Black Christmas is notorious. It unwittingly became the blueprint for the slasher subgenre, pioneering the use of its two main devices; that of protracted POV (point of view) shots (á la Lady in the Lake) and menacing phone calls from an unidentified psycho killer ‘qu’est-ce que c’est?’
It inspired John Carpenter to make Halloween, thus invigorating the horror genre once more and popularising it amongst a cinema-going audience that had largely forgotten it.
To this day Black Christmas is, quite rightly, one of the most adored cult films of the last 40 years. It needs no introduction…but I gave it one anyway.
Its story is now eye-rolling familiar, one in which some deranged lunatic resides in the attic of a female college dorm and slowly, but violently, picks off the unsuspecting inhabitants one by one.
And of course, the murderer is cartoonishly insane, ranting and raving, wailing down the phone line to unsettle his would-be victims, spouting obscenities and sexually explicit threats. No, nothing on offer is particularly fresh, not even for the time it was released – the 60s Giallos had already covered such grim territory – but the execution is pin point accurate.
‘Billy’, the troubled antagonist, is a spectre like presence, a creature identified through a distinct wheeze in each breath and ethereal creep in every step.
Frequently the audience is forced to see the world through his eyes via a series of disturbing POV shots, lodging us right within his demented cranium and making him our window to the film’s fatalist universe. And yet despite this clear invitation into the killer’s mind his true identity remains ever ambiguous, a constantly changing mercurial form – first a misty silhouette, then an ominous shadow and finally a killing blow.
He is nothing but madness and devastation, an unstoppable threat to anyone that catches his eye, to anyone that catches our eye…
The lambs to the slaughter are your usual gaggle of college archetypes; the prissy virgin, the alcoholic loudmouth, the uptight do-gooder and so on and so forth. Mercifully however, those in the spotlight for longest are given the greatest depth.
First to be knocked off, Clare (Lynne Griffin) is a perpetual Daddy’s girl with a quiet streak of rebellion, Barb (Margot Kidder) drinks away her Mummy issues and uses a venomous tongue to hide her insecurities and our ‘last girl’, Jess (Olivia Hussey) is a bright, career driven woman with eyes for the future who wants to abort her newly discovered pregnancy, much to the dismay of her overbearing boyfriend.
Their Individual motivations inform their character choices to pleasing effect, one in particular culminating nicely in a later scene between Jess and her potential assailant.
After discovering the killer has been in the house all along Jess finds herself trapped in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
Not knowing where else to flee, she runs to the basement. Clutching tightly onto a fire poker she hides herself deep within the shadows of this blackened oubliette. Suddenly, she hears the voice of her boyfriend, Peter, as he calls out to her in distress. She is shaken, unsure of his motivations, unsure of how he got there and unsure of his innocence. He sees her and smiles, etching towards her, beckoning her with a suspicious grin. She grips her weapon tighter, raising it in defence.
Will she kill him? Will he stand down? Is he the killer?!?
Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?
Despite becoming somewhat of a cliché, Black Christmas still stands up as an exhilarating example of the proto-slasher and of horror cinema in general.
It may suffer from a slightly sluggish pace at times, often losing a sense of suspense amongst an array of misjudged sight gags and annoying college stereotypes, but for the most part this is a classy film with a menacing streak, never losing sight of what is truly scary.