It’s time for a horror film and as I mentioned last week, Christmas films fall into many categories and having watched ‘Black Christmas’, I can safely say that this film exclusively in the ‘takes place at Christmas but has nothing to do with Christmas’ and that’s fine. I can think of another film that I want to review that is in that camp.
At first, I chose ‘Black Christmas’ to review because I thought it was that film where the killer is dressed as Santa but it’s not. For reference, the film I was thinking of was ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)’ and it’s a little bit embarrassing because I am vaguely familiar with ‘Black Christmas’ having seen clips of it on ‘Bravo’s 100 Scariest Moments’. I’ve seen clips but not the whole thing… until today.
So, what’s this film about?
The night before a number of housemates are due to leave for the holidays, a severely disturbed man climbs through an open window into a sorority house and kills one of the residents, Clare Harrison (Lynne Griffith) before placing her body in a rocking chair against a window in the attic.
The next day, Jess (Olivia Hussey) and the remaining housemates; Barb (Margot Kidder), Phyl (Andrea Martin) and the housemother, Mrs MacHenry (Marian Waldman) receive bizarre and disturbing phone calls from the killer. Just as she’s coping with personal problems, Jess soon realises that something sinister may have happened to her friend and with the police closing in, Jess isn’t likely to have a very Merry Christmas.
There are spoilers ahead.
The first thing I would say is that as a Christmas film, it’s not the best but as a horror film, it’s actually pretty good.
I think the ‘horror’ factor is most effective because we don’t know who the killer is and never ever see his face. The shots of the killer are from his perspective with POV shots before ‘Halloween’ did it four years later. We also don’t know why the killer chose that specific sorority house or why he’s killing at all. We know from the phone calls and that he’s killing people at all that he’s really, and this is a medical term, fucked in the head.
What did strike me in the early minutes of the film is the severity of the language. I didn’t think that kind of language existed in the mid-70’s. There are more than a few ‘cunts’ uttered and then shouted out by the killer over the phone and then there are references to oral sex on both sides of the coin with various references to ‘sucking’ and ‘licking’ various areas that are located south of the belly button. Let me tell you, I am not a prude, but this language was something that surprised me.
All characters in slasher films, especially of this era, are represented by a certain personality trait. For example, had she not been killed 12 minutes in, Clare would be the kind of character that the viewer would be forgiven for thinking would be the main protagonist or the ‘final girl’. But as we know because I’ve mentioned it at least twice, she’s killed 12 minutes in so who is the final girl?
Jess is the final girl and her character gives the film a chance to deal with some rather sensitive issues. Jess is pregnant and tells her boyfriend, music student, Peter (Keir Dullea) who is ecstatic at the news however, Jess reveals that she doesn’t want the baby and is planning to have an abortion which devastates Peter.
Here is where I have things to say. The arguments about ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ is a serious debate and I am firmly in the ‘pro-choice’ camp because I do believe in a woman’s right to choose. However, the baby in Jess’s belly is a product of both herself and Peter and he absolutely has a right to oppose Jess having an abortion. It would be different if Jess were on her own and Peter wasn’t interested and the prospect of having a baby at her young age would be difficult for her and possibly negatively affect her future career prospects then that would be a different story. However, this is not the case.
Naturally, the pregnancy is a plot device to make Peter seriously on edge and manic. His low mood causes him to mess up his piano recital and then to make a teary phone call to Jess which he doesn’t know is being taped by the police. What is strange is that whilst talking to a clearly distressed Peter, Jess tells him that it’s nothing to get upset about. Jess, you’re threatening to abort his baby. That is something to get upset about.
At least Peter is willing to do the honorable thing. Whilst neither Jess nor Peter planned this pregnancy, Peter is willing to leave his course and marry Jess to give the baby a proper family. Jess rejects this offer which I think is understandable because it would be wrong to marry him if she didn’t want to. Her main reason for wanting a termination is that having a baby will stop her from ‘doing the things she wants to do’. Not entirely sure what that means but that’s not strictly the case. Granted, it was probably more difficult to be an unwed mother in her late teens/young adulthood in the mid-70’s than it is today but I think it’s immoral for her to abort her baby against the will of the father.
