto-Slasher
Black Christmas was a slasher movie before slasher movies really existed. The entire genre owes a lot to the way Clark set the formula. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre preceded Black Christmas by a few months. A few other Christmas themed movies perhaps lay claim to the first slasher accolade, as well. Not forgetting films that skirted the lines over the decades before. But while not being the first movie that one could describe as a slasher. Black Christmas was, perhaps, the most influential.
Indeed, it was this movie that inspired the themes found in Halloween. Halloween was considered as the benchmark for Slasher horror. It was Black Christmas, however, that defined the genre four years earlier. Movies that followed copied Clark’s method while expanding on the blood letting. A killer stalking unsuspecting victims with a focus on tension and kill count. It is no surprise that the Golden Age of Slashers was only a short while later.
Black Christmas actually stood above some of its later contemporaries. Featuring a complicated lead protagonist. This movie would buck the trends that would follow. It did not present us with a virginal young woman among a group of sexually active people. Jess is a complex character. She is pregnant but does not wish to keep the baby. Offering up studies of feminism, abortion rights and alcohol abuse. This was a movie that aspired to more than it may initially seem. The fact that subsequent slashers quickly devolved into tropes is disappointing. The genre left behind its socially aware trappings almost instantly. Still, the influence of Black Christmas remained and the slasher genre was truly born.
Inspired by a Classic Legend
Moore’s original story was slightly different from the end product. Written with the urban legend of The Babysitter and The Man Upstairs in mind. Moore wanted to tap into a very specific type of fear. The legend features a young teen babysitter taking care of children. She receives repeated phone calls from an unidentified man. He tells her to check on the children. She does only to find out they are fine. This is an incredibly well known story and one that has inspired other movies in the genre. One of the most notable of these is When a Stranger Calls.
The story builds a sense of tension from the unknown motivations of the caller. There is an apparent threat to the children. Add to this the vulnerability of the babysitter herself. The payoff varies from version to version as many urban legends do. The tale, however, is iconic. Combining this with a number of murders that took place in a neighbourhood in Quebec. Moore had the outline for a story.
Initially Poorly Received
For the movie version of Black Christmas. A whole bunch of changes were made to make the story more fitting for the medium. We now had a group of sorority sisters in a university setting. The cast was younger, more vulnerable. The reception, however, was fairly mixed. Some criticised the movie as being an empty “Kill-for-kicks” production. Others wondered why it was made.
Indeed, the slasher genre was in its infancy. People weren’t used to movies like these. The almost methodical nature of the kills left critics confused. What was the point of a film like this? It went on to do poorly at the box office but, as the years passed, the reception changed. Black Christmas is now considered to be one of the most important horror movies in the slasher genre. It is a Christmas time classic. Strangely, this mirrors the trajectory of Clark’s other Christmas classic A Christmas Story.
An Interesting Cast
Black Christmas stands out against many of the later slasher movies. It even feels different from many of the movies from the genre’s golden era. There is far less weight placed on kill count. There is far more emphasis on presenting us with well developed characters. Each of the girls here has a properly defined personality. You feel as though they are real people with real issues. Not just marionettes blurting out random lines of dialogue. We have Jess, the head strong, independent woman, focused on her ambitions and future. Barb, the take no nonsense tough girl with a wicked sense of humour and potential drinking issue. Clare, the shy and sensible one. Mrs. Mac the hilarious, sharp as a tack, house mother.
The cast of women here don’t just feel like nameless victims. This is a cast that is impossible not to like. You invest in them quickly and are rooting for them throughout. They work together, look after each other, and will genuinely make you laugh. You are frustrated as the useless police officers dismiss their concerns. You fear for them more and more as the movie goes on. Unfortunately, future slashers would fail to develop their characters in this manner. We would be presented with a bunch of corpses in waiting. No reason to invest and no reason to really care. Very few slashers actually spend time giving their characters personalities.
This was a fantastic cast at the time and there isn’t a single weak link in the movie. Our main protagonist, Jess, is played by Olivia Hussey. She does a great job as the glue that connects everything together. Managing to display a dynamic range of emotions. Her part in the movie’s final stanza is particularly powerful. Special mention goes to her reaction to the classic Black Christmas Revelation. Margot Kidder is brilliant as the sharp witted drunkard Barb. Her tipsy mocking of the police man at the station is absolutely hilarious. Not to mention her side splitting line regarding the Moaner. It’s just The Tabernacle Mormon Choir making their annual obscene phone call. Horror gold!
