Here’s a creepy little Christmas item. “Black Christmas” begins with a long, slow tracking shot of a psycho killer who sneaks his way into a girls college dorm, into the attic. It’s the same shot that opened “Halloween,” but “Black Christmas” was made years earlier. This was the first sorority house horror film in celluloid history and one of the first slasher movies period. It was the first movie where a character said, “Ma’am, we’ve traced the call and it’s coming from inside your house.” That’s immortality. Nowadays, the girl in the house would’ve been able to use star sixty nine, but this is 1974: killers don’t have to work as hard. The victims are low tech.
It’s Christmas, the atmosphere is cold and creepy. The girls are having a Christmas party when they get a crank call from the psycho who’s now in the attic. A really sick call. Then a bunch of noises, animal sounding noises. Could a human make those sounds? He’s called before. One of the girls goes up to her room and the killer envelopes her like the grim reaper. Then he covers her face in plastic and hides her in the attic, in what has to be one of the biggest McGuffins in movie history. Why doesn’t anyone check the attic? When was the last time you checked your attic?
“Black Christmas” is all about atmosphere. The Christmastime setting and the horror counteract each other nicely as the rest of the girls at the college and the police search for the missing girl, who we see from time to time, up in the attic window, rocking back and forth, mouth open in a gasping maw, while the psycho laughs in the background. Then the father shows up, and there’s some eerie Chandra Levy overtones as no one can find the girl. But we know.
There’s some other weird stuff in the film too. The lead character Jess(Olivia Hussey) is pregnant and she wants to have an abortion, much to the outrage of her boyfriend Peter(Keir Dullea). Peter starts to have a nervous breakdown, which comes out in his tortured music(he’s a pianist) during a disturbing piano audition, and we suspect that maybe he’s the killer. How else could the caller know about Jess’ baby? As the girls start to mourn the fate of their missing sister, there’s a creepy scene where the whole campus holds a search party, and they find a murdered child. Still, no one looks in the damn attic.
“Black Christmas” is a very good slasher movie and a really scary movie period. The girl in the attic keeps looming over the movie like a specter and there’s some nice touches such as when the grieving father of the missing girl collapses from exhaustion, and when the girls slowly realize that when someone is missing, really missing, you inevitably know after a certain period of time that they’re not coming back. The cold backdrop keeps all of the characters inside and frightened, much like the viewers which, in a sick way, makes “Black Christmas” a great Christmas movie. Director Bob Clark, who ironically went completely over to the other end of the spectrum when he made the lovingly sweet “A Christmas Story,” shows a strong hand with the scare scenes such as in a great montage scene where a group of Christmas carolers sing outside the dorm while a sorority sister is being murdered inside.
Aside from Hussey and Dullea(Keir Dullea Gone Tomorrow) there’s John Saxon as the police chief and Doug McGrath as his Deputy along with Margot Kidder and Second City alumnus Andrea Martin as the other sorority sisters. Clark does something neat with Kidder’s character, the foul mouthed sorority sister. Because she’s such a dominant personality we expect her to live, but that’s not what happens which is a nice surprise. It’s kind of strange how Clark portrays heroine Hussey as being cold and unlikable in the way she drives Dullea to madness. Maybe that’s just Hussey’s acting and maybe Dullea just seems mad because he’s a long way from his “2001:A Space Odyssey” salad days. Who knew how good “Black Christmas” would turn out to be?
The only problem with “Black Christmas” is that it doesn’t play fair with the audience which is a staple of the slasher genre. Time and time again, especially at the end, we get the Invisible Killer monster. You know the one. The killer who can be at two places at once, the one who knows everything about everyone. In “Black Christmas” he kills a cop keeping watch outside the dorm, and then he appears back in the attic. That’s no fun.
But “Black Christmas” is a strong and creepy horror film, eerily suited to its setting. In a way, “Black Christmas” belongs in a disreputable category of its own with films like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Dawn of the Dead,” as films that are better than the genre requires them to be. Since “Black Christmas” is the first, the first modern slasher movie, what does that make it?
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