Christmas has come and gone but it’s still cold enough to enjoy a festive horror. WARNING: here be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film you might want to watch it before reading more.
Starring Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Keir Dullea, the film takes place over a couple of days at Christmas. The film had many titles before it’s release; Stop Me, Silent Night Evil Night and Stranger in the House before Black Christmas was chosen despite worries from the suits that the title Black Christmas might suggest to potential viewers that the film was a blaxploitation film.
Olivia Hussey plays Jess a girl living in a sorority house, Keir Dullea is her boyfriend Peter and Margot Kidder is wild child Barb. The girls live in a sorority run by an older woman Mrs Mac played by Marian Waldman. (in a role that was offered to Bette Davis – can you imagine?!) The girls have been receiving obscene phone calls from an anonymous man who they refer to as ‘the moaner’.
Whenever I watch Black Christmas I’m reminded just how progressive it is. Sure there’s an off colour comment about rape at the beginning of the film but the protagonist Jess is a brilliant character.
She’s calm, level headed and I don’t think she actually cries once during the whole ordeal. Not one tear.
There is also the subject of Jess and her pregnancy, earlier in the film we see Jess tell her boyfriend she’s pregnant and that she intends to have an abortion. Do you realise how rare it is to see a woman in film discuss the option of abortion? Not only that but the language the obscene caller uses is pretty colourful for the early 70’s, I’m amazed they got away with saying what they did. There is also no sex or nudity in the film which for a horror film about young women living in a sorority is unusual from a modern perspective and a breath of fresh air.
Nor does Jess do anything typically ‘stupid’ when it comes to her actions during the film. The only time that argument comes up is towards the end of the film when the police tell Jess to put the phone down and leave the house, poor Jess is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. She’s either stupid for not doing as she’s told, and tries to help her friends or she’s branded selfish for leaving her friends to find safety. It’s at this moment in the film that Olivia tips ever so slightly in hysterical territory but it’s only for a few seconds and she’s able to regain her composure as she decides to take matters into her own hands.
I’ve read a lot of articles and blog posts about Black Christmas and one thing that keeps popping up is the authors hatred of Margot Kidder, which I just don’t understand. Sure, her character is a bit annoying but she’s also a very recognisable character from our own lives. Trust me, you knew a wild child like her character Barb when you were a teen, even if you weren’t friends with her, you knew her. The girl who drinks and swears and is a little out of control, I love characters like that.
Now let’s talk about Billy. As far as I’m concerned Billy is by far one of the scariest killers in horror. We never get to see more than one eye as he hides in various places around the house and his manic whispering to his victims is chilling. Billy speaks in different voices, one sounds like a woman, could be his mother who keeps asking what did he do with the baby? He is constantly talking to Agnes, whoever she might be, his sister? Perhaps Agnes is the baby, we get the impression that something sinister happened to the baby and is possibly responsible for the crack in his psyche. We don’t know anything about Billy and maybe that’s what adds an extra fear factor, we don’t know why he’s killing young women, we don’t know anything and we fear the unknown.
There tends to be the complaint that Black Christmas is full of clichés but this film created many of those clichés. The calls are coming from inside the house, the girl who disobeys the police only to find herself in more danger, the police are less than useless and the suspicious boyfriend, all good old fashioned horror clichés that Black Christmas is responsible for and shouldn’t be judged alongside films that came later.
Without Black Christmas we wouldn’t have Halloween, or rather I should say we would have Halloween but it wouldn’t be the classic it is today. John Carpenter took the killer’s POV style shots used in Black Christmas and used them for Halloween. There is very little gore in both films and both are the first films to set a horror around a holiday. In fact it just takes a couple of small changes and the plots for both films are almost identical. When A Stranger Calls was also inspired by Black Christmas, taking the phone calls coming from inside the house as the central plot but it’s Halloween that’s credited as creating the slasher film.
And finally, that ending. It’s the perfect chilling end to a very creepy film. I’m surprised that a sequel for Black Christmas never appeared. The decision to not only not reveal the killer but to have him still on the loose and while our heroine is knocked out cold is a bold move and one that the suits didn’t want. They fought director Bob Clark and asked him many times to change the ending but Clark refused and I’m sure we can all agree he made the right call.