Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching.
Why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when is giving in to peer pressure a bad thing? With little rhyme or reason, check in every day from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.
Bob Clark has one fucked up resume. If that name doesn’t immediately jog your memory, this is the same director behind the perennial holiday classic, A Christmas Story. He’s also the sick mind who made those Baby Geniuses movies, a series that’s arguably more offensive than his 1974 yuletide slasher, Black Christmas
We’ve already discussed incongruous genre mash-ups, but a Christmas horror film? It’s been argued that Clark and screenwriter E. Roy Moore were the pioneering force behind the slasher subgenre, even beating John Carpenter’s Halloween to the punch by a solid four years. Dates are indisputable, but does tossing a Santa cap on Michael Meyers work out in the end?
Black Christmas begins by throwing us right into its disturbed heart. Via first person perspective, we follow a deranged killer as he climbs into a sorority house’s attic and then stalks and kills one of its residents, dragging her corpse back to his shadowy playhouse lair. Smooth camera motions — as they mimic real head movement — make for an engaging opening sequence, especially when set against the backdrop of ornaments and tinsel. Too bad much of the devilish charm stops there.
After the first murder, Moore’s screenplay spends another 40 minutes following other sorority girls and an ensuing police investigation. Had the killer’s whereabouts remained a mystery, Lt. John Saxon’s phone tapping and questioning might be more enthralling. But it rarely grabs the attention when a bumbling police case involves detectives who know less than the audience.
Black Christmas then exists at a crisis with itself. When it cross-cuts the faceless murderer stalking coeds in the shadows, it nails the tension on the head. We see inebriated young women, and we see “him.” It’s the girls who remain blind, and even deaf in some cases. In a particular grace note of inspiration, the killer terrorizes the sorority house with prank phone calls, babbling in multiple, sometimes incomprehensible voices. The abrupt changes from child to man to woman to lunatic combine for a schizophrenic and unexplained serial murderer. It’s to Black Christmas’s strength that it leaves his origins, and ending, ambiguous.
As a Christmas film however, it’s tough to justify Black Christmas’ existence beyond the pure shock value of holiday stab wounds. Apart from some sporadic caroling and an early Christmas party, the film is dominated by mordant piano rumblings and fantastic sound design. The creaks and groans of the house’s wooden staircase make for a gripping “last girl” showdown, but any overt Christmas tropes fall by the wayside, and the shock factor fades away to cheap offense. Moore and Clark deserve credit for pushing the envelope so early, but the slasher tropes they establish gel better with trick r’ treating.
Way #1: Christmas Carol: The Movie
Way #2: The Santa Clause
Way #3: Die Hard
Way #4: Bad Santa
Way #5: The Family Man
Ways #6 & #7: Home Alone & Home Alone 2: Lost in New York