Review: Black Christmas

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Black Christmas starts to get interesting in the last two minutes. After a series of killings in a college-town sorority house at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, the supposed murderer, in a scene we don’t actually get to see, has been done in by his own girlfriend and a handy firepoker when she thinks that he’s set on making her his latest victim. The movie is about to end on a shot looking from the hallway of the house into the bedroom where the girl (Olivia Hussey) is sleeping, having been left alone to rest until her parents show up in a few hours. Then, with the recurrence of a few familiarly ominous chords on the soundtrack, the camera begins slowly to pan to the right through the dimly lit hallway, pausing at each doorway where a murder has occurred. So far it’s just a kind of chilly atmospheric effect, prolonging the tone of malaise and spookiness, leaving us slightly off balance even though things have been pretty well wrapped up. But that ain’t all. The camera just keeps on trucking, and we begin to hear the maddened jabberings of the heard-but-not-seen psychotic killer who apparently is still around and who apparently wasn’t Keir Dullea, the boyfriend, after all. The latch on the attic trapdoor springs shut once again (that’s his hideaway), he gently rocks a dead girl—his first victim—who sits wrapped inside a plastic bag on a rocking chair (still we don’t see him), and the final scene of the movie looks at the house from a slightly elevated perspective across the street; a cop stands guard on the front walkway, listening to a phone ring inside. The killer, who made it a habit of saying obscene things over the phone before he murdered someone, still seems to be on the loose. Strange, but it doesn’t really seem to matter much by now.

Stopping with that chillingly evocative camera drift would perhaps have been a wiser move than such a clumsy attempt to inject a little Polanski-esque, Dance of the Vampires, evil-is-still-loose pessimism into Black Christmas‘s modest cosmos of unabstract scariness. In plain narrative terms, the ending is a cop-out because the movie’s tensions have been based on the slowly and quite carefully developed implication of Keir Dullea as the culprit. We see him sweating over his piano during a demonic recital that consummates eight years of study at the conservatory, then smashing it with a microphone stand when he’s failed, ostensibly because his pregnant girl told him she wasn’t going to have the kid. Something he says to his girlfriend about abortion is repeated over the phone by a voice we have come to associate with the killer. And Dullea’s always lurking around the house, or in it, which renders him even more suspect since the killer is making his obscene phonecalls from an upstairs bedroom (why doesn’t anyone ever hear his crazy yappings, or bother to look in the house for the missing bodies?). But the final turn which Black Christmas takes transforms the convention of the “twist” ending into the empty gesture of look-we-fooled-you; whereas, say, Donald Sutherland discovering that his red-hooded orphan is a murderous dwarf in Don’t Look Now is an example of a surprise ending that suddenly lends coherence to a mystery tale, the end of Black Christmas only adds another narrative possibility to an already concluded yarn.

And it really isn’t all that bad a yarn up until then, having a little bit to do with Tony Perkins’ sexually screwed-up, mother-complexed psychotic in Hitchcock’s Psycho, but definitely leaning more in the direction of a horror movie with a dash of psychological angst oddly reminiscent of James Caan’s obsessed college professor in The Gambler. Black Christmas isn’t a blood&guts horror film, though; perhaps it would have been more successful as one, but Clark timidly avoids showing us anything more gruesome than a bloody penknife descending on Margot Kidder and, oh yes, the house mother hanging from a meat hook in the attic. Nothing says a real horror film has to be gruesome, but in view of the fact that Black Christmas is a little short on character credibility and distinctive direction, one gets the feeling that it might have profited from a little more ordinary, gut-level yecchiness and fewer of those painfully subjective handheld shots representing the menacing viewpoint of whoever or whatever it is that’s causing such a stir.

BLACK CHRISTMAS
Direction: Bob Clark. Screenplay: Roy Moore. Cinematography: Ray Norris. Production: Clark.
The Players: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin, James Edmont, John Saxon.

Copyright © 1975 by Rick Hermann


One Comments

  • realthog

    August 25, 2014

    For all its imperfections, the original Black Christmas is one of only a very, very few horror movies I’ve found genuinely scaring; the only other one I can offhand recall having terrified me in the same way is The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972). It’s perhaps the case that, with the hindsight of 17 million teen-slasher movies released since then, Black Christmas seems pretty tame now, but I saw it on first run and . . . golly.

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