Elvis’ favorite Christmas movie*, Black Christmas (1974), is partly culled from the 1960s Babysitter and the Killer Upstairs urban legend that most of us now remember simply as 1979’s When a Stranger Calls. An early version of Roy Moore’s** script, in fact, was called The Babysitter,*** and it was director Bob Clark who changed the setting to a sorority. Clark also suggested the Black Christmas title, decking the halls with the very first holiday-themed slasher, and that, along with its POV killer and discarded babysitter victims, ended up recapitulated in John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1979. So the basic plot is deliberately familiar: a faceless killer sneaks into a sorority house as the university empties out for Christmas break and, one by one, dispatches the residents, all the while tormenting the surviving sisters with disturbing phone calls that, little do they realize, are coming from inside the house. That’s terrifying enough, but where Black Christmas shows real genius is where it gets complicated.
First, it’s important to underline that Black Christmas comes from an era before slashers were a well-worn subgenre, certainly before they bore the burden of implicit rules. Sure, the girls (and their vaudevillian lampoon of a housemother) drink at a party and have sexual relationships, but that’s not what gets their tickets punched – and it’s notable that, despite a sexually permissive atmosphere, there’s no risqué sexual content in Black Christmas. Whatever its influence on Halloween, Slumber Party Massacre, A Stranger Calls, and numberless others, Jamie Kennedy would have been lost in the Black Christmas world. That’s not to suggest it is any less relevant today; it’s a very #metoo movie. Black Christmas for years has been lauded as a refreshingly feminist film in a genre often targeted as a whetstone for misogyny, and whether the larger assumption has validity or not, Clark’s cult classic offers an unusually candid, non-exploitative look at the possibilities, problems, and dangers of being an unattached woman in the mid-1970s – extending not only to the girls at the sorority, but an underage, offscreen victim and the girls’ middle-aged housemother. It turns out that another word for feminist might simply be real.
The first obscene phone call from the killer, an interminable harangue about cunts and what he’d like to do them, sets the tone. We’ve met the residents of the house as their holiday party winds down into festive hangovers and people drift into their vacation plans, and we’ve watched as the killer, scored by a lurching, warped version of Silent Night, sneaks into the sorority house. This isn’t the first call they’ve have gotten – “it’s the Moaner,” heroine Jess (Olivia Hussey) calls out, drawing the rest to crowd around the receiver in the common room – but it’s an effective blunt weapon levered against the audience as much as the attending sisters. We see their upset and their skepticism and, notably, their stunned inability or unwillingness to just hang up on the crazy bastard. Eventually, tough, sarcastic Barb (Margot Kidder) starts dishing it back out to the caller, causing him to drop an abrupt, horribly undisguised “I’m going to kill you” and hang up. We still have several characters to meet and a big subplot to crack open, but that bloodless scene contains the DNA for the rest of the movie: the unseen, demented man will terrorize and the women, all interesting individuals in the context of their busy lives, will be reduced to being terrorized, and that’s the way it is. They are unsafe. Nothing will make them safe – not the police, not their housemother, not their boyfriends, not each other. The killer is in the house. He has subverted the system. He is the system, using the housemother’s own phone to make his harassing calls. The police post a guard outside the sorority house and ask pointed questions about the men in the sisters’ lives, unwittingly driving them closer to the killer. And with each murder, the killer makes a point to ensure his victim sees him for a split-second, so that they know. He was always there. Safety was always an illusion.
The most demure of the sisters, Clare, reprimands Barb for antagonizing the killer. In a later slasher, she would probably have been the heroine of the movie; instead, she retires to her bedroom to pack for her vacation and becomes the first victim in the house. The next day, Clare’s father, Barb, and the others appeal to the police for help, but aren’t taken seriously until Clare’s boyfriend personally appeals to Lt. Fuller (John Saxon). This sets off a search that discovers a different young girl’s body in the area; the police respond by tapping the sorority’s phone and posting a guard outside. The calls keep coming. People keep disappearing, albeit unnoticed as the killer takes full advantage of the Christmas break situation. Lt. Fuller’s appeal to Jess is to keep him on the phone longer. In order to trace the call, she needs to prolong her abuse. That’s the only way the police can help her.
