by Dan Fields
The original Black Christmas shares 1974 with the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, preceding both Carrie (1976) and Halloween (1978) – films commonly credited with shaping horror movies as we know them today. Black Christmas seldom gets the same acknowledgment, though its structure arguably makes it more influential on the slasher genre than even Chain Saw. At very least, it gave rise to its own distinct branch of the tree. Whereas Chain Saw honed the conventions of the psycho-redneck road saga, Black Christmas made the world unsafe for sorority sisters, babysitters, camp counselors and other teenage miscreants in such milestone movies as Friday The 13th, Prom Night, and once again, John Carpenter’s Halloween.
Black Christmas (1974)
directed by Bob Clark
Classic Billy has an eye on the naughty list
© 1974 Ambassador Film Distributors
Bob Clark, director of Porky’s and Rhinestone, was also a pioneer of teen horror with the uniquely disturbing Black Christmas. Though woven from classic campfire story elements, it was quite an original film in 1974. The fact that it may not seem so is evidence of its influence on virtually all slasher films that followed. The construction of the movie is simple, but the sum of the parts is something remarkable.
In the opening sequence, the camera accompanies a mysterious, overexcited figure as he climbs into the attic of a snow-covered sorority house. From the beginning, the audience gets clued in to the classic punchline that the calls are coming from inside. The first intelligible dialogue comes from surly sorority sister Barb (Margot Kidder), demanding to know who left the front door open. A pre-vacation Christmas party is underway, and in the festive atmosphere, nobody else seems too concerned about the door. After all, what could get in through the open door? A gust of snow? A party crasher? True, nothing bad ever got in through that door, but the dark irony is plain. These girls have no idea what horrors lurk upstairs.
Jess (Olivia Hussey), the most dramatically developed of the sisters, is working out serious issues with herself and her on-the-go boyfriend Peter. Barb is sponging off a mother’s neglect with a holiday bender. Phyllis (Andrea Martin) strives to make general peace and have a relaxing holiday with her friends. Unfortunately, the girls in this house have picked up a twisted admirer. Frequent obscene phone calls from someone called “Billy” interrupt their holiday cheer-making. Before long, the lurid prank turns violent, as one by one the young women start disappearing. The audience knows that the maniac upstairs is responsible, but in a harsh conspiracy of bad luck and misunderstanding, nobody thinks to look around up there except when defenseless and unsuspecting.
Prefiguring the mass production of slashers, Black Christmas happens to boast an uncommonly strong script and leading cast. The interwoven attitudes and conflicts of the characters make the outrageous plot seem eerily plausible. Given the catalyst of an unhinged maniac prowling the attic of a lone house, everything in this film could reasonably take place on any college campus. Glen Morgan’s 2006 remake has nothing like a ring of truth to any of its parts. More on that point will soon follow.
Even in the context of pervasive college-grade vulgarity, the many phone calls from “Billy” are nothing short of hair-raising. In a manic litany of snarls, giggles, chatters and extremely vile threats, he makes it clear that there will be no reasoning with him. “Could that be one person?” the most doe-eyed and naïve of the sisters wonders aloud. It sounds more like something from The Exorcist than just a joke taken too far. As we might expect, the only girl to grasp the potential threat Billy poses is doomed to be his first victim. The others will regret scoffing at her, but unfortunately not right away. This well-worn horror device has classical roots, reaching as far back as Cassandra and the Trojan Horse. Curiously, the horror film has become its firmest foothold in contemporary storytelling. When Barb takes Billy to task in the film’s opening moments, he pauses his incoherent antics for a single instant to declare, with alarming frankness, “I’m going to kill you.”
Amid the dark pageant of Billy’s ramblings and ravings, a sick little story begins to emerge. Rather than indulge in revelatory flashbacks, or muddle the final act with ungainly explanations, Black Christmas chooses, as they say, to let the mystery be. Over the course of the movie, Billy drops plenty of hints about his origins, but in such a cryptic and offhand way that the viewer’s imagination must do the heavy lifting. All we know for sure is that something bad went down between Billy and his little sister Agnes. The grim details of the incident depend heavily on your own mental limits.
The famous advertising tagline for Black Christmas was “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight.” It is one of the few movies to deliver on so bold a promise. Because Billy’s attic lair is a secret to everyone except the audience, suspense and dread color every minute spent in the house. Under the circumstances, why suspect the attic? Outside seems exactly like the wrong direction to be lured by fear or confusion, so despite the protests of the audience, the dwindling survivors merely barricade themselves in with the resident menace. Meanwhile, a snowstorm has the too police too busy to probe what they suspect is a drunken prank anyway.
