The fire crackles and pops, dancing light across the colourfully wrapped array of presents eagerly awaiting the glorious day when the girls of the sorority house will delight in the treasures they conceal. But first, someone needs to answer that incessant phone. It’s ring calls out through the room like a dirty secret everyone knows, but no one wants to talk about. It’s no mystery to the girls what awaits on the other end of the line: a threatening androgynous voice as angry as hell, spilling obscenities and screaming for blood. One by one the girls go missing until only Jess is left to discover the secret behind the caller.
If Psycho and Italian Giallo films like Twitch of the Death Nerve mark the birth of the slasher genre, then Bob Clark’s Black Christmas must mark it’s adolescent stage before it fully reached adulthood in John Carpenter’s Halloween. It’s the first time all the elements were brought together; a group of young victims including the “last girl”, heavy use of the killer’s point of view, and of course, a recognizable holiday, which will forever be tainted by the fear of scary phone calls.
There’s more to this film than its position in horror history, although that alone is enough to solidify it as a classic, it’s a truly terrifying, expertly constructed house of holiday horrors. The suspense is framed around a convention we’ve seen a hundred times since Black Christmas’ 1974 debut. The calls are coming from inside the house! However, the surprise is played uniquely in Black Christmas in that the film opens with the mysterious killer crawling into the attic, so we as the audience are well aware from the start that the killer’s inside the house. We’re therefore not talking about a contemporary post Sixth Sense surprise twist scare tactic, but rather a classic Hitchcock “bomb under the table” but the characters don’t know it kind of scare tactic.
The suspense carries the film, but what makes it stick with you is its eerie sense of restraint. Not unlike The Exorcist, which used intensely loud violent moments contrasted by calm, quiet scenes to unease its audience, Black Christmas sets up an unsettling rhythm, always allowing the ripples of the last scare to settle out before the next bursts through the calmness of the water. It’s an unsafe film in true 70s horror style, where all expectations of cinema violence were subverted and/or surpassed.
The film also boasts a disturbing sound design. Although the phone calls in the film are just that, calls from a phone, they become some of the most terrifying moments because of their sheer frightening quality. They’re almost reminiscent of Regan MacNeil’s voice when she’s tied to the bed, screaming like a banshee. We know there’s only one person talking, but it sounds like a dysfunctional family from hell, snarling, crying and growling their perverse thoughts to one another. A perfect contrast to the image of the Christmas lights, blissfully blinking on and off with their promise of happy, wholesome family fun. The only place for Christmas lights in this family are around each other’s neck.
As the film reaches it’s conclusion, the terror is kicked up a notch and Jess comes face to face with the man behind the calls, seeing only his piercing eye staring at her from behind the door. Beyond this image of a fiery eye and his bottomless rage, we learn nothing about the killer. He’s a mystery, just a man who climbed into their attic and decided to spread a little Christmas fear. He’s never caught and never explained and therefore escapes the trappings of the story, allowing him to stick in your mind, follow you home after the movie is done, and just maybe, give you a call this holiday season.
[notification type=”star”]85/100 ~ GREAT. It’s an unsafe film in true 70s horror style, where all expectations of cinema violence were subverted and/or surpassed.