It is strongly suggested that this killer has struck before. When the gang; Barb, Phyl (Andrea Martin), Clare’s boyfriend, Chris (Arthur Hindle) and Clare’s father, Mr. Harrison (James Edmond) realise that Clare is missing, they head to the police station to report her missing. However, another mother is at the Police Station to report her 13-year-old daughter missing. That night, volunteers gather in the park to search for the missing girl, Janis. Leading the search is Lt. Kenneth Fuller who is played by John Saxon. In another 10 years, Saxon would star in ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ as Lt. Donald Thompson, Nancy’s father. He would reprise the role three years later in ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors’. Lt. Fuller would also lead the investigation into the mysterious caller to the girl’s sorority house.
In the hopes that there’ll be some sign of Clare; Jess, Chris, Phyl and Mr. Harrison attend the search, but Jess goes back to the house before Janis’s body is found. I have only seen the film once but I don’t remember there being any indication that the killer in the house is responsible for Janis’s murder but this is the catalyst to the police taking Jess’s claims and Clare’s disappearance more seriously.
One person that instantly enters Lt. Fuller’s radar is Peter, Jess’s boyfriend. I can’t speak for the rest of the audience but I instantly knew that Peter wasn’t the killer. It wasn’t like ‘Scream’ where Billy looked like he already had a dark side to him, Peter looked like a normal guy who was upset by something that his girlfriend had told him. In the movie, this could have been a motive for murder but why Clare and then the housemother, Mrs. MacHenry? And then Barb and Phyllis and possibly Janis? Why not go straight for Jess? It didn’t make sense that he would be the killer.
Nevertheless, in the final half an hour, the police find the location of the phone calls being made by the killer and discover that they are coming from inside the sorority house and this was where I thought the infamous line ‘The calls are coming from inside the house!’ is from but apparently not. Not sure where that came from. Possibly ‘When a Stranger Calls’, I don’t know.
Anyway, Jess is told very specifically to put down the receiver and leave the house but is then told by a very dimwitted policeman that the killer is in the house. Jess then does the very stupid thing that virtually all people do at some point in a horror film which is to not go mere feet away to the front door but rather stay inside and try to find the other occupants, Barb and Phyllis. We know that they are both dead but surely, if you have just been told that someone who has been making increasingly disturbing phone calls has been making said calls from inside the house and you scream up the stairs to your friends who you know are still inside the house and they don’t respond, wouldn’t that say to you that maybe the worst has happened to them and it’s time to leave through the front door that’s just behind you.
Also, Jess, you’re pregnant. Why are you grabbing that firepoker? Nope, she does go upstairs and of course she finds her friends dead and of course she’s chased by the killer and of course she doesn’t go out of the front door but rather goes down into the basement. Peter then shows up and breaks into the basement to get to Jess. Lt Fuller has already put the idea that he suspects Peter into her head and so by the time Fuller realises that Jess is in danger and makes it to the sorority house, he finds Jess has beaten Peter to death under the assumption that he is the killer.
Afterwards, Jess is sedated and left ALONE to sleep in her room with one policeman stood outside and when this happened, I thought to myself, ‘there’s time for one last twist’ and I was kind of right. Naturally, Peter was not the killer and the real killer climbs down from the attic and Jess’s fate is left unknown.
Whilst Barb and Phyllis’s bodies were removed from Barb’s bedroom by the police, as the camera pulls out, we see that Mrs. MacHenry and Clare’s bodies are still in the attic and Clare is still pushed against the window with no one noticing her. She’s been there for the whole movie.
‘Black Christmas’ had a seriously low budget of $620,000 which is a bit obvious since the whole film takes place in just 2-3 locations and mostly in the Sorority house, but it did bring in $4 Million at the box office. Hardly a smash hit but the film did gain a cult following in the years to come. A novelization of the film was published in 1976 and was written by Lee Hays.
What do I think?
I really enjoyed it. Aside from going for the ‘boo scares’ that is so milked by the horror films of today, instead ‘Black Christmas’ goes for suspense and really creepy moments and given that the film can still insight that response given that it’s over 40 years old just goes to show that it has stood the test of time. Even though this review is full of spoilers, don’t let that put you off. It is Christmas after all.
Speaking of, I’m working at my real job now until after Christmas Day so may I wish you all a Merry Christmas. You may see me again before the New Year. There’s a decent chance.
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