25 Days of Christmas - The Naughty List: Black Christmas (1974)
I have to admit, I was initially excited about watching a Christmas slasher film. What's not to love about a killer ridding the world of sorority girls just before Christmas break? Plenty, as it turns out.
The film introduces four sorority sisters right away: normal Jess (Olivia Hussey), foul-mouthed drinking Barb (Margot Kidder), epically 70's fro-ed Phyl (Andrea Martin) and innocent virgin Clare (Lynne Griffin). The house has been receiving creepy calls from the "Moaner," but in the opening scene the caller begins making murderous threats along with crude sexual suggestions. After ballsy Barb taunts him and hangs up, sweet Clare, upset with Barb's behavior, goes upstairs to pack...and becomes the first victim.
The next day Clare's father (James Edmond) comes to pick her up, but she's dead in the sorority house attic. Everyone goes about their business, kind of ignoring his pleas to help find his missing daughter, until a 13-year-old girl also goes missing in town. This is officially where the film lost me. The addition of this side plot was pointless and time consuming. By the end, it was never revealed that the killer had anything to do with this girl's death. It somehow led everyone to be more cautious once they found the girl's body, but it still made no sense.
On top of everything else going on, Jess tells her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) that she's pregnant and wants to have an abortion, which greatly upsets Peter, to the point where he becomes abusive towards her and the cops begin to suspect he's the killer.
Eventually the body count rises, including the house mother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), Barb and Phyl, until only Jess is left alone in the house. The cops tap the house phone to trace the killer's calls, which of course are coming from inside the house. Sadly, it took three phones calls before they could do this, all the while we had to watch the nerdy tech guy try to trace the calls the old fashion way, which I did not understand what he was doing. It too was tedious and time-consuming.
Peter shows up, and after his previous behavior earlier in the day plus some things repeated by the killer on the phone, Jess is convinced Peter must be the killer and she bludgeons him to death with a fire poker, right as the police barge in. However, as the film ends and Jess is resting in her room, the police escort Clare's father to a hospital, who's still distraught that his daughter has not been found. The point of view shifts to the attic window, where the killer is still hiding with Clare and Mrs. Mac's bodies. The house phone once again rings as the credits roll and Jess' fate is left ambiguous.
There were a number of things to genuinely like about Black Christmas. I was amused that the assumed virgin was the first victim while the pregnant-out-of-wedlock character ended up being the Final Girl. It was a nice twist to what has since become the norm, though Black Christmas was released before the big slasher era of the late 70s and early 80s, before there were really any "rules" to follow. Many of the supporting cast were a joy to watch, such as Barb and Mrs. Mac, and their absence from the screen was felt.
Best of all was the ambiguity of the killer. We never see his face. We never know what he was after or why he felt the need to kill a house full of women. Many of his phone calls referred to "Billy" and some sort of previous childhood trauma, but none of it came as a big reveal at the end. And for that reason the creep factor jumped up a few points.
Unfortunately the film took too much time attempting character development for the rather dull Jess. Hussey's performance was fine, but her character was lifeless. I'd much rather see badass Barb go up against the killer in the end. With all that "fleshing out" of Jess came a runtime of 100 minutes that felt twice as long, with the obnoxious side plot of the missing little girl. It's not often that adding layers to a character is frowned upon, but when it's simply a slasher film and the character is already dull, there's no need to make the audience suffer her even longer than they have to.
As for the Christmas element, it was virtually pointless. I can imagine the writer rubbing his hands together and laughing maniacally about setting a slasher story during Christmas time, but this could have worked at any point during the year. The holiday only adds the element of confusion and chaos when the murders begin, but that could be manufactured around any season.
To end on a positive note, here is a random list of my favorite things from the film that had no bearing on the plot but made me laugh:
1. First lines of the film, from Barb: "Who left goddamn door open?" Ummm...Merry Christmas?
2. Jess' Manos: the Hands of Fate sweater in the opening scene.
3. Jewish Santa cursing in front the kids when he finds out his girlfriend, Phyl won't be spending the break with him;
4. A poster of some old lady giving the finger in Clare's room;
5. The house mother's hiding places for her booze: shoe box, books, toilet tank;
6. Barb's death by stabbing with a unicorn figurine;
7. And the fact that director Bob Clark would go on to direct the family-friendly A Christmas Story less than a decade later.