If you were unaware of the cult status of Black Christmas it wouldn’t appear to be all that promising of a film. Holiday themed slashers, although new in 1974, have been endlessly milked for material at this point. Movies about a mysterious killer stalking sorority girls might be even more clichéd. Black Christmas somehow manages to not only establish these early trappings of the slasher genre but surpass them in ways that the following four decades of horror films rarely manage.
The plot is deceptively simple: Sorority girls are having a Christmas party; campus is all but abandoned for the holiday. There is drinking and well… more drinking, boyfriends are coming over to visit. Meanwhile someone or something has climbed into the attic and waits. An obscene caller called ‘The Moaner,’ who is apparently a fixture at the house, calls during the party but this time his call is crazed and terrifying. Clare (Lynn Griffin) heads up the attic to finish packing when she is attacked and asphyxiated with a plastic bag. Girls begin to go missing but through a combination of alcohol, carolers, and spectacularly inept cops, no one manages to catch on to what’s happening until it’s far too late.
A couple of things separate “Black Christmas” from other slasher films. The characters for the most part are given some depth; they have families and concerns outside of just the next drink or making out with their boyfriends. The male characters are rendered a little less favorably, but they still feel like real people. The cops on the other hand are just short of “Police Academy” dumb, which is frustrating and horrifying at the same time. They are supposed to be the ones protecting everyone and they initially can’t even bother to leave the station or be competent at a routine search. Most films would bungle those moments making them dull or aggravating, but here it adds to the tension.
The other thing that makes “Black Christmas” work is the killer. His phone calls are genuinely scary and upsetting. His voice sounds a mishmash of insane squabbling voices. I’ve never heard anything like it before or since. We’re never given anything very concrete about him. We never get a good look and the movie steadfast refuses to give up his identity or even if it’s a really human being at all. That gives the movie a progressively more nightmare feeling as it goes on.
The Christmas setting isn’t overused. There aren’t any Santa themed murders or killers dressed like snowmen. The lights and glitter of Christmas is used to serve as a contrast to the darkness of what’s happening inside the sorority.
I’d definitely give it a look if you’ve never seen it, and even if you have, it’s worth a second look. It is a very well crafted film and contains a lot of delightfully nasty surprises. It’s also a great bit of counter programming if you’re getting a little worn out by all the Christmas cheer around you.