A large house harboring the cheerful chatter of a sorority Christmas party, a few colorful holiday decorations and a wintry landscape make up the first images of this film. But it's not quite the warm and friendly scenario it appears to be, as we soon realize we're seeing all this through the eyes of a stranger. This person proceeds to climb up an ivy trellis along the side of the house and enters through an attic window. Minutes later, a sorority girl is dead.
Okay, sure, pretty much every horror movie starts off with a kill in the opening frames, but none of them are anywhere near as unnerving. A big part of why this film is so successful is obviously largely due in part to the seriously underrated director, Bob Clark, and his powerful execution, but I think it goes a bit deeper than that.
What is it about locked doors and bolted windows that make us feel so completely safe in our homes? Surely they keep us safe to a certain degree, but what stops someone from picking the lock? From shattering a window? From finding an attic window that no one even thinks to lock in the first place? Black Christmas starts off on a chilling note by brutally slapping us in the face with the truth: The comfort we feel in our homes is a big fat LIE.
As the sorority sisters begin clearing out for Christmas break, Jessica (Olivia Hussey) and Phyllis (Andrea Martin) decide to stay behind at the house to help out their friend Barb (Margot Kidder), a lovable drunken mess of a girl who has no family to go home to. Soon after, they begin receiving obscene phone calls from someone they've dubbed "The Moaner," thinking he's just some lonely pervert looking to get some kicks. But as the calls become more frequent and downright disturbing, Jessica begins to worry that someone dangerous may be stalking them.
Instead of rushing towards the end credits while bombarding us with gory murders, as so many slashers tend to do, Bob Clark would rather take his time for the development of character and atmosphere and follow in the footsteps of the great Alfred Hitchcock, proving that anticipation of the horror is where the real suspense comes from.
Using a "less is more" approach, a lot of the creepiness is provided subtly with the familiar and the mundane, rather than the fantastical. The sound design, which is sadly an element rarely used to it's advantage in horror films, is brilliantly displayed here in all it's glory. For instance, the occasional inclusion of a few distant dog barks coming from somewhere in the night may seem like nothing much, but when you think about it, the first thing that gets associated with dog barks is an intruder, isn't it?
The creepy, but minimalist musical score is heightened by Bob Clark's tapestry of other natural sounds from his surroundings; the soft ticking of a grandfather clock, the crackling of a fire place, the cold howling wind outside and a few creaky floorboards. While these sounds may not be considered malevolent on their own, hearing them put together in this particular case somehow creates an unnerving piece that truly gets under your skin.
The wind and crackling fire provide that extra sense of atmospheric chill, the creaky floorboards warn of a prowler lurking about and the clock becomes a ticking time bomb, grating at your nerves as you fear the inevitable. It even comes to a point when the simple sound of the phone ringing alone becomes utterly chilling to listen to, regardless of the killer's disturbing gibberish on the other end.
And man oh man, what a frightening SOB the killer is! Aside from a few minor glimpses, one of which includes his creepy bulging eye, the killer is seldom seen, but his presence is surely felt throughout the entire film. We're not given a lot, but just enough to know that he's there somewhere, watching and waiting and I couldn't help but peer over my own shoulder for fear that someone was watching me too.
Okay, so if you haven't noticed by now...I totally heart this film. It's a frickin masterpiece, I tells ya! I honestly believe it's not only the greatest slasher film to date, but also one of the scariest horror films ever made. I swear, the ending gets my heart pounding every damn time I see it. I even considered sleeping with the lights on after my first viewing. It freaked me out that much.
Unfortunately, regardless of how insanely awesome Black Christmas is, it didn't exactly make a big splash when it was originally released and has since remained mostly hidden in the overbearing shadow of John's Carpenter's Halloween, the slasher known for starting it all and being the first of it's kind
But why is that???
Yeah, I know...Halloween is a classic that deserves the praise it gets. In fact, Halloween has always been my favorite movie ever since I was a wee lad. But once I saw Black Christmas when I was around 17 years old, I honestly felt betrayed. I felt like John Carpenter had been playing me for a fool all those years, seeing as how Halloween basically feels like a carbon copy, using all the same techniques Bob Clark used (much more skillfully) four years earlier!
It really is a shame how Black Christmas has been mistreated and I guarantee that Halloween wouldn't be in existence without it. Black Christmas is the true mother of the slasher sub-genre that can't be missed.
On a side note...The remake, on the other hand, should be missed. Forever. Seriously, avoid it like the plague.