The Gift That Keeps On Giving- What Makes Black Christmas So Darn Scary?

The Gift That Keeps On Giving- What Makes Black Christmas So Darn Scary?

I had heard so much about the original of Black Christmas from 1974 by the time I finally got to see it. It’s reputation as being the main film that inspired the slasher movie sub-genre pre-Halloween was well established with horror fans salivating over it and singing it’s praises to the heavens.

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‘Lets see how scary it really is!’ I said to myself as I watched it on the DVD brought to us in the UK by the excellent Tartan Video. It was Christmas Eve and I was all alone in a shared house which all of my housemates had vacated to go home for the holidays. I can honestly say that I have never felt so scared, unsettled and downright terrified in all of my life.

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Years later and I’ve just arrived in Sydney to start a year long vacation/working holiday and as it’s almost the Yuletide season I see that my local cinema is showing a double-bill of Black Christmas and Christmas Evil which I had heard John Waters say was the best Christmas movie ever made. Christmas Evil was every bit as brilliant as I hoped it would be.

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Christmas Evil- another horror masterpiece

But a very curious thing had happened. I found my second viewing of Black Christmas to be even creepier and scary than the first.

So what is it about the film that works so well? In less imaginative hands Black Christmas could have been far more generic and less inspired, especially if it had been made when the slasher genre had kicked off. But the fact that the film was made prior to this means that there were no genre conventions or expectations to constrain it and so the sky was the limit.

The film concerns a group of sorority sisters and their house mother being together in their sorority house just before they all depart for their Christmas vacations. They don’t realise that they will be departing but in a much bloodier way than they could have imagined. They start to receive obscene phone calls but don’t realise that the deranged person making them is already inside the house. In fact, this is one major plot device that the audience is privy to as we even get a shaky POV shot of the killer making his way to an attic window to enter the residence. He makes said attic his HQ of terror if you will. The decor is suitably demented and creepy as hell with an old rocking horse and shop mannequins in it.

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The killer climbs into the attic of the house…
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…which is resplendent with such sinister artefacts as an old rocking horse

Of course, this plot device has been used sooo many times since but this was all very new in 1974 when the film was made and released. Black Christmas brilliantly mines into the urban legend of The Killer Upstairs that has been told countless times around campfires with the odd tweak or variation according to the person telling it.

The fact that the killer is using a separate phone line to make the calls whilst being in the same house as his prey has also been used since with 1979’s excellent When A Stranger Calls fully exploiting this idea and also referencing the same urban legend. But this was a full five years after Black Christmas was unveiled onto the world. Director Bob Clark also says that back then it was very common for one property, especially a multi-residence property like a sorority house, to contain many different phone lines for the multiple occupants.

And these aren’t just any kind of disturbing phone calls. These are calls that Clark wanted to be as disturbing as possible and he really excelled at this! He used multiple different actors on them to convey the different personalities inhabited within the killer who later identifies himself as Billy. If these calls don’t scare the bejesus out of you, you’re either lying to save face or you’re trying to be an edge lord. These calls veer between being sexually explicit, feral, unhinged and animalistic.

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But the film also depicts something that was happening to millions of homes around the world at that time. The primitive methods at tracing a call in the film and how difficult it was was a very accurate portrayal. In those days technology regarding telephones was in it’s infancy and so this left many people vulnerable to prank calls. It also left them vulnerable to calls from people who wanted to do more than just scare whoever was unfortunate enough to answer the phone. Black Christmas was reflecting back to audiences something that wasn’t spoken about back then and how scary and potentially traumatic it was. It was a practice so widespread that it resonated massively with audiences.

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The almost impossible task of tracing the calls within the film mirrored how difficult it was in real life

The calls suggest that you’re watching something a lot grittier than how other horror films operated up until that point. The Exorcist had been released the year before and pushed as many envelopes as possible whilst not merely for some tedious attempt at shock value. You get the feeling that Black Christmas is doing the same but in a very different way.

In fact, another feature of the film that makes it feel utterly unsettling is that whilst everything is going on in the house, other similarly dark events are playing out in the wider community. A young girl has gone missing. Some of the film’s characters join a search party in a local park to look for the girl and her body is discovered. Just as the film depicted the horror of the nuisance call, it also depicted the full horror of child abduction with many such cases seemingly happening with shocking regularity at that time and continuing to happen to this day.

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The park search

In fact, this sequence is given an extra layer of poignancy as the father of one of the sorority sisters, Clare who he was due to meet him that morning but didn’t show up, takes part in the search. After reporting her missing to the police, Clare’s father searches for the other missing girl unbeknownst that she has been murdered at the hands of Billy who has suffocated her with a plastic dry-cleaning bag. He places her body in a rocking chair in the attic with the film cutting to her body resplendent with the startled expression on her face still under the plastic.

