Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas is a 1974 flick coming at us by way of our neighbors to the north, and it's definitely in the conversation when it comes to films that created the modern slasher. Though lacking in the gore and sheer gratuity of many slashers by today's standards, it is easy to see why this is considered a classic by many. What did we think? We’ll tell you below, but not without spoilers. So if you don't want a lump of coal in your movie experience stocking, make sure you've either seen the thing or don't care before continuing beyond the trailer. Happy holidays. It's beginning to look a lot like -- bloodshed!

 
 

Jake: Black Christmas. Christmas is coming early this year, Mark. And it’s murder.

Mark: That sentence was incomprehensible. Christmas is murder now? What the hell are you even saying? You picked this movie to be our holiday review for the year. Care to enlighten us as to why?

Jake: Well, Mark. Because It's beginning to look a lot like -- bloodshed! Christmas is almost here, and a deranged, axe-wielding psycho is terrorizing a sorority.

Mark: Oh. I get it. You’re parroting the movie’s alternate taglines. I don’t know what kind of drugs the marketing people were on while working on this movie, but I’m betting that they were only available at that strength in the 70s. The taglines for this thing draw a fine line between utter nonsense and B movie horror. Going in, I’d never seen this movie. Honestly, I knew almost nothing about it. I expected it to be much more of a gratuitously goofy slasher than what it actually turned out to be. The body count is pretty low, the virgin dies first, almost all of the violence is implied instead of directly being shown. Realistically this is more of a whodunnit style thriller than a slasher in the modern sense of the word.

Jake: Sort of. Either way, ‘Twas the Night, Before Christmas, and All Through the House, a Creature was stirring. The Stockings were Hung by the Chimney with care, but it was Hard to Say that St. Nick would be there. A Christmas of another colour brings a killer on the loose. That last part was clearly Canadian.

Mark: So this is what we’re doing then? We’re leaving it to me to keep things on track? Bold move, Cotton. As the film opens the first thing you see is the gaggle of sorority sisters gathered around their phone talking to some pervy sounding psychopath on the other end. There are a lot of incomprehensible sounds coming out of the phone and you basically only get the context from how the actors react. One of the girls, Clare, heads upstairs in a huff.

Jake: True, Mark. As it happens, the mad murderer makes obscene phone calls -- and he lives right above the girls… And he definitely doesn’t hold back, saying things like “Pretty cunt”. Woof, bro. Dial it back a bit. But if this movie doesn't make your skin crawl... It's on TOO TIGHT! Bro kills Clare by wrapping her up in a plastic coat-protector.

 
This is basically the vibe he was going for. Just got tongue tied. Happens to the best of us.

This is basically the vibe he was going for. Just got tongue tied. Happens to the best of us.

 

Mark: The scene itself is brutal and future reminiscent of the end of Last Broadcast. Future reminiscing is a thing right? The thing that bothered me more about the scene was the lead up to the attack. Clare is trying to find Claude the cat and she basically vamps for about 15 seconds as she literally inches her way toward the closet. Claude? Is that you, Claude? Hello? Claude? Is that you? Hello? Claude? Claude?

Jake: Shut the fuck up, Mark. You don’t know what you’d say or how you’d act in that situation. When was the last time you were a virgin sorority sister being stalked by a psychotic killer in your house at Christmastime? Huh? The fear might have rocked you, rendering you incapable of anything but meekly repeating “Claude”. And you know what? Black Christmas will ROCK you too!

Mark: Actually, thanks to the miracle of VR, I found myself in that position yesterday. And you know what? I handled it better. This is where the whodunnit part of the movie kicks in, which is to say that it’s roughly 5 minutes into the film. Everybody starts looking for Clare and literally no one checks the attic. I mean I guess it’s easy to say in hindsight, but don’t you think they’d check the whole house before checking literally everywhere else?

 
In their defense she could've just gotten her tongue stuck to a pole.

In their defense she could've just gotten her tongue stuck to a pole.

 

Mark: We also get to spend some time with the house mother as she slinks from place to place in the house chugging various bottles of port. Once again, fucking Claude shows up. The house mom tries to find him so of course she checks the attic, requiring her to climb a ladder and open a trapdoor. How fucking agile is this cat that these people insist on finding? How the hell does she think the cat got into the attic? There’s nothing but trouble up there.

 

 

The cat had its ways of getting into the attic.

