Director Bob Clark seems preoccupied with the yuletide as his two most beloved creations, this film and A Christmas Story, examine the holiday through vastly different prisms. A Christmas Story is delightful as it alternates between the saccharine undertones of nostalgia and spiky bits of humor, yet it’s an understandable piece of pop culture ephemera for the seasonal period. Black Christmas, by stark contrast, is equally delightful but something of an antidote/tonic to the never-ending sweetness of holiday-themed products. Black Christmas is appropriately titled as the emphasis is very much on darkness, in humor and subject matter, as the film is an early stage of the slasher genre.
Black Christmas is a lean, mean little killing machine, even if the actual body count is quite small in comparison to most of its brethren. It’s damn propulsive in its telling of its story. From the disorientating and disturbing POV of the killer in the opening scene to the ambiguous ending, Black Christmas spends as little time as possible on anything too distracting from its main thrust.
Don’t misunderstand me, while the black humor of the film is quite fetching as it provides momentary reprise from the ever escalating tension, there’s a few times when the jokes go on too long. A game Margot Kidder plays the sorority’s resident bad girl, she’s eternally smoking, drinking, and loudly vulgar, and she’s clearly game for the part. Kidder finds the absurdity and humor in a scene involving her saying “fellatio” repeatedly to a clearly idiotic police officer that doesn’t get the joke, but the joke just keeps going and going to the point where it becomes distracting. You feel like you’ve wandered into Porky’s, another Clark film, as opposed to a “serial killer on the loose in a near-empty sorority over Christmas” one.
It’s better when we circle back and really develop the characters and their setting. There’s the house mother that hides booze all around, the vamp, the neurotic, the chirpy virgin, and our final girl. While all of them occupy well-known horror film “types,” Clark allows them to develop into idiosyncratic personalities with unexpected depth. Not only that, but Clark allows his vamp to last until the very end whereas another filmmaker would kill her off first, make the virgin the final girl, and definitely kill off the one that wanted an abortion. For the record, our final girl here is the one that wants the abortion, and it’s a storyline that’s refreshingly honest, direct, and a lack of judgment about her wants and needs.
Doesn’t hurt that Clark has assembled a solid little ragtag group of actors, including Kidder, Keir Dullea, Andrea Martin, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, and Olivia Hussey as our final girl. She’s long way from the dewy Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s masterpiece, but she’s independent, smart, and level-headed. Hussey makes for a perfect horror heroine, yet it feels somehow appropriate that her final fate remains somewhat uncertain.
What do I mean? I mean much like another holiday-themed slasher classic, Halloween, Black Christmas ends not with a declarative statement but with a more terrifying, suggestive note of ambiguity. Our heroine is out cold, the police are all around the house, but the phone starts to ring again and the attic door is seen opening again, so maybe it wasn’t who we thought it was all along. What’s to become of her? We don’t know. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year to you and yours, indeed.