“They’re all the same. A stupid killer stalking a busty girl who can’t play and always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door.” When Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) made her famous critique of slasher movies in Wes Craven’s “Scream,” she summed up everything that had become so cheesy and predictable about the genre in the ’80s. Craven’s Freddy Krueger was partly to blame, going from an inescapable monster haunting his victims’ nightmares to a bogeyman with a penchant for novelty kills and gnarly one-liners. Hell, he even ended up rapping with the Fat Boys in the video for “Are You Ready For Freddy.”
While there are plenty of classic slasher movies out there, the genre often gets a bad rap for hacking and gimmicks, which, thanks to endless sequels, reboots, and remakes, is to some extent deserved. That’s why I felt like I was almost revealing when I finally started watching “Black Christmas,” one of the earliest examples. Bob Clark’s Disturbing Winter Shock isn’t the first slasher ever made, but it’s the film credited with some of the most enduring tropes, from Final Girl to Killer POV, that John Carpenter so brilliantly deployed four years later. late with his game-changing “Halloween”.
“Black Christmas” easily rubs shoulders with the best of its kind. Like fellow Canadian slashers “Prom Night” and “My Bloody Valentine”, it has a tougher side than many of its Hollywood counterparts while displaying a much more human touch, steeped in seasonal melancholy and an uncommon empathy for people. victims. It also looks absolutely stunning, with an inky mid-winter palette and the diffused glow of Giallo inflected fairy lights. More importantly, it’s pretty scary, ending on a chilling note of ambiguity. But what do we know about this haunting final blow?
So what else happens at Black Christmas?
As the girls of a sorority enjoy their Christmas party, we catch the view of a heavy-breathing man as he prowls outside before gaining access through the attic window. Downstairs, the phone rings and Jess (Olivia Hussey) picks it up. It’s their usual lewd caller, “The Moaner,” but tonight his shtick spirals out of control, provoking the brash, drunk Barb (Margot Kidder) to ridicule the creep. His tone becomes very serious as he threatens to kill her before hanging up.
As the mother of the family, Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), arrives with gifts, Clare (Lynne Griffin) goes up to her room to pack for the holidays. The intruder hides in her closet and smothers her with a plastic bag before dragging her corpse to the attic, where he places her in a rocking chair by the window.
Nobody notices anything untoward until the next day when Clare’s father comes to pick her up, but she doesn’t meet him at the appointed time. Meanwhile, we meet Jess’ insufferable boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), a concert pianist who is outraged when she tells him she’s pregnant and considering having an abortion. The cops initially don’t take Clare’s disappearance seriously until later that evening, when a high school girl is also missing. Belatedly, a search is organized, led by Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon). Back home, Mrs. Mac discovers Clare’s body in the attic and suffers a curse.
The murders mount and the obscene calls home become increasingly disturbing, prompting Fuller to call in a telephone engineer to tap the line. As the high school girl is found dead in the park and the police begin to suspect Peter, can Jess keep the killer on the line long enough for them to trace the calls?
The babysitter and the man upstairs
“Black Christmas” comes with a twist that probably won’t surprise many people these days: calls are finally being identified as coming from inside the house. It’s still a hectic turn that would reappear in “When a Stranger Calls” a few years later, and it’s commonly credited as the first film version of the urban legend of Babysitter and Man Upstairs.
The horrific tale gained notoriety in the 60s, and so it goes. A babysitter is looking after two young children one night when she receives a strange phone call from a man asking, “Have you checked on the kids?” She rejects him at first, but the guy calls back a bit later and asks the same question. She knows she should go upstairs to make sure the kids are okay, but she’s too terrified.
She calls the operator to see if it could be a friend playing tricks on her and the operator asks her to stay on the line while she traces the calls. When she returns, she seems alarmed. “Get out of the house quickly!” The police are on their way. The calls come from inside the house!
Home is supposed to be where we feel safest and the story plays on the fear that someone will violate that sanctuary. The legend is creepy enough, but it’s also believed to be based on the real-life murder of 13-year-old babysitter Janett Christman in 1950 (via Psychology Today). She had managed to call the police station, but the operator could not understand what she was saying before the line went silent. When police found her body, the phone receiver had been incorrectly placed back in its cradle (via Newspapers.com).
