It’s fitting that, about three-quarters into Bob Clark’s yuletide chiller Black Christmas, I almost laughed out loud when a character exclaims in a panic, “The calls are coming from inside the house!” Before watching, I’d been unaware that the iconic line now synonymous with the horror-slasher genre had originated here, knowing it only as an endlessly emulated, referenced, and parodied item in the horror archetype.
This is an apt microcosm for the experience one has when first watching Black Christmas. Released in 1974 alongside The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and years ahead of Halloween or Friday the 13th, it can be reasonably credited with the invention of the slasher genre — one not only rife with quintessential tropes and iconography, but one that, debatably, doesn’t exist without them. Black Christmas is a virtual funhouse tour of “Oh hey, I know you!”s, stuffed like a holiday turkey with genre idiosyncrasies; the difference, of course, is that it isn’t operating under the laws of past films and audience expectations. It plays by its own rules, and its little heart of coal has a nastily good time doing it.
The plot is simple, beginning at a university sorority house during Christmas break. We see the group of girls bustling through holiday festivities and meet a few; Jess is pregnant, Barb is inebriated, and Claire is neither, but all of them are victims of a caller who frequently rings the house to deliver obscene and sometimes unintelligible messages. We’re treated to one such call within the opening minutes, and this, combined with the POV shot of an unknown figure climbing the trellis of the house and entering the attic, suggests that some trouble is brewing. We can’t know who will be the first to go, but judging by conventional slasher wisdom, we can hazard a guess who’ll outlast the rest.
As it turns out, Claire’s lack of moral deficiency is not worth what it would be elsewhere, and the character who would normally be the prime candidate for the “final girl” is in fact the first to go. This is the first hint we receive of Black Christmas’ transgressive sensibility; it’s a film that takes fiendish pleasure in upending natural expectations and the inherent human desire for order and rationality, and only gets more unsettling the further in you venture. The film’s tagline states that if it doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight, which is a warranted claim. Black Christmas has a way of getting under your skin that few films have. This is due in part to the tangible grit of the beautiful 1970’s celluloid (it’s one thing for the summer-set Texas Chainsaw to make you feel physically grimy while watching it, and another thing entirely for a film set in Canada during the holidays to accomplish the same thing), but also to the film’s nasty refusal to cooperate with our expectations. I suspect it’s an even more unnerving experience now than it was forty years ago, thanks to genre conventions that steer our anticipations away from what the film actually has in mind.
In reality, Black Christmas plays more like an Agatha Christie story than a stereotypical slasher film. It doesn’t manipulate you through the form itself, only through the twisted and unsettling narrative. Take, for example, the buildup to the first victim’s demise. It is tense and expertly executed, showing first the killer’s POV hiding behind some clothes in a closet, then Claire as she moves about her room and then towards the closet itself. Watching this for the first time with the context of modern horror filmmaking, I expected it to be a red herring, a fake-out. But this film doesn’t play games; it’s swift and brutal and to the point. That Claire should be the first to go is significant; her name in Latin means “bright” or “clear,” and her death signals an obscuration of clarity and a plunge into darkness.
Hence the title, Black Christmas. It’s an obvious play on the iconic yuletide song that dreams of a white Christmas and the peaceful, cleansing purity brought by snow. “Black Christmas” infers the opposite. Instead of serenity and joy, there is disorder and terror. The sacred is tainted with the vulgar and profane: Christmas celebrations are regularly disrupted by threatening phone calls; Santa Claus curses in front of the children; Jess is pregnant (never insignificant in a Christmas film) but wants to have an abortion. The most unsettling thing about Black Christmas isn’t the grisliness of the kills, but their juxtaposition against the holiness of the season. Black Christmas is quite interesting when imagined in conversation with Jung: “In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.” That quote condenses the Christian reason for celebration in the Advent season quite nicely — Christmas celebrates the incarnation of Order itself into a world enslaved to chaos, proclaiming the divine providence that works over all even if it does so beyond our understanding. Christmas reveals that when the curtain is pulled back, all the things we wished could make sense actually do. It affirms a cosmos that rules over chaos and subdues it.
Black Christmas shows what it would look like for the opposite to be true. Its mantra is that “In all cosmos there is chaos, in all order a secret disorder.” Instead of a savior who descends from above to abolish the reign of death, a deranged maniac descends from the attic to distribute it. In place of the perfect union between the Father and Son, the unknown caller’s guttural rants hint at a childhood of abuse (among other things, he repeatedly groans about “little baby bunting” and “daddy gone a-hunting”). At a time when the world should seem especially bright, a heavy darkness shrouds it.
The film’s intense nihilism persists even to the closing moments. In the last act, Jess is in the house alone with the killer. She descends to the basement, there encounters her boyfriend Peter, and acts in self-defensive violence. The police rush the house, and Jess, exhausted by the trauma of it all, is put to rest in bed. It seems that at last, all is calm. The killer has exacted a terrible price, but at last he is known and defeated. Just as order has been reestablished, however, the camera moves away from Jess as she sleeps to pan around the house, retracing its steps throughout the film to show the sites of earlier murders. In some of them, the blood has yet to be cleaned. Unease begins to build, and you aren’t sure why. Finally, the camera begins a terribly slow tilt upward until it settles on the attic trap door, which moves ever so slightly. We cut outside and see a policeman on the front stoop, who still thinks the killer is dead and that Jess is alone in the house, and the credits roll. It wasn’t Peter, and we’ll never know who it was.
It’s here that the comparison to Christie drops dead. Her novels operate under an invariable rule of moral satisfaction and tidy resolution; no matter how lurid and bewildering the mystery may seem, it all makes sense in the end. Where it fails as a whodunnit, Black Christmas comes into its own as a horror masterpiece, for good horror understands that the greatest terror of all comes from a lack of understanding. Its resolution upends easy explanations to instead reveal a world of impenetrable and unforgiving chaos. It is, in short, a masterful demonstration of the anti-Christmas story. Watch it not to celebrate its verity, but to celebrate its falsity, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the hopeful beauty of Children of Men or the blazing virtue of It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t ring a just little truer afterwards.