Marian Waldman, as Mrs. Mac, might be the star of the show. Although quite a small part. Her quiet disdain for the girls in the house is hilarious. Mrs. Mac is an alcoholic and has bottles sequestered in various parts of the house. Her moments stealthily retrieving these are always comical. We can’t forget her referring to Claude the cat as a “little prick”. It might be one of my favourite horror movie lines of all time. Andrea Martin is great as the level headed Phyl. She also shares decent chemistry with Olivia Hussey. The late John Saxon, as Lt. Fuller, is excellent. His role is somewhat understated but really helps to add weight to later scenes. All in all, it is a great cast and they do a bang up job.
Slow and Tense
Black Christmas is not a movie for someone seeking brutal kills and lots of blood. Black Christmas aims to unsettle the viewer. It doesn’t relish in its murders and doesn’t feature much action or a fast pace. In this respect, it is something of an anti-slasher. Naturally, some of the scenes are quite disturbing. The visuals on display, in parts, are extremely macabre. One shot, in particular, was extremely shocking and controversial for the time.
Later slasher movies would adopt a different approach to Black Christmas. The desire to unsettle the viewer took a back seat to creative kills. The villains were now the most developed characters. Almost designed with merchandise in mind. They wore masks, had iconic weaponry, and were instantly recognisable. The killer crouching in the shadows was pushed to the side. This new group of bad guys confronted victims up close. Always visible, even when hidden in the shadows. They were larger than life and almost the entire focus of the movie. Black Christmas takes a completely different approach. This is a slow paced horror movie that wants to bake the viewer in suspense.
An Iconic Moment
I am sure everyone has heard of the specific revelation that Black Christmas is famous for. I won’t go into detail because it would spoil it for people haven’t seen it. It goes without saying, however, that it is one of the more iconic lines in horror history. Other movies have done it before but maybe not as well as Black Christmas does it.
Of course, we have been seeing the movie through the eyes of the killer. The revelation is nothing to us. We already know. It is the reaction of the character that makes it so special. The moment the reality of the situation dawns on Jess you can almost feel the fear. It is palpable. The internal conflict she experiences in that moment is very much apparent. It is a fantastic horror scene and leads up to the dramatic, fast paced ending of the film. An ending that will someone divide viewers.
A Divisive Ending
The ending of Black Christmas is bound to split viewer’s opinions. It is one of those movies that could be described as leaving a bit of a question mark. While it is made fairly clear what happened. The lack of a satisfying resolution will likely put some people off. The film goes out of its way to throw in some red herrings. The interesting thing here is that the red herrings are for the characters, not the viewer. We see the film from the killer’s perspective in many scenes. We know what is going on. The women in the house, however, do not. The police have a suspect and said suspect has something of a motive to harm Jess, at least. This plays into the ending of the film.
Black Christmas stays true to its desire to unnerve and unsettle, even in the end. This is never a movie aiming to entertain with guts and blood. Most of the kills take place off screen. It is a slasher, yes, but it is a slasher designed to make the viewer fear for the victims. Clark doesn’t indulge in the character’s murders. It is never gratuitous. Expecting a gratuitous ending may have been wishful thinking. Still, that is just the type of movie this is. If you enjoy seeing lots of action and a lot of kills. Black Christmas may not be for you. For other horror fans, however, it is essential viewing.
Is it a Knockout?
Black Christmas is one of the original slasher movies. Setting the benchmark for future horror movies such as Halloween. Black Christmas inspired a number of films released during the Slasher Golden Era of the late 70s and early 80s. Slow paced and methodical, this is a movie that aims to build tension. Set in a claustrophobic sorority house. Black Christmas is not an action packed, kill a minute, slasher movie. It wants to unsettle the viewer and does so tremendously.
Featuring a well developed cast and some excellent acting. You will root for these characters. The tension builds superbly as they are unaware of what awaits them in the attic. Both scary and, at times, hilarious. Black Christmas is compelling and keeps you engaged from start to finish. Excellent directing and a setting that feels smaller and smaller as the movie go on leave you feeling uneasy. The ending may put a few people off, however, and can feel a little unsatisfying. Still, this is an important movie in the slasher genre and essential Christmas horror viewing.