Peter is toxic but not the killer
“Black Christmas” doesn’t do a very convincing job of casting suspicion on Jess’ boyfriend, Peter. Keir Dullea (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) makes him a toxic personality, but he’s just too disgusting a**hole from the start, which makes him fall into the “too much” category. obvious” of murder suspects.
The guy is doing himself a disservice, though. He tries to pressure Jess to keep the baby and give up on her dreams for the future, and her behavior becomes increasingly erratic when she refuses. First, we see him give a frenzied piano recital before violently returning to smash the instrument, then he creeps up on Jess in the sorority house to accuse her of wanting to hurt their baby.
We later see him hanging out outside the house in the cold, and Jess begins to suspect he might be the killer when the caller uses the phrase “like we’ve removed a wart” that’s as well as Peter described earlier the abortion procedure.
At the film’s climax, Jess discovers the bodies of Barb and Phyl (Andrea Martin), another young woman living in the house, and flees the murderer into the basement. She hears him leave through the front door, which is when Peter suddenly appears at the window. He breaks in and approaches her as she cowers, brandishing a poker.
When the police arrive, they find Jess unconscious, cradling Peter’s bleeding body. Did she kill him herself or did the murderer hit him? Either way, the cops decide he was responsible for the murders, setting up the finale. More likely, he was still hiding near the house when he saw the real killer storming out and went to his girlfriend, paying the ultimate price for his horrible behavior towards her.
Who is the Black Christmas Killer?
One of the scariest aspects of “Black Christmas” is the series of phone calls the girls receive from the violent walker. They’re just obscene at first, but take on a threatening tone after Barb insults the caller. After that, he becomes increasingly unsettled as he screams, moans, jabbers, pleads, and seems to change his voice on the other end of the line. He barely says anything coherent beyond the first call, but some of his behaviors may give some insight into the killer’s background.
At one point, he seems to be recounting a traumatic incident from the past, playing both horrified mother and worried father: “Billy, what your mother and I need to know is where did- did you put the baby? Where did you put Agnès?”
Assuming the killer is Billy, we get further clues: we hear him sing the lullaby “Bye, Baby Bunting” and watch him cradle Clare’s corpse in the attic chair, placing a doll in his lap. On a later call, he rants, “I know what you’ve done, Billy. Filthy Billy”, and soothes the sleeping Barb before killing her in her bed. This seems to indicate that Billy sexually assaulted a younger child and murdered her before she could say anything about it.
That’s all we get, though, and it’s easy to miss those call details because Billy rants and raves so much. He looks really crazy, and the most disturbing thing about the film is that we never learn his identity or find out his true story. I much prefer this kind of approach to an unmasking of the killer, as it leaves us pondering the movie’s mysterious villain long after the credits roll.
The last girl and the last phone call
Characters in slasher movies have a reputation for making incredibly bad choices, and sadly, the font in “Black Christmas” falls into that category as well. There is a silver lining, however, as their incompetence leaves us with one of the most haunting conclusions of the genre.
After the cops find Jess in the basement with Peter, she is taken to her bedroom and sedated. Detective Fuller and his team leave for the night, posting a cop at the front door. Yes, after the horrible evening she has just had, they leave Jess alone next to the room where she found two of her murdered friends earlier.
Worse still, it soon becomes apparent that the police didn’t bother to search the entire house. The camera slowly pans to the attic hatch, where we become aware of footsteps and someone mumbling on the other side before opening it. We see that Mrs. Mac and Clare are still up there with the girl still sitting in her rocking chair, staring lifelessly out the attic window. The camera pulls back outside the house and we hear the phone ring.
While the film’s first call came after Billy killed the missing high school girl in the park, he makes contact with the house after every murder he commits. Now he is alone in the house with just Jess, who is heavily sedated in bed. Does that last phone call mean he’s killed again and the Final Girl is his latest victim? We’ll never know, but it’s a suitably dark end to this darkest Christmas.
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