Once upon a time, there was a little Halloween special called Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. First aired in 2004 and rerun for several years following, it counted down the most terrifying moments in movie history, from the silent era to the early 2000’s. I was 17 when it originally aired and, though I had grown up with horror movies, this list was directly responsible for expanding my horizons into new, uncharted territory. It introduced me to many films I had never heard of before, ranging from 1999’s Japanese tour de force Audition to the Universal classic The Black Cat, both of which would become personal favorites of mine. (That being said, it’s also responsible for my watching things like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes that I still, to this day, wish I could erase from my memory, but — well, no “best of” list is perfect.)
It also introduced me to a film called Black Christmas.
Given Black Christmas‘ reputation as essentially the godmother of the slasher genre, in which I was becoming completely entrenched at that age, it was one of the first films from Bravo’s countdown that I wanted to check off my list. At that time there was still a video rental place in town, and while they had already largely made the transition to DVD for the more recent movies, they still had an extensive VHS collection of films from the 70’s – 90’s. There I found Black Christmas and ran home to giddily consume this important piece of genre history.
It fucked me up.
This holiday weekend, thirteen years later, I watched it again for the first time since — and it still fucks me up.
The movie opens on a sorority house Christmas party. You may be thinking, “how predictable,” but let me stop you right there. Many of the elements of Black Christmas that 21st Century viewers might be quick to dismiss as typical only exist because of Black Christmas. It’s influence can be felt in the pinnacle films of the slasher genre, from Halloween all the way down to Scream. What we may consider to be predictable staples of these films were new and freshly terrifying in 1974, when films like Black Christmas broke the mold.
While the sounds of celebration can be heard inside the house, outside we follow an unseen intruder as he breaks in and hides himself in the attic. The point-of-view camerawork is disturbingly effective; we see what the killer sees, we follow him through the halls of the sorority house while the inhabitants are blissfully unaware of his presence. By using this technique throughout the film, director Bob Clark creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, making the audience feel that we too are trapped in the house. The viewer is a helpless spectator, privy to the killer’s every move but powerless to do anything but watch in horror as he slaughters his victims right under everyone’s noses. It’s this proximity to both the killer and his victims, and our uncomfortable position as the only one who knows, from the beginning, how close the two really are, that gives the film an edge.
Then we meet the sorority sisters, among them our troubled heroine Jess (Romeo and Juliet‘s Olivia Hussey), party girl Barb (pre-Superman Margot Kidder), smart Phyl, and sensitive Claire. The girls receive an obscene phone call — not the first — from an unknown man, “the moaner,” they call him. They listen as he makes disgusting sounds, slurping and laughing and yelling unintelligibly, then proceeds to make outright vile sexual comments. Most of the girls are visibly disturbed though some of them are still somewhat amused; Barb in particular thinks the caller is pathetic but ultimately harmless. She takes the phone and tells their harasser in no uncertain terms to fuck off, to which he response with startling clarity, “I’m going to kill you.”
Claire is the most visibly terrified of the group and scolds Barb for provoking someone who could be dangerous. Back in her room, packing for the upcoming holiday break, Claire is attacked and killed, strangled with a plastic bag over her head by someone hiding in her closet. She is the killer’s first (at least as far as we know) victim and the film’s most iconic. The haunting image of her body, head still wrapped in plastic, eyes wide and mouth open, follows us throughout the movie.
The next morning, life goes on as usual for the other young women, unaware of their friend’s violent demise. We meet Jess’ boyfriend, Peter, and are introduced to the turmoil going on in her private life. Jess is pregnant and has made the clearly difficult decision to have an abortion. It’s important to note the historical context; Black Christmas came just one year after Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion in the United States, a highly controversial and divisive issue even today. (The film was distributed by Warner Bros. but it’s also worth mentioning that it was made in Canada, where abortion had been decriminalized in 1969.) Given the heightened climate around the topic at the time of Black Christmas‘ production, it’s difficult to imagine that the filmmakers weren’t trying to make a statement by their inclusion and treatment of a woman exercising her right to choose.
Peter has an extreme adverse reaction to Jess’ choice. He tells her that he wants them to have a baby (the fact that Jess does not, evidently, is irrelevant to him) and that she “can’t make a decision like that — you haven’t even asked me.” When Jess informs him that she neither needs nor is asking for his permission, he accuses her of being selfish, thinking of no one but herself by burdening him with this the day before an important piano recital. The abusive nature of their relationship is established from the beginning. Peter belittles and guilt-trips Jess at every turn and displays absolutely no regard for her wishes or well-being. Jess responds like someone conditioned to believe that their partner’s abusive behavior is just his way of showing he cares. “He’s usually so gentle,” she rationalizes later in the film, despite every indication that this is the opposite of the truth. After they argue about the pregnancy, Peter tells Jess to meet him after his recital. She initially refuses but then agrees because it’s clear that he is not giving her a choice.
