I love holiday horror films. To me, they demonstrate the genre's ongoing commitment to ruining even the happiest of occasions with visions of nightmarish terror. There was a time when Halloween was the only holiday associated with evil and darkness and that set it apart as the isolated capsule of fear. But then, one by one, the other, more joyful holidays became targets for horror interpretations. It's gotten to the point that no festive celebration is without its own signature slasher or identifiable bloodbath.
So, to wrap it all up, we are going to have ourselves a 'Black Christmas.'
Well, we've reached the end of the road. The arrival of Christmas signals the conclusion of the year and the finale of Season's Bleedings. The entirety of 2010 has now been canonized through a chain of holiday horror films of wildly differing levels of quality. We rang in the New Year with 'New Year's Evil,' spent February with 'My Bloody Valentine,' feasted on some 'Dead Meat' for St. Patrick's Day, tried not to get murdered by the Easter cuteness of 'Night of the Lepus,' celebrated Memorial Day with 'Deathdream,' bestowed Father's Day gifts to 'The Stepfather,' visited our 'Uncle Sam' for the 4th of July, celebrated the serendipitous 'Friday the 13th' (part VII) in August, threw a shower for 'Rosemary's Baby' on Labor Day, delved deeply into 'The Curse of Michael Myers' for Halloween, and finally basted a massive turkey for Thanksgiving in the form of 'Home Sweet Home.' And finally we arrive at year's end just in time to have a holly, jolly 'Black Christmas.'
'Black Christmas' is the story of a sorority house that exists in the strikingly alien world known as Canada. The girls of Pi Kappa Sig are enjoying the spirit, and spirits, of the holidays when they are suddenly harassed by a number of obscene phone calls. Initially dismissed as a vulgar prank, the calls continue and are accompanied by disappearances and bloody dispatches of the sisters. Who is the madman stalking these girls and are the calls really coming from inside their own house?
'Black Christmas' is a triumph of horror filmmaking. Though not as highly touted as the films it inspired, 'Black Christmas' is a landmark of not only the director's career but of a still burgeoning subgenre: the slasher film. Mario Bava is often credited with inventing the slasher film with 1971's 'Twitch of the Death Nerve,' but 'Black Christmas' was the film that perfected it and fostered the birth of the American incarnation...despite it being Canadian. Many of the more memorable elements of 'Black Christmas' would go on to become slasher movie tropes by which other directors would swear by. The killer's POV shot, the menacing phone calls, the fetishistic use of wide shots, and the hefty reliance on strangling and stabbing, though mostly based on German Expressionism and Italian giallo, would come to define some of the greatest American slasher movies.
Bob Clark, a man whose work is well-known both inside and outside of horror circles, creates a dark, atmospheric nightmare that casts an ironically frightening hue onto the most peaceful, joyful time of the year. This is a unique counterbalance to his creating one of the greatest family holiday films of all time: 'A Christmas Story.' Truth be told 'Black Christmas' was the impetus for this entire Season's Bleedings project. It was the film that so effectively mutilated what should be an untouchable happy holiday that it became the mission to see how many other holidays were afforded the grisly horror treatment. What sets 'Black Christmas' apart from the vast majority of the films featured in this column is its undeniable competency as a film regardless of genre.
The cinematography, the performances, the dark comedy, and the wickedly superb tension throughout is what makes 'Black Christmas' a great film, and not simply a great horror film. The sweeping, brooding opening shot is terrifying in its simplicity and its ominous forecasting. The figure lurking outside the sorority house, clearly not someone who belongs there, is unsettling enough, but when we see him actually enter the house, information to which the characters are not privileged, the lingering threat of violence is ever present despite the frivolity below. No matter how safe and warm the girls feel, they are always at his mercy. Margot Kidder turns in her very best performance as a foul-mouthed, drunken sorority sister with some of the best dialogue in the film, and John Saxon proves his mettle at playing a law enforcement agent in horror films long before 'A Nightmare on Elm Street.' The vulgar, bitter, Jewish Santa is a nice little darkly comedic bow on the proceedings.
What makes 'Black Christmas' so scary is a combination of visual reserve and auditory explicitness. Visually, we see very little of our villain; an eye here, an arm there. Clark operates under the less-is-more approach; withholding a great deal. The result is a far more mysterious and eerie killer than would be in a film that showed him at every available instant. This was something that later rubbed off on John Carpenter who, though only slightly more forthcoming with his villain, relied on shadow and distance to obscure Michael Myers. This is similarly effective and is the reason Myers is credited as The Shape. The phone calls made by the killer are incredibly disturbing. It's not just the vile content of the shrieking threats, but the multiple voices the killer used to solidify his unstable psyche. It's what makes 'Black Christmas' so memorably hair-raising.
In interviews, director Bob Clark has revealed that John Carpenter once asked him if he'd ever planned to do a sequel to 'Black Christmas.' While he never wanted to, when pressed for what he might have done Clark stated he would have the madman be caught, escape the next fall, and return to the house. Oh, and it would be called 'Halloween'. Between that and the blatantly ripped off opening POV shot, I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Thanks for reading Season's Bleedings this year and Merry Christmas to all!