Everybody seems to love the 1983 movie A Christmas Story and they show it ad nauseum every year on cable. I’ve seen the movie exactly once. It just doesn’t do it for me, and I’m not really sure why. There is another Christmas movie, though, that director Bob Clark did that I do find myself watching again and again–it’s much less in the spirit of the holiday.
When it comes to Christmas movies, I’d much rather watch 1974’s Black Christmas than just about any other. It’s one of the creepiest and most unsettling horror movies ever made, and I just love it to bits.
Of all the horror movies set at Christmastime–and there have been a lot–Black Christmas is tied with Gremlins in my book as being the best, though they’re completely different. Black Christmas is incredibly unsettling, intense, taut, and definitely doesn’t make you feel good at the end. There’s no Spielberg-inspired sappiness or spreading of holiday cheer. This is a movie about a lunatic who gets away with it and is never explained. While John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978 solidified what the modern slasher movie was, this and Texas Chain Saw Massacre, both in 1974, laid the groundwork.
Taking place in and around a sorority house in the days leading up to Christmas break, a crazy person, whose POV we get a lot of the time, ambles by and jimmies his way inside, hiding in the attic. He then begins making horribly obscene phone calls to the girls and their house mother Mrs. Mac. They have no idea he’s in there, but we do, and there are all kinds of weird secret passageways which lead to the first murder, a girl who gets suffocated with plastic. She’s left in the attic window in a rocking chair, and is not found during the film. That’s perhaps the creepiest thing of all.
The other girls, including Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Andrea Martin, begin worrying about their missing friend, then their missing house mother, and call the local police, all of whom seem pretty inept except Lt. Fuller (John Saxon), who places a tap on the house’s phones. The calls continue of course, and it sounds very much like a raving lunatic using multiple voices; one is of a boy named Billy talking about what he and “Agnes” have done, another is presumably this Agnes personality, and the third is a grown man yelling and saying nasty things. These calls, and the POV shots of the killer blithering to himself, are beyond upsetting.
To complicate things, Hussey’s character is pregnant and she eventually tells her high-strung pianist boyfriend (Keir Dullea). She says that she wants an abortion and doesn’t want to get married. This is too much for him to take and he starts acting erratically. Could he be the killer? The movie leaves this ambiguous. In fact, it leaves almost everything ambiguous, which is to the filmmakers’ credit. There’s no ending.
Clark, his cinematographer Reginald H. Morris, and cameraman Bert Dunk created a dizzying and suitably horrifying visual sense in the movie with fish eye lenses used for the killer’s POV, long panning shots to suggest where the killer is or might be, and shadows in exactly the right part of the frame. The sparseness of noise also adds to the effect, with the echoing phone ring or the suddenly loud belligerence of the killer breaking the silence with a jolt. These all enhance Roy Moore’s screenplay, which has the characters chatting glibly for good portions of the film to lull us all into a false sense of security before stuff starts really happening.
The end of the movie is particularly chilling–our heroine has passed out after it seems the killer might have been caught. We see her lying in her bed and hear the police and a doctor talking about how she’ll be out for hours. The room is full of people, but slowly people start exiting, caught up with other things to do or other crises to handle. Eventually, she’s all alone and passed out, looking serene. The camera backs out and pans across the wall and up until it settles on and zooms in toward the attic door. As the camera jumps outside and begins pulling away from the house, the phone rings…and rings…and rings… It’s an ending scarier, I think, than even Donald Pleasence’s look of doom after Michael Myers survives getting shot.
Black Christmas never really got its due at the time in the United States, though it was a big hit in its native Canada. In recent years it’s gotten a cult following and more people have seen it. I think it might be one of the three or four best horror movies of the decade and definitely one that deserves to be watched on a yearly basis. What it lacks in gore it makes up for in filmmaking prowess and a creep factor of ten. As the not-James-Mason narrator in the trailer above proclaims: if this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight.
Images: Film Funding/Warner Bros
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!