 

Jake: Trouble is right, Mark. Trouble because He Knows When You're Sleeping, He Knows if You're Awake, He KNOWS… and He knows how to impale your meaty, alcohol-swollen corpse with a cleverly positioned hook and drag your ass into that attic, too.

Mark: Yeah I don’t really know why there is a fucking meat hook in their attic. It seems… misplaced? Meanwhile all the townspeople are searching the large park near their campus for Clare. This is apparently a large enough area to warrant snowmobiles. I mean it’s either that, or the townsfolk are just using whatever excuse they can get to ride their snowmobiles around the local park. Can’t really blame em either way. There’s a decent cliffhanger type setup when they actually do find something that is apparently very gruesome, but they don’t ever show it. Only later do you find out that it’s some other unlucky female victim of this killer.

Jake: A Christmas of another colour brings a killer on the loose!.. It’s the sort of Christmas you don't dream of… Shit, Mark. I’m out of taglines. Turns out you can’t write an entire review using them, but I fought valiantly. Like Tiny Tim fought for his life. Only with more alcohol and less terminal illness.

 

 
Keep fightin, Kiddo!

Keep fightin, Kiddo!

 

Still Jake: Anyway, I’ll soldier on. The park is big because Canada, and you’re right. The scene with the off-screen, implied grisly murder is a good one. And it establishes a range for the killer extending beyond the house. For all we know he could have killed any number of women on his way to that attic.

Mark: He’s terrorized everyone within snowmobile distance. Truly horrifying. Somewhere in here we also get an introduction to tracing phone calls in the early 70s, Turns out, I have absolutely no clue how phone tracing works. None whatsoever. They use a mechanical system? What the hell does that mean? Were phones of the era basically just gigantic rube goldberg machines? Because that is what they’re depicted as.

Jake: It was fucking absurd. Picture one of those scenes where someone has to find a book in a large library and is just sliding along through a labyrinth of shelving on one of those ladders. It’s pretty much that, only with beeping black boxes. And you know what? No. I don’t think that's how phone calls were ever traced. I’m taking a hard line on this son of a bitch.

Mark: This is basically when the movie kicks back into slasher mode. Pretty quickly you get both the brainy one Phyllis (who goes by Phyl of all things) and the alcoholic one Barb getting murdered to death. You don’t really see anything with Phyl, but Barb gets unicorned. You read that right. She get’s full on unicorned. I hesitate to say this is better than the unicorn death in Cabin in the Woods, but it’s still a pretty solid contender. It’s also easily the most gory scene in the movie.

Jake: Which is to say there is a non-zero amount of red on screen, and this red isn’t coming from the Christmas lights.

Mark: And that gets us to what is probably the most iconic scene in the movie: “The call is coming from inside the house!” Naturally, after receiving this news, future final girl Jess runs frantically around the house instead of retreating to safety outside. It’s here that we get out only glimpse of the killer, who identifies himself as Billy. It’s basically just an eyeball in the shadow behind a door.

 
The call was coming from inside the Nakatomi building!

The call was coming from inside the Nakatomi building!

 

Jake:  Man, Jess had it tough all movie. She’s pregnant with the child some tormented musician type, and dude is way anti-abortion. Now she’s alone in the house with “Billy the Moaner” (their name not mine). Bad decisions are made. She grabs a fireplace poker and decides to search around. Quickly, she finds herself in the basement. Tormented musician boyfriend, Peter stumbles into the scene, ostensibly to discuss the virtues of not flushing that baby out. Simultaneously, the cops are en route to try to find the killer. None of it goes well.

Mark: When they get into the basement they find that Jess has fire pokered Peter to death in self defense. That fucking creepwad deserved it. In what is potentially the most predictable twist ending ever the slow pan out from the house as we fade to credits shows Billy to be still in the attic as the phone begins to ring one more time. Bum Bum Bum. For realsies though, did anyone not see this coming?

Jake: How in the fuck did they not search the house this time? You could sort of explain it away the first time, but now they know the killer was hiding in the house. They also know pretty much everyone in the house has been killed. Does it not stand to reason that they should have searched that shit from wall-to-wall while they were there with heat?

Mark: No it doesn’t Jake. They got their man and everyone (just Jess) lived happily ever after. That’s how I interpret the ending. It’s pretty straightforward.

Jake: Well, Mark. I may have ran out of taglines halfway through the movie but I have one more humdinger for you. The original US release of this movie was under the title “Silent Night, Evil Night” because there was some concern that it could be mistaken for a blaxploitation flick, as was the state of affairs in 1970’s cinema.

 
Everything you need to know in one poster.

Everything you need to know in one poster.

 

 

Mark: Brilliant. See earlier comments regarding the availability of powerful drugs in the 1970s. Ratings?

Jake: Ratings.


RATINGS

For 1, think of how Tommy from Saxondale would rate the chances of his doing hot yoga:

 
 

For 10, think of how Kramer would rate the quantity of potatoes:

 
 

STORY:

Mark: 7 - All in all this is a pretty solid story. There’s not a lot of frills attached to it, but it still makes for a decent detective style thriller with slasher elements. The twist is executed poorly, but it still is decent from a story standpoint. As far as I’m aware this is the first movie to do the “The call is coming from inside the house” trope so it also gets big ups for that.

Jake: 5 - This is a decent story and it definitely should be recognized as a key player in the popularization of the modern slasher flick. The “call from inside the house” is another novel twist and one that has now been used endless times in the genre. Outside of these pioneering qualities, it is an extremely stripped down story and I don’t feel it does a very good job of building any of the characters or getting from scene-to-scene with ease.

 

WORLD BUILDING / IMMERSION:

Mark: 4 - As mentioned above, the twist ending was a real botch job. Maybe I just can’t see it through the lens of the 1970s, but it seemed telegraphed from a long way off. Aside from that there’s just a slew of really dumb decisions that people make to really take you out of the thing. Why the hell would you look for a cat in the attic behind a closed hatch? Why would the cops not search the house?

Jake: 5 - There is some real stupidity here. While it’s a hallmark of this type of movie (and certainly developed some of that), it nonetheless rips you out a bit. However, the calls are very well done and really help bookend periods of total disinterest with bits of sheer insanity that pull you back in.

 

SCARE-FACTOR:

Mark: 5 - Right down the middle. Not laughable, but not really all the scary in the modern lens. This does get bonus points for having to be pulled off the air for being too scary. Aside from that the phone calls themselves are also pretty weird and creepy. The opening kill and unicorn kill are both notable as well. Outside of that there isn’t a whole lot else here.

Jake: 6.5 - The idea of an unseen intruder is scary. That’s why home invasion flicks are scary. The idea of a shadowy figure killing at will is scary. That’s why slashers are a huge subgenre of horror. While the majority of the events in this film are not scary, the lingering idea is still enough to lend a bit of creepiness to it, and the calls are downright unsettling. The voice(s) on the other end of that line are terrifying.

 

EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):

Mark: 7 - This is mostly a judicious lack thereof category. That being said they do do some interesting things with effects. The cinematography is pretty interesting, usually opting to keep Christmas lights reflecting off of stuff in frame to keep that juxtaposition of murder with Christmas that fuels the movie. Also, burying the lead here a little bit, the first person perspective of Billy is a pretty novel concept that I think adds a lot to the film as a whole.

Jake: 3.5 - In one of the biggest differences in opinion I can recall on this site, I’m going low for this one. Mark is giving a high score for camerawork, and I’m focusing more on the botching of a few opportunities when they are taken. While I don’t disagree with the judicious lack thereof idea, it makes it all the more frustrating when the filmmakers do decide to show something (Barb kill, dead Peter) and what you get is some pretty terrible and lazy practical. I don’t disagree with Mark’s comments about the first person angles, but I’m not awarding much for it either. There is a right amount of effects for any story, and I just felt like this one couldn’t figure out which way it wanted to go.

 

OVERALL:

Mark: 6 - There is a lot of competition for Christmas movies. Would I rather watch this than Die Hard, Home Alone, Krampus, A Christmas Story, or A Horror Christmas Story? No, but I’m usually through those by about halfway through the month. I probably won’t circle back on this one anytime soon, but if I end up coming across it on Netflix or TV somehow I’ll probably leave it on. How’s that for an endorsement?

Jake:  5.5 - And true to form, earlier differences in opinion don’t much matter, as out overall score is about the same! I don’t think I’d recommend this to many people for entertainment purposes, but would definitely mention it in a conversation about slashers and the origins of the genre. Worth a watch for a horror fan, but it’s not on my annual December playlist.