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Clare’s body in the rocking chair with the plastic bag still over her head

Another great feature of Black Christmas are the characters. One example is Barb who provides the film with a hilarious scene whilst interacting with a very gullible and inexperienced cop when they report Clare missing. Her drinking becomes endearing to the audience (check out the scene when she’s letting a child have some of her booze) but could also be used by her to mask the fact that her mother seemingly doesn’t care about her. Mommie Dearest has decided to go away for Christmas with her latest boyfriend and these plans don’t involve her daughter.

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Barb doing what she does best

Another character who likes to booze is eccentric house mother and cat-lady Mrs Mac. We see that she has alcohol stashed in all kinds of places in the house including in a hollowed out book in her library. This character along with Barb provides a lot of the comedy within the film. But just because there are comic interludes these don’t detract from the feeling of unease and terror the film generates for the audience.

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Mrs Mac drinking. Again.

Jess is having problems in her relationship with her pianist boyfriend Peter when she discovers that she’s pregnant. She says to him that she is going to have an abortion which provokes the testy retort from her other half that she talks about it almost as if she’s ‘getting a wart removed’. Billy references this later in one of his phone calls, thus making her think that Peter could be the killer.

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Jess and Peter have the ‘big talk’

The actual murders themselves are something to behold in the film. Not only are they shocking and very well executed (pun not intended) but are also beautifully directed sequences. Clare’s shocking murder only ten minutes in, house mother Mrs Mack’s almost slapstick sequence involving a hook after she’s discovered Clare’s body, Barb’s exit with the glass figurines by her bed of which Billy utilises one to stab her. These wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the best Giallo movies never made. In fact, Black Christmas seems to hold quite a few similarities with some of it’s Italian counterparts.

The sorority house feels like another character within the film. The dark wooden shadowy passageways, cubbyholes and nooks and crannies which the killer has full access to are the perfect locale for the film to take place in.

The cast of Black Christmas is also a strong point for the film with a list of actors that is like a roll call of the creme de la creme of cult filmdom. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon to name but a few. Again, if Black Christmas had been made whilst the slasher movie was in full flow, maybe some of these actors would have declined to take part as some may have felt they were above such fare.

Carl Zittrer’s music for the film is suitably unsettling, surreal and downright macabre. Apparently the composer achieved the score by tying different objects to the strings of a piano to distort and warp the sounds it made when played. He would also record music and then play back the results at a slower speed to further manipulate the results until they were suitably unsettling enough. He certainly succeeded.

Whilst I’m rhapsodising about the film, there’s plenty more I could say but to do so would spoil the experience of seeing this masterpiece especially for the first time (although multiple viewings seem to enhance the film’s stature in my head as I pick up things that I didn’t hone in on during previous viewings).

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Black Christmas is a one-off. It has it’s own feel and sense of terror and dread that no other film has ever come close to replicating. There are very few horror films that actually frighten me but this movie scares the pants off me. It’s the Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

31 Days of Halloween- Day 31- Are You In The House Alone? (1978)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 31- Are You In The House Alone? (1978)

Gail Osborne is a 16 year old who starts dating Steve Pastorinis who goes to the same school as her. It’s also around this time that she starts to receive abusive notes stuck in the grills of her school locker and also abusive telephone calls.

For a film, let alone a TV movie to deal with an issue such as stalking in 1978 was very brave indeed as it hadn’t entered the public consciousness yet and was largely an alien concept. But Are You In The House Alone? deals with the subject very intelligently and exposes it for the vile, terrifying and horrific practice that it actually is.

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But the movie also deals with other issues such as Gail’s parents struggling with their marriage following her father losing his job. This again is dealt with brilliantly and feels integral to the plot rather than just feeling like padding to fill up the running time.

But Are You In The House Alone? also deals with rape, another taboo topic for 1978. It deals with it amazingly well with discussions regarding getting the rapist to court and obtaining a conviction against him being seen as being very difficult indeed.

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I love doing 31 Days of Halloween as it’s a great chance to revisit horror films that I have seen in the past but also to watch films that are completely new to me. Some of these I’m really glad I took the time to watch. A small minority bowl me over as they are just so powerful and brilliant. Are You In The House Alone? is one such film. When it ended I literally had to just sit and digest what I had just experienced and think about just how trailblazing the production was especially for that time and for the topics it depicted without any sugar coating or saccharine gloss.

Are You In The House Alone? is a very unsettling experience as it worms it’s way into your head and will stay with you long after it has finished. And it’s a rare instance of a TV movie rightly finding it’s way onto Blu Ray (thank you Vinegar Syndrome!)

Grade- A

31 Days of Halloween- Day 28- Madman (1981)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 28- Madman (1981)

This slasher movie starts in the most obvious seting for a film of this ilk- a campfire! We hear of Madