Black Christmas / Silent Night, Evil Night / Stranger in the House (1974) ****
Once again, I call your attention to a slasher film that beat Halloween to the punch by a number of years. This time around, the topic of discussion is Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, a movie more often talked about than seen (having mostly flown under the radar of all but the most dedicated fans for the last three decades), but which is nevertheless a major milestone in the development of the slasher subgenre. Black Christmas appears to have been the first such film ever made in Canada, the originator of a lineage that produced some of the most unusual (if not always especially good) movies about maniacs to appear over the course of the 1980’s. It was also the first in North America to utilize the sorority-house setting which would become so popular in the years to come, and the first anywhere that I know of to use some instantly recognizable occasion as a shorthand means of establishing the mood. In terms of plot structure and characterization, Black Christmas proved far more influential than the contemporary and better known The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although it also resembles the latter movie in being notable as much for those areas in which it failed to exert any pull on subsequent filmmakers as it is for its conspicuous contributions to the 80’s slasher template. Though it has been repeatedly plundered for individual plot points during the 30 years since its release, Black Christmas has never, so far as I’ve seen, been treated to anything like the wholesale copying that attended the advent of, say, Friday the 13th.
Christmas is fast approaching, and the sisters of Pi Kappa Sigma are throwing one last party before splitting up to return home for the holidays. What the girls don’t realize is that they have an uninvited guest. While the sorority sisters and their boyfriends whoop it up in the main parlor, somebody climbs up the rose trellis on the side of the house, and lets himself into the attic through an unlocked dormer— and judging from the distorted lens through which director Bob Clark shows us the intruder’s point of view, it seems safe to say that he’s got something far more serious than a panty raid on his mind. Meanwhile, the girls downstairs soon have yet another distraction to keep them from noticing the prowler on the upper floors, because they’ve just had another phone call from the Moaner. Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey, later of Ice Cream Man and The Cat and the Canary) initially takes the call, but after enduring a few minutes of heavy breathing, porcine grunting, and colorfully obscene descriptions of what the caller would like to do with her, she hands the phone over to sorority president Barb Coard (Margot Kidder, from Sisters and The Amityville Horror). Barb gives as good as she gets, and the Moaner quickly hangs up. His last words before doing so, however, are of a rather different and altogether more menacing character from his usual gleeful dirty-talk: “I’m going to kill you.” Claire Harrison (Lynn Griffin), a straight-laced girl from a sheltered background, worries aloud that Barb shouldn’t provoke somebody like the Moaner, but Barb herself laughs it off. Claire, on the other hand, will be doing very little laughing from here on out. She goes upstairs to pack her bags while the party is still in full swing, and is ambushed by the prowler, who has taken up a position in Claire’s closet. The prowler suffocates Claire with a plastic garment bag, and then carries her body up the ladder to the attic.
It would seem that Claire had always kept mostly to herself, because it isn’t until her father (James Edmond) comes looking for her the following afternoon that anybody notices she’s gone. But as Mr. Harrison asks around, it becomes obvious that no one has seen his daughter since she went upstairs to pack that night— not Barb, Jess, or Phyllis (Andrea Martin, of Cannibal Girls), the last of the Pi Kappa Sigma sisters still remaining at the house; not Jess’s conservatory grad-student boyfriend, Peter Smythe (Keir Dullea, from Brainwaves and 2001: A Space Odyssey); not Mrs. MacHenry (Miriam Waldman, from Phobia and Deranged), the brassy, alcoholic house mother; not even Claire’s own boyfriend, Chris Hayden (Art Hindle, from The Brood and Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Harrison and the girls go to the police, but the desk officer, Sergeant Nash (Doug McGrath, of Twilight Zone: The Movie and Ghosts of Mars), doesn’t take the report very seriously; he believes Claire has probably just snuck off to spend a day or two shacked up with a second boyfriend nobody else knew about. Nash also thinks nothing of the sorority girls’ complaint that their house has been targeted by an extremely persistent obscene caller. Needless to say, Sergeant Nash is not going to be a very popular figure around the Pi Kappa Sigma place in the immediate future.
Fortunately, Nash’s superior, Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon, from Queen of Blood and Battle Beyond the Stars), is a much brighter bulb than the desk sergeant. He begins to suspect that there’s real trouble in town as soon as he hears that Claire Harrison isn’t the only person to go missing during the past few days. Not long after receiving the report of Claire’s disappearance, Fuller interviews a woman (Murder by Phone’s Martha Gibson) whose thirteen-year-old daughter never came home from school the other day. Fuller organizes a search party, which Harrison and the Pi Kappa Sigma girls join on theory that it’s just as likely to turn up clues to Claire’s whereabouts as it is to find the younger girl. As it happens, what the search party finds is the thirteen-year-old’s mutilated body, and Fuller’s suspicions of real trouble give way to uncontestable certainty.