Meanwhile, Claire’s father shows up at the university to bring his daughter home for the holidays. Upon discovering that she is nowhere to be found, he accompanies Phyl and Barb to the police station. The cop who interviews them doesn’t take their concerns very seriously, suggesting that Claire probably took off with her boyfriend. Jess goes to said boyfriend, Chris, who is outraged that the police won’t do anything about Claire’s disappearance. When the group heads back to the station, another distraught parent is informing the head lieutenant that her 13-year-old daughter never came home from school. With two girls missing, the cops form a search party, with Jess, Phyl, and Chris braving the cold hoping to find any sign on their friend.
Back at the sorority house, the crass, alcoholic house mother, Mrs. Mac, is left alone, preparing to leave for the holiday. She begins searching for the house cat, Claude, who followed the killer — and Claire — into the attic. She discovers Claire’s body and is killed and strung up alongside her. We continue to follow the killer throughout the house and are given glimpses inside his deranged world. He becomes more verbal with each encounter, making garbled references to a baby and someone named Agnes. From these cryptic references, we deduce that his name is Billy. “Billy” makes himself at home in the sorority house attic, singing lullabies and rocking Claire’s body in a rocking chair by the window, sometimes even putting a baby doll in her lap. The more the veil of smoke obscuring the full truth of the killer is cleared away the more disturbing he becomes, and we have to wonder if we really want to see the man hiding behind the curtain.
After leaving the search party to keep her appointment with Peter, Jess returns to the house and receives another disturbing phone call from “Billy.” She then calls the police to report the harassment and demand that something be done, but the same helpful guy who earlier dismissed Claire’s disappearance informs her that they have more pressing things to deal with at the moment. The missing 13-year-old girl was found dead.
To Jess’ surprise, Peter has let himself into the house at some point and startles her. She asks how his recital went, but the viewer already knows: he blew it, consumed with anger at Jess’ desire to have an abortion, and afterwards took his rage out on his piano. But he approaches her with a deceptively cheerful demeanor. He has come to a decision, he tells her. He is going to to leave the conservatory and they are going to get married and raise their child. Again, Jess has no say as far as he’s concerned — how ironic that he feels perfectly free to make decisions that will dramatically alter both of their lives without considering Jess’ wishes while damning her for deciding to have an abortion without his input. He doesn’t see the hypocrisy in this. Of course he doesn’t. He’s the man in the relationship and his girlfriend should simply bend to his will. Again, coming from the age of second wave feminism and the women’s liberation movement, when women were publicly challenging the traditional male-dominated status quo, it’s hard to imagine that the filmmaker’s were not making a deliberate statement. Peter is a misogynistic bully while Jess is a thoroughly modern young woman exercising her freedom to be the master of her own destiny. The politicization of this portrayal lies in the fate of each of these two characters, which of them is punished by the narrative and which of them is not.
Jess does not want to get married and start a family. She has dreams, ambitions, and reminds Peter that their relationship began with the two of them wanting to share in each other’s journey achieve their goals. A baby would put both of their (especially Jess’) dreams on hold indefinitely and she doesn’t want that for either of them. Naturally, Peter turns on her. He becomes violent and belligerent, calling her a “selfish bitch,” bemoaning how terrible the whole situation is for him. It’s all about him, what he wants, what he thinks they should do — Jess is barley even an afterthought. He begins to threaten her and warns her not to go through with the abortion.
As he storms out of the house, Phyl comes in accompanied by the police lieutenant, having made the connection between the missing Claire and Jess’ report of frightening phone calls and deciding to investigate. He stations a patrol car outside and bugs the phone, informing Jess that she will need to keep the mystery caller on the line long enough for them to get a trace. If you’ve seen many movies at all you know that a police car outside is almost always useless. Jess, Phyl, and Barb, sleeping upstairs, might as well be alone.
While Jess and Phyl are downstairs, “Billy” begins his descent from the attic and into Barb’s room. In one of the most chilling sequences in the entire film, her cries for help are drowned out by Christmas carolers, their heartwarming voices in stark contrast to the violence of Barb’s death. The two scenes are cross-cut, yanking the viewer back and forth between a familiar and comforting holiday image and a bloody act of brutality. It’s horrifying.
Then “Billy” makes another call. The police listen in but are unable to get a trace in time. During this call, “Billy” does his usual round of incoherent noises, but it’s clear he’s getting more and more unhinged. Most disturbingly, he quotes, almost word for word, things that Peter said to Jess earlier. She notices this and begins to suspect that Peter is the one who has been terrorizing them all along. Then — speak of the devil and he shall appear — Peter himself calls. He is distraught, sobbing violently and begging Jess, “don’t hurt the baby.” The similarities between Peter’s call in his frantic state and the earlier calls from the killer are astounding. Though Jess is obviously entertaining some concerns about her boyfriend, she tries to defend him when the lieutenant voices his own suspicions. He orders a background check on Peter and goes to the conservatory to look for him, where his finds the smashed piano, confirming Peter’s violent tendencies.
