“Merry Christmas” is not a phrase you often hear in the dead of summer, but “Christmas in July” is a tacky theme you may be more familiar with. If there’s one thing I’m guilty of, it’s indulging in bold kitsch… but I’m actually guilty of another, possibly tasteless, choice as a horror fan. I figured if I wanted to make my way off of the Naughty List this year I would have to admit to something I’m not all that proud of — I had not seen the ultimate slasher classic Black Christmas until a few months ago. I knew it was a horror staple, one that usually came up in conversation when discussing original thrillers and slasher films that came before or influenced John Carpenter’s Halloween, and felt like I knew enough about the plot without having to see it for myself.
I was wrong.
Written by A. Roy Moore (The Last Chance) and directed by Bob Clarke (A Christmas Story) Black Christmas follows a house of sorority sisters prayed upon by an unidentifiable maniac who begins taunting the women with menacing phone calls and makes his way into the house to carry out a slow-burning massacre. Our main girl, Jess, finds herself at a relationship crossroads, but quickly put that on hold when one of the other girls, Clare, is suspected to be missing. The sorority women stick together to figure out what happened to her, though the answer is pretty obvious to viewers. Tight tension of mystery rings merrily through the air as we see a stranger kill the others left behind all the while taunting Jess through the night.
It’s not the Christmas story we know, but for those of you who are wondering why I’m recommending you stream a Christmas movie in July, believe me when I say that I’ve learned Black Christmas is an important film to watch and one I highly recommend to those who think their taste is above the typical 70’s slasher. Plus, it’s never too early to plan for the holidays…
Christmas time and bloody murder don’t exactly go hand-in-hand, but it’s the fantastic, overt contrast that makes the two an almost perfect pairing. It’s the phenomena of taboo observation that piques our intrigue and draws in the curiously of our subconscious. Personally, I guiltily indulge in contrast whether it be in color, imagery, themes, sound, tone, or a combination of any elements. You might be wondering why I would even suggest revisiting the holidays during a summer month free from the seasonal stresses. Nothing screams contrast more than the brutality that takes place during the holidays like it does in Black Christmas. Also, nothing can be scarier than putting yourself in holiday mode during the summer.
With the title alone pinning darkness against light, Black Christmas is an enticing invitation to celebrate some gore against a yuletide backdrop. The stillness of winter, the merriment of carolers, the isolation of the holiday season, and the soft, warm lighting of happy nostalgia set the stage for the massacre of the young women occupying the sorority house. The taunting phone calls and vicious deaths of the innocent women adds a reign of juxtaposition splashing unexpected blood on the charm of Christmas and sisterhood. There’s a reason many like to bask in the aura of Christmas during the opposite calendar cycle of the lunar year. It’s a different kind of experience, one that Black Christmas already perfects in setting, dynamics, and tone. Like the Christmas holiday and season, it steadily mixes up your senses and confuses your internally hardwired expectations.
Rejoice in Relevancy
It seems like the horror genre of today’s audience is painted in important cultural relevancy, with themes ranging from the subsequent effects of mental health, to distinct tropes regarding race, religion, and even sex. Most importantly, we’ve seen an evolution of the female role in horror. Women have gone from victim, to love interest, to the final girl, to heroine over the course of cinema within the last few decades. Back in the horror films of the 70’s and 80’s, the genre saw an interesting mass of abuse towards women in horror, particularly slasher films, where violence was supposedly pinpointed specifically toward the “weaker sex”. Granted, there was brutality for the sake of brutality, but there were also some films that acted as progressive milestones in horror cinema and Black Christmas is definitely one of them.
Surrounding a group of sorority sisters, Black Christmas puts femininity and sisterhood at the forefront as the faceless killer picks them off one by one. The women are the victims, but Black Christmas survives the strength of womanhood within the main character, Jess played by Olivia Hussey (1990’s IT), and her nuanced camaraderie of support in the other women of the sorority. She is caught between the incredibly flawed, selfish man that she loves, Peter, and her ultimate decision in aborting the unborn child that he adamantly does not want her to have. It’s a strong issue for the time as the 70’s was a just budding period of female empowerment, but a highly relevant topic for today’s audiences. Jess holds onto her decision and maintains control throughout most of the film rather than becoming another pretty survivor by chance.
Black Christmas portrays a variety of female characters; some who take charge, some are innocent, funny, smart, sarcastic, and all caring of one another. All push forward in the attempt to find Clare, often leaving the feeble protection of the police, parents, and other male characters behind in the snow. While Margot Kidder (The Amityville Horror) as Barb is a woman of a more contemporary caliber, the older den mother, Mrs. MacHenry played by Marian Waldman (Deranged), exists as a more traditional, classic portrait of womanly duty. There’s a range of ages between them as well as emotions offering a lot more to this starter slasher than meets the creeping eye.
We live in a unique time for horror, one where most filmmakers don’t make just for the sake of making. We’re seeing a constant build on quality and storytelling which naturally has created a more terrifying state of scares. As much as we love the classics and relish the lasting memories of our first-time horrors, it’s easy to deem 70’s flicks like Black Christmas as “dated” material. What I found to be the most satisfying factor of this slasher, was its ability to truly horrify viewers with visual simplicity and basic pacing. Black Christmas flows in a fantastic linear storyline beginning with the disappearance and unknown murder of Clare. Throughout the film, her head, bound in a plastic bag – and corpse, sitting in a rocking chair – tease us with the killer’s intentions. Every time the transition between scenes is interjected with her up in the attic, chills ran down my spine. It has a shocking realism to it that really carries throughout the rest of the film, as the mystery around the so-called Billy that is terrorizing the sorority builds.
Billy’s creepy, threatening, and nefarious phone calls are absolutely haunting as he breathes heavily into the receiver, erratically screams, and manically spews violent threats that have nothing to do with any of the characters at hand. Like the great evil entity of Halloween’s Michael Myers, Black Christmas really set the stage of being discreet with the killer’s identity, motives, and origins, something that really works when you’re trying to maximize scares. When Billy makes himself known to Jess, one of those scenes I had heard about for so long and never experienced for myself, is just as scary as I had hoped it would be. The entire film runs with a sense of unease and unnerving tension, while the real menacing parts are far and few in between. They are worth the wait and patience as Black Christmas allows you to absorb the influential content that began the slasher subgenre.
While I don’t have a good reason behind not seeing Black Christmas until recently, I can tell you that I appreciate having the experience as a more cultured genre fan. If you’re someone beginning to explore horror films of any kind or consider yourself to be a seasoned member of the community, this one is worth a revisit. For me, watching Black Christmas for the first time with the right kind of appreciation was like a shiny gift tucked beneath a specially decorated tree. It was a pleasant surprise.
Black Christmas is currently available to stream on Shudder and for free on Tubi. Have a holly jolly July, Creeps!