The killer’s rants circle on two people, Billy and Agnes, and while it’s usually inferred he’s the Billy character, he has three or four voices he uses and he could just as easily be Agnes, if you ask me, unless you go outside the text of the film to the novelization maybe. (Warner Bros., call me; I’ll jiffy that spec script up for you right quick.) His motives are maddeningly unclear, although there’s an undercurrent of salaciousness that follows from his enthusiasm for the c-word and his choice of victims, and the fragmented story of Billy and Agnes littered through his rants points to illicit sexual acts and extreme measures to keep them hidden. Mileage on this point will vary, but I love that he’s so elusive. Jason, Michael Myers, Freddy, even the Driller Killer are knowable, for the audience at least, but this guy, “Billy,” is not, and his fits are so shockingly shrill, it’s a great analogue for how it feels to be harassed. You can’t rationalize it. You can’t make it fit in the shape of normal things because part of its mandate is to shatter and replace all normal things. It is aggression being willed at you. In later slashers, Final Girls and their audiences might get their bearings with tacit rules, but not here, despite following the outlines of urban legend. Billy’s unfettered madness contrasts well with Jess’s boyfriend Peter, whose own aggression and inner conflicts are of a more sympathetic nature. Speaking of Peter —
Our heroine Jess is pregnant, and reluctantly, she tells her boyfriend, conservatory student Peter (Keir Dullea). Her body language is more suited to a breakup talk than a joyful announcement, but Peter doesn’t get it. Fantastic, he exclaims. He loves Jess. He wants the baby. But she informs Peter that she’s going to have an abortion. There are things that she wants to do with her life, and she’s not willing to put them on hold. Peter cannot understand the words that come out of Jess’s mouth, and it’s hard not to feel for him, too, though he can’t see his own amazing selfishness even as he accuses Jess of the same. They have this conversation a few times, although it’s not a conversation. It’s Peter promising to quit the conservatory so they can get married, or Peter sobbing at her on the phone. Jess is unwavering. Without being able to inflict his will on his girlfriend, Peter goes Pete Townshend on a piano, threatens Jess, stalks the perimeter of the sorority, and quickly registers as Prime Suspect on Lt. Fuller’s radar. Even Jess has to wonder if it might not be Peter who is tormenting them, though it’s against her better judgment and some circumstantial evidence. When the killer echoes Peter’s recriminations to Jess in one of his calls, Jess really has to wonder, and unfortunately she’s not wondering how someone other than Peter or herself might know what he said to her. It’s a measure of how fraught and polarizing the issue of abortion has become since the film was released, only a year after the Roe v. Wade decision, that Jess’s problem – well, her other problem — would probably be more controversial to include now than it was then. Certainly in the 2006 remake, which gleefully piled on incest, rape, and tons of squicky gore, the proposed abortion, so essential to the original’s plot, didn’t make the cut. It strikes me that one of the things that pings Lt. Fuller’s Serial-Killerdar is Peter telling Jess, “I’m not going to let you kill the baby.” He tells Jess that’s a weird way to put it, and Jess replies Peter is high-strung. Would that phrasing be something a policeman would be suspicious of now?
I’m a big fan of all the performances in Black Christmas. Forgiving whether certain players are plausibly young enough (coughcoughKeirDulleacoughcough), the cast is dynamite. Margot Kidder’s Barb steals most of her scenes, but never loses the vulnerability of a truly over the top character, and John Saxon is, of course, playing the role he was born to play: beleaguered 70s cop. Marian Waldman hits just the right comedic pitch for boozy, profane housemother Mrs. Mac right up to her comeuppance, while Hussey and Dullea belong together as a couple that belongs far, far apart. The killer was technically three people, including Bob Clark, but primarily Nick Mancuso, who stood on his head to get the right pressure on his larynx for the killer’s crazy voice distortions, and much of the film’s effectiveness depends on the jarring wrongness of Billy’s spiels. Everybody just works. They’re all buoyed by tight, multitasking scenes and Clark’s streamlined direction that shuttles the plot along in a way that still leaves plenty of room for sustained stalking sequences and deliberately ratcheted dread. No matter how much pride of place the killer’s stalking is given, though, you never feel like the movie world exists solely for the purpose of the killing scenes, and I love how much depth and humor gets packed into such a tense framework. Horror works better, usually, when it’s familiar. It works better when you care, and I find it easy to care about these people, from grimly determined Jess to even the bumbling police desk guy.
Bob Clark also directed Jean Shepherd’s holiday cable marathon classic A Christmas Story, in addition to Porky’s I and II, so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that he had a gift for knowing where to stick the low comedy for best effect. He also helmed the cult classic Deathdream, aka Dead of Night, also in 1974, a monkey’s paw retelling that doubled as a metaphorical exploration of the toll of the Vietnam War on those who served and their families, so he wasn’t afraid of telling it like it was with the help of an outrageous horror premise either. And that is what Black Christmas does best, I think. It told it like it was and like it still is when you’re a victim of abuse. It’s not political or editorializing. It’s plain, even with the outlandish juxtaposition of Christmas carols and an urban legend. The really bone-chilling part is the way that Billy eludes capture in the end, the phone in the darkened sorority house ringing all the way through the credits, rings true, too.
Black Christmas is currently streaming on Shudder and on Showtime. For the love of God, do not watch the 2006 remake, which despite being co-produced/blessed by the late Bob Clark and featuring the return of Andrea Martin, this time as Mrs. Mac, is dumber than a bag of hammers and the worst thing I have seen since Thankskilling.
*The Presley family still watches Black Christmas every year in recognition of the King’s own viewing tradition.
**Not, of course, would-be Alabama senator and twice-removed from the bench judge Roy Moore.
***Black Christmas worked through a lot of titles: The Babysitter; Stop Me; Silent Night, Evil Night, and it actually aired during primetime on NBC as Stranger in the House, which probably got the network its share of harassing phone calls before it was pulled from the air. There was concern that Black Christmas would read too much as a Blaxploitation title, but that was the title that stuck, albeit absent Rudy Ray Moore.
Angela is one of those who does not consider it Christmas until Hans Gruber falls off Nakatomi Plaza.