Warning: this movie is 45 years old this year and frankly, I’m going to spoil the hell out of it.
There’s still two bodies in the house, at least. That’s what I keep thinking about after watching Black Christmas again. That the supposed end has happened, everyone is safe..but no one has discovered the bodies in the attic yet. This is a movie completely uninterested in easy and safe endings, and it’s all the better for it.
Let’s back up. Black Christmas is one of the earliest of what would come to be called slasher films, directed by Bob Clark (who would go on to direct Porky’s and A Christmas Story, and frankly that is one hell of an odd career). Several sorority sisters at a Toronto college are getting ready to head home for Christmas and boozing it up, but their celebrations keep being interrupted by obscene phone calls from someone who keeps talking to them not just as his victims but also like he’s cast them in some weird scenarios involving people they know nothing about.
Interlude: I’m a standard white middle-aged man, who doesn’t have to fear obscene phone calls. This movie makes me fear phone calls anyway. They’re nonsensical and sexual in a bad way and just fucking creepy. This movie is great at making you feel how invasive and terrible such a thing is. OK, back to treating this as a movie.
But hey, they’re just phone calls and the women have other things on their minds. Clare (Lynn Griffin) needs to pack to head home for the holidays, Jess (Olivia Hussey) has something serious she needs to talk to her boyfriend about, and Barb (Margot Kidder), well, Barb seems determined to drink every bit of alcohol in the house. But Clare is attacked in her dorm room, killed with a dry cleaner bag and left in the attic in a rocking chair. But by whom?
One of the things I love about this movie, one that it shares with Halloween (more on that later), is that it has a killer who doesn’t seem to have a grand ambition, or not one that we are in any way privy to at all. We don’t even see the killer for the most part. Whereas a Halloween has Michael Meyer, literally credited as “The Shape” the most we see of the killer in this movie is his bulging eye as he creeps around the sorority house from his little attic hidey hole (some of the most unsettling shots of the movie are just of the ladder up there as the trapdoor slowly, gently shuts).
Another thing the movie shares with Halloween is an interesting lack of gore. As someone who was born the year before this movie was released and raised on a diet of Jason and Freddy movies, it’s always interesting to look back at this and the Michael Meyers movies and really see how…restrained they were. There’s some blood in this, mostly in the aftermath, but a lot of the kills are more suggested than anything, taking place offscreen, or through a prism, or shown by some legs sliding through a door. Not that I don’t enjoy a good gorefest with the best of them, but it is nice to see a movie that isn’t interested in sprays of blood or viscera flying around.
And then we get to that ending. That creepy, creepy ending. After Jess kills her boyfriend (played in his best “I’m a dick” mode by Keir Dullea), who has come flying through her window to try and protect her, Jess is put to bed with the cops outside, all of whom assumed Peter is the killer because she thought he was attacking her. And then the camera pans. And we see the two rooms where murders occurred. And it pans one more time…to that trapdoor that nobody checked, as it silently, slowly opens one last time…
And the shot switches to the outside of the house, a policeman smoking on the front porch, as the telephone starts ringing. And ringing. And ringing. It’s a really chilling, ambiguous ending to me, one that can be read in a variety of ways. Maybe Jess is safe, sleeping off this nightmare of a Christmas Eve. Maybe the cops outside will dissuade the killer.
Yeah, I don’t think so either.
That ending shares a lot with the fantastic ending of the original Halloween, of which there are plenty of stories of Bob Clark and John Carpenter talking about a sequel to Black Christmas. Halloween ends by first showing us Laurie Strode, distraught and terrified, going to shots of the various houses where the murders took place, and leaving the question open of where Michael Meyers is. This somehow is even more terrifying because we know where the unnamed, unknown killer is and we just don’t know what he’s going to do. It’s a fantastic piece of ‘70s horror, leading the way for what horror was going to be over the next decade and a half.
By the way, my library thankfully had the excellent Shout! Factory disc of this from a couple of years ago and I can’t recommend it enough. I’m actually planning to watch it again over the next few days with commentaries by Keir Dullea and (I didn’t even mention him and how funny he can be as the local police detective) John Saxon. It’s a great disc that is also upfront about how its restoration is to how the movie would have looked in 1974, not an oversharpened version.