Eventually Billy’s proximity becomes clear, setting off a heart-stopping climax. Panic and bad timing point out a possible suspect for Billy’s crimes, with horrific results. In the aftermath, answers are still hard to come by, and a cruel final twist awaits once the police finally arrive. The good-natured uselessness of college-town cops is a major theme in Black Christmas.
As laughable as it may sound in parts, this is an extremely well-crafted horror movie, and no outing for the faint of heart. The most innocent moments are extremely raunchy, and the majority of the plot is nothing short of harrowing. Like Blue Velvet with its infamous Roy Orbison number, Black Christmas may affect your visceral reaction to the song “Silent Night” for a long time.
Black Christmas, a.k.a. Black X-Mas (2006)
directed by Glen Morgan
The new, yellow Billy is begging for a poked eye
© 2006 TVA Films/MGM
As co-writer of the Final Destination movies, as well as Chris Carter’s popular shows The X-Files and Millennium, Glen Morgan has a notable body of work to his name. Even his remake of Willard, starring Crispin Glover, was a modest success and a thoroughly enjoyable little shocker. With this ammunition, he would seem like a reasonable candidate to breathe new life into Bob Clark’s slash masterpiece Black Christmas. However, his attempt to dissect and unfold the legend of the doomed sorority house is a raw, scattered mess.
At first it seems that all the familiar pieces have been put back together. It is nearly Christmas, and the sisters of a certain sorority are having a small celebration before going their separate ways for the holiday. In a rather perceptive 21st century twist, these festivities are much more wan and perfunctory than the raucous fun of the 1970s. Everyone appears to be dreading Christmas, and most of them seem to be struggling with mood disorders. There is little cheer to be found in this house, despite the efforts of the house mother (Andrea Martin, the requisite returning cast member) to keep things light.
As part of a yearly gift exchange, this particular sorority keeps a peculiar tradition that most of them find so off-putting it’s a wonder that they bother. They set aside one present in memory of “Billy,” a legendary figure who is known to have murdered his family in the very house they now inhabit. This seems like something that might wash in a fraternity, but not with this group of morose young women. It all reeks of tremendous effort by the screenwriter to give Billy an essential connection to the setting. Since we soon learn that Billy is at that very moment breaking out of the local mental hospital, we now know where he will probably go. This plot construct would be excusable only if Black Christmas were the first slasher movie ever made. Ever. Even the original, thirty-two years before, saw the value of giving Billy no explicit history, his random selection of victims only adding to the horror.
This goes hand in hand with another hackneyed element of Morgan’s vision. He gives the killer a bizarre, ritualistic, and very contrived method of dispatching the innocents who stray into his path, which involves the graphic extraction of an eyeball. The gesture, repeated numerous times without variation, must grows tiresome even to dedicated gore hounds. Could there must be some quasi-psychological link between this action and the traumatic inciting incident of Billy’s madness?
Oh please, do tell. No, really. We’re dying to know.
We are not.
Morgan’s script reduces the potent shock of Billy’s phone calls (the single most fascinating element of the original story) with a truly feeble explanation of what they mean. While giving lip service to key lines in the 1974 Black Christmas, the invented flashback plot puts Agnes, Billy, and their mother in a third-rate horror scenario devoid of suspense, intrigue, camp, or indeed anything above the level of pure distaste. Imagine the least plausible combination of parental degeneracy, child neglect, incest, and cartoon-yellow skin jaudice. With no thought to any question of how or why, the movie doles its vignettes out like slop and leaves the audience to judge whether they are meant to be frightening or darkly humorous. Hint: they are neither. The flashback plays as a completely different film than the main slasher plot, yet the two have been intercut with no regard for pace or coherent storytelling.
Morgan fails outright at capturing the tone of similarly themed slashers like Christmas Evil or Silent Night Deadly Night. Some directors can shock horrified giggles from an audience with material like this, but most end up with a gross, humorless muddle in hand. For all its mad capering, the movie exposes its own worst flaw. No depiction of “what really happened” between Agnes and Billy can be as awful as what the audience will imagine when only given a few gruesome hints.
Meanwhile, the potential victims are working through various family, relationship, and personal problems, but these come off so vague and generic compared to everything else that frankly, who cares? The most faithful translation from the original movie is the notion of calls coming from inside the house. In the years between the party line phone and the cell phone, this concept was virtually unworkable. Now, with a portable telephone on every victim, Billy may easily place taunting calls to the downstairs telephone each time he commits murder. It is a lone ray of sense in an otherwise hopeless tale, and ultimately not enough to matter much.
The compound twist in the last act, including the killer’s true identity and a series of false conclusions, makes the hospital antics of Dr. Giggles look subtle. This movie is such a snoozer anyway that most audiences would swallow any ludicrous conclusion just to bring it to a halt. It is too petulantly nasty to be a successful horror comedy, and too stupid to be a serious shocker.