Black Christmas (1974)
Written by A.Roy Moore
Directed by Bob Clark
If you asked me whether or not I’d enjoy a slasher film made by the director of Porky’s and A Christmas Story before watching Black Christmas, I would probably have said I wouldn’t. However, much to my delight, this proved to be one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. Black Christmas is not what you probably expected it would be. It was one of the earliest modern slashers, and therefore it’s not bogged down by the tropes and cliches its modern counterparts carry as baggage with them. Everything about this movie feels like it has what those pictures are missing. The humor is balanced with the horror, and the characters are strongly performed, making each person stand out and not get lost in the shuffle.
A Canadian university sorority house has its Christmas party one cold December night. Unknown to them, a man climbs the exterior of the building and slips into the attic. The house phone rings and is answered by Jess (Olivia Hussey), and it’s who she expected. The girls have been regularly getting obscene phone calls, and the caller vomits out a string of vulgarities. Barb (Margot Kidder), one of the more brazen women, insults the caller, who responds that he will kill them. They hang up, annoyed with the interruption. One of the girls, Clare, excuses herself to pack for her early holiday departure tomorrow. Once in her room, the killer strikes and moves her body to the attic without anyone in the house realizing what has happened.
When Clare doesn’t show up at the spot where her father was supposed to pick her up, the sorors realize something is very wrong. They begin to make connections between the obscene caller and Clare’s disappearance. Jess informs her older boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) that she’s pregnant and plans to get an abortion which sets him off. His behavior begins to raise her suspicions about what he’d be capable of. Meanwhile, a high school girl goes missing in the community, and the paranoia and fear ramp up quickly. All the while, Clare’s body sits propped up in a rocking chair in the attic while the killer’s twisted mind plots his next victim.
Olivia Hussey is clearly cast as the lead, and she’s ultimately the weakest part of the picture. That’s not to say she’s terrible; it’s just that the rest of the cast is so on point that she feels stiff and awkward in many scenes. Nevertheless, the overall tone of the movie is refreshingly feminist. Jess’ decision to get an abortion is presented as perfectly reasonable, and it’s Peter who is the problem. He’s shown as emotionally immature and irrational, becoming overly possessive of Jess.
Clare’s father provides some comic relief in his reactions to the libidinous young women of the house. They are open about having sex, drinking, and smoking pot, and his conservative sensibilities find this unacceptable. He doesn’t say much, though, just giving the occasional disapproving look while the girls carry on, not giving a damn. The movie also loses no love for cops, showcasing one officer at the front desk of the nearby station as a complete buffoon. However, unlike other later slasher films, it never feels like these women are bad or deserve this harm because they are sexual. Instead, the killer and the other men in the movie are presented as the ones in the wrong.
I found the film’s central theme to be about how men were unable to deal with the increased freedoms women were gaining at the time. The abortion conversation scene stands out as the most evident example of this. Jess finds Peter in the conservatory practicing; he’s a Master’s student in Music. She calmly explains that she’s pregnant and has made an appointment to get an abortion. Her informing him is more a courtesy than anything else. Peter responds by acting pouty and becomes angry when he doesn’t get his way. Jess finds this entirely annoying, reminding her boyfriend it’s her body and her choice.
The killer’s actions would be mirrored in real-life four years later when a Florida sorority house became the site of a double murder. The killer, in that instance, was eventually found to be the notorious Ted Bundy. NBC had planned to air the first television broadcast of Black Christmas two weeks later but decided to give an alternative choice to their affiliates in Florida and its bordering states after the governor requested a change. The transformation of America and the increased autonomy of women in the 1970s often inspired killers in that decade and into the 1980s.
The killer in the film spouts word salad a lot of the time, but in that jumble of nonsense, we hear him talking about a woman or possibly a little girl, and whatever he’s referring to triggers his anger. He poses Clare like a doll and speaks to her like she’s a little girl. This sorority house would be “fixed” if these women would become malleable to him. The final victim of the movie is killed with a glass unicorn statue taken from a shelf in her room, stabbed with its crystal horn. The unicorn is associated with feminine purity & innocence in European folklore. The horn here takes on a violent phallic quality when wielded by the killer. His actions return these women to their former state, it destroys them, and he’d rather have that than see them come into their own.
America is bracing itself for the repeal of women/transmen/nb reproductive rights by five rogue judges on the Supreme Court and then eventually regressive state leadership. This will be one of the most nightmarish things to have happened in America in our lifetimes. These conservative legislators and judges are dripping with the same rancor for women that the killer in Black Christmas feels. They are incoherent in their reasoning, pretending that their actions are based on some empty morality. Instead, they are taking a blade to people’s throats across the country.
One of the final scenes of the movie, one of its most haunting, is the image of Clare in the attic window. Within the film, her body is never found. For the audience, she remains frozen in that window, in a house adorned with multi-colored Christmas lights. It’s charming from the outside but within that building is an abattoir. This is America, a slaughterhouse where women’s bodies will be forgotten. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can stop this. But I fear the people are still apathetic and won’t take the necessary actions. The house is haunted at the end of the picture, and a quick succession of shots within leaves the audience feeling uneasy. Jess lies alone, tormented by the nightmare of what she’s gone through, and we’re left wondering if the killer has been stopped or if he’s still lurking out there on the fringes.