As the film’s climax builds, Jess is isolated, left alone in the main room of the house. Phyl stops to check on Barb on her way to bed and meets her own demise. Afterwards, “Billy” makes one last call and this time the police are able to get a trace. Of course, the audience already knows where the calls are coming from. In one of the earliest examples of a time-honored horror movie trope inspired by the popular urban legend of the babysitter and the man upstairs, adapted most famously in 1979’s When a Stranger Calls, Jess is informed that the calls are coming from (!!!) inside the house.
The police instruct her to walk out the front door immediately and don’t look back, but she won’t leave without Phyl and Barb. Despite being terrified, Jess arms herself with a fireplace poker and heads upstairs to find her friends. Don’t roll your eyes — sure, we’re all tired of horror heroines running upstairs instead of out the front door, but again, that stereotype didn’t exist at this point. And besides, while certainly none of us would have blamed Jess for bolting out the front door immediately and saving her own hide, the film has worked hard to establish the closeness among this group of young women, the genuine warmth and friendship shared between them, and Jess isn’t going to leave her sisters behind to be murdered. Some viewers dismiss her actions as “stupidity,” but I prefer to interpret it as compassion and courage in the face of certain danger. She’s the hero of this tale, after all.
Unfortunately, of course, Phyl and Barb are already dead, which Jess soon discovers. “Billy” is waiting for her but she attacks and makes a run for it. Unable to get out the front door, she locks herself in the cellar, holding her weight against the door while the killer thrashes against it from the other side. Eventually he stops and appears to move on. Jess stays put, clinging to her only weapon. Someone approaches from outside — it’s Peter, calling for her and peeking in through the cellar windows. Creeping around outside isn’t doing him any favors at this point, and, apparently unable to get in through the front door, he breaks into the cellar and makes his way toward Jess.
As usual, the cops arrive too late. They find Jess in the cellar with Peter’s dead body. Believing him to be the murderer, she killed him in self defense. She is sedated by a doctor and put to bed as the police remove the bodies of Peter, Phyl, and Barb from the house. The lieutenant — and everyone else — believes that the terror is over. They got their man. Everyone clears out, leaving an unconscious Jess with a single guard until the forensics team can arrive to do a thorough sweep of the house.
In the attic, “Billy” sobs. “Agnes,” he says, “it’s me, Billy.”
Claire and Mrs. Mac remain undiscovered, the camera panning out from the attic window where their bodies are visible, though perhaps not distinguishable from the ground — hidden in plain sight. As a light snow falls outside the sorority house and the credits begin to roll, the phone rings.
It’s a thoroughly haunting finale. It stays with you. I gotta tell you, after watching it I felt pretty uneasy turning the lights out that night.
Black Christmas‘ famously ambiguous ending is part of what makes it so effective. I’m a firm believer that not every ending needs to be tied up in a neat bow. There’s a difference between leaving your story with gaping plot holes and simply leaving something to the viewers’ imagination — a delicate balance, to be sure, and one that many films have failed miserably to achieve. We don’t know who “Billy” is, where he came from, or why he murdered these women, which makes the film unpleasantly reminiscent of the horror of real life crime, where sometimes the murderer is never found and the mystery goes unsolved. It’s this level of realism that makes it all the more frightening.
The 2006 remake, which I admittedly have not seen, attempted to fill in “Billy’s” story, shifting the focus to his traumatic background, filled with as much abuse, incest, and rape as one might expect. This seems like empty shock value. Sometimes, when the audience has to use their imagination rather than having every awful detail laid out before us, the story is more effective than when the curtain is pulled and the man behind it revealed.
And of course, there is added layer of using Peter as the original film’s red herring. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for him being the fall guy. He may not have murdered anyone but he was certainly abusive, manipulative, and violent, and there’s no great tragedy in his fate. It’s satisfying to see him punished for these traits and for his treatment of Jess, especially in a genre that so frequently punishes women for lesser offenses. There’s a lot to unpack here in regards to the film’s cultural context and relation to feminism and the fight for reproductive rights in the 70’s, something I’m sure many people have written about at length much better than I can. But it’s interesting to note that the narrative never frames Jess’ decision to have an abortion as wrong or right, good or bad. She isn’t punished for defying traditional expectations, as so often happens in films, horror and otherwise. All of the commentary on her decision comes from Peter, whose hostility is framed as, rightfully, dangerous. She even survives to the end of the movie, making her one of the original final girls — though admittedly her fate is left somewhat open as well, as we last see her alone, nearly unguarded, in the house with the killer. Since we get to draw our own conclusions, I choose to believe that she recovered, had an abortion, sought therapy for her trauma, finished her degree and, against all the odds, had a really great life.
Some modern viewers may be quick to lump Black Christmas in with every other early slasher movie, but doing so is a huge disservice to an exceptional film. It’s iconic for a reason. It stands as both a gritty gem from the so-called golden age of horror and a snapshot of the period in which it was filmed, reflecting and offering commentary on the social issues and anxieties of the time. Despite being a very 70’s piece of media, it doesn’t feel outdated. Black Christmas stands the test of time, continues to capture new audiences, and is just as haunting today as it was when it was released.