Meanwhile, Jess has yet another worry weighing on her mind. She has just found out that she’s pregnant with Peter’s child, and early motherhood really isn’t consistent with her plans for the future. Peter, however, is more than ready to settle down and start a family— see, this is just one more reason why college-age girls really ought to think twice about dating guys in the pushing-30 age demographic. He doesn’t take the news well when Jess tells him she means to get an abortion; in fact, it might not be going too far to say that Peter goes absolutely bugshit. He tells Jess that she’s going to be “very sorry” if she has the pregnancy aborted, he has some kind of nervous breakdown right in the middle of an important piano recital (culminating in Peter smashing the guts of his baby grand to pieces with a microphone stand), and he starts spending a disturbing amount of time hanging menacingly around in the vicinity of the Pi Kappa Sigma house. What’s more, the Moaner’s prank calls now turn lunatic and incoherent, and begin incorporating quotes from the big fight Jess and Peter had in the parlor when she first broached the subject of pregnancies and abortions. Fuller comes to suspect that Smythe is dangerous— possibly even that he’s the teenager’s killer— and he has his partner, Graham (Les Carlson, from Videodrome and The Dead Zone) install tapping and trace-back equipment on the downstairs phone in the sorority house; the phone in Mrs. Mac’s room is on a separate line, and the Moaner has never called it. He also stations an officer across the street to keep watch. We in the audience know some things which Jess and Fuller don’t, however. First of all, we know the killer is already in the house, and has been since the night of the party. Second, we’re pretty sure at this point that the killer and the Moaner are one and the same, which would tend to imply that the increasingly threatening phone calls are actually being made from Mrs. Mac’s room. So when the killer murders Mrs. Mac while everyone else in the house is down at the police station, and then comes down out of the attic that night to prey upon Jess and her two remaining friends, the question is, can anybody remember whether or not Peter was ever in the room with them when the Moaner called? Answering that question correctly is apt to mean the difference between life and death for Jess before all is said and done.
What we have here is quite possibly the world’s smartest slasher movie, but adequately explaining why is going to require me to give away a few things that a first-time viewer is going to want to remain in ignorance of; if you haven’t yet seen Black Christmas, but believe that you’re going to want to, then I recommend that you stop here and come back after you’ve had a chance to watch the film. What makes Black Christmas such a joy to behold is that it answers every one of the most common complaints about slasher films, despite having been made at least six years before the vast majority of the movies eliciting those complaints were more than a twinkle in their creators’ eyes. We have cops here, to begin with, and not only do we have cops, but they’re competent cops for the most part. Screenwriter Roy Moore sends them off in exactly the wrong direction, of course, but he does so in a way that plays completely fair— longtime slasher fans will conclude very quickly that Peter Smythe is not the killer, but there’s every reason to believe that he may be evolving very swiftly into a killer, and Fuller and his fellow policemen are therefore right to be chasing after him. Moore has also devised a set of circumstances in which it is possible for the characters caught by the killer to disappear one by one without attracting undue attention. Everyone simply assumes that Claire Richardson has gone home until her father shows up to tell them otherwise. Mrs. MacHenry tells Jess and Barb that she will probably have left the sorority house to embark on her own holiday trip by the time they return from the police station, and because her plan was to hire a taxi to take her to the airport, there’s no cause for concern later when her car is around and she isn’t. Barb, for her part, is sleeping off an economy-sized drunk when the killer gets to her. The only victim whose disappearance couldn’t reasonably go unnoticed for at least a little while is the one whose unexplained absence finally alerts Jess to the full extent of her peril. Black Christmas even manages to employ what would become the slasher movie’s most obnoxious cliché— the killer who isn’t dead even though he certainly ought to be— in a way that is not only perfectly reasonable, but which actually improves the film as a whole! It possesses the most shockingly downbeat ending of any slasher movie I’ve seen, and it carries the convention of the red herring suspect further, with more upsetting results, than any film I know of in any genre. Simply put, Black Christmas is about as thoroughly unsafe as any slasher flick you’re ever going to find.
Black Christmas also enjoys the benefit of an extraordinarily capable cast. In a film like this one, in which no character can fairly be described as Expendable Meat, a high uniform standard of acting is essential, and everyone involved here really delivers. Margot Kidder is so much better here than she was in The Amityville Horror that it’s hard to believe we’re watching the same actress at work. Keir Dullea stops just short of going too far in his portrayal of Peter Smythe’s downward spiral. Olivia Hussey manages to be memorable in a part which permits her neither quirks nor eccentricities. John Saxon’s performance, in retrospect, leaves the audience with the fascinating impression that we’re seeing his character from A Nightmare on Elm Street as a young man, an effect which, while obviously accidental, enriches Black Christmas in a small but significant way. Hell, even Miriam Waldman, whose main job is comic relief, makes a strong showing for herself.
There is one audience segment that probably won’t find Black Christmas to its liking, however, and to the movie’s disadvantage, that segment happens also to account for the great bulk of slasher fandom. Despite the presence of an eye-catchingly dreamy, Argento-like murder scene involving a glass unicorn bust, Black Christmas is almost completely devoid of graphic violence and gore. Those who come into a horror movie expecting to see heads roll will receive no satisfaction from this one. I myself don’t find that to be much of a problem, though. Really, the only serious defect I see in Black Christmas is the rambling, repetitive, unfocused quality of the second act. There are too many failed attempts to trace the Moaner’s phone calls, too many scenes of the sorority girls trying to behave as though life were going on normally, too many out-of-place jokes predicated on the density of Sergeant Nash. The film almost seems to be stalling for time. Luckily, that section isn’t inordinately long, and it is bracketed by both a strong setup and an absolutely wicked conclusion.