I watch the 1974 version of Black Christmas every holiday season. It’s kind of like my own version of It’s a Wonderful Life and certainly more fun than that downer. IAWL is the This is Us of Christmas movies. But I digress. For its 45th anniversary, let’s get into why BC is one of the best holiday horror films.
They’ve got character
Just like the recent remake, the original is set in a sorority house where a small group of the women are staying over Christmas break. Unbeknowst to them, a psychotic killer has taken up residence in their attic. Creepy attics were made for murderers. Basements aren’t much better. But, back to the sisters. It’s rare in a horror movie to care about the characters. Typically, they’re one dimensional and underdeveloped. Plus, you know they’re going to die soon, so why put in the effort. But in BC, the main group is actually well written and worth giving a crap about. Jess (Olivia Hussey), our final girl, is intelligent, strong, and caring. She has her own mind. In the movie, we find out that she’s pregnant and intends to have an abortion. Even with her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) pressuring her to keep it, she won’t be swayed. It didn’t occur to me until after watching the 2019 BC, with its strong feminist story, that the original already explored that perspective. A young woman making decisions about her body despite a man’s interference is pretty advanced for 1974. Then there’s Barb (Margot Kidder), the clever sardonic sister. She uses her wit and bravado as armor, sometimes hurting others with her sharp tongue. We only see her break once, when she feels guilty because she thinks her harsh words drove Clare (Lynne Griffin) away. It’s only then that Barb’s vulnerability comes out. She’s an interesting flawed person. Finally, kind-hearted Phyl (Andrea Martin) rounds out the trio. She doesn’t get much of a storyline, but you’re still invested in her. She’s a genuine supportive friend to the others. There’s also a good cop in the movie, Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon). He’s actually smart (don’t see that often in scary movies) and takes the concerns of the girls seriously.
Oh, the horror
From the first shot of the sorority house, director Bob Clark gets you in the mood for what is to come. It’s a dark, cold, eerily quiet night. Then we see, from his POV, as the killer climbs up the side of the house into the attic. Shortly thereafter the phone rings. He’s calling the women, howling and screaming like a maniac. It’s disturbing. The rest of the movie carries on in the same vein. Little things, like the ominous score and sound effects (that duuuuuunnng noise), can be very jarring. There’s not a lot of blood and gore here because you don’t need it in order to scare the viewer (something the 2006 version didn’t comprehend). When Barb is killed, yes you do see blood, but nothing over the top. It’s more unnerving that Clark juxtaposes her death with a children’s choir caroling downstairs at the front door. And who needs gore when you have a ton of suspense? Watching Jess, alone in the living room, unaware that her friends have been killed, frightened by the incessant phone calls, and fearful for what might come next is pure terror. The biggest moment comes when the police, who have been trying to trace the phone calls, discover their origin. They warn Jess with the now classic, “the calls are coming from inside the house”. That should have been followed by a “run, girl!”, since she decides to stay put and look for her friends. Oh Jess. My favorite scare is when the killer chases her and grabs her hair through the bannister. Makes me jump every time.
To break up all these scary moments, Clark and screenwriter Roy Moore add some much-needed humor to the movie. Marian Waldman plays Mrs. Mac, the girls’ boozy house mother. The running joke is she’s always drinking from bottles of alcohol that are hidden around the house. Who knew you could chill your spirits in the toilet tank? There’s also desk sergeant Nash (Douglas McGrath) at the police station. He’s dumber than a box of hair and that’s being generous. The fellatio gag never gets old. “It’s something dirty, ain’t it?” And, of course, Barb brings the laughs with her extended zoo sex story. You’ll never look at turtles the same way again.
There are times when a movie doesn’t provide all the answers and you’re actually ok with it. BC falls into this category. There are a lot of plot points left up to the audience to decipher on their own. The biggest one being the identity of the killer. Or a reason for why he is doing this. Also, what was he babbling about on the phone? Similarly, the b-story of the movie focuses on the disappearance of a little girl who is eventually found dead in the park. Could the sorority house killer have been involved? Or maybe there are two murderers running around. And later in the movie, after the police have left unconscious Jess alone in the house with the killer still in the attic, you wonder if he’ll come after her again. But we’ll never know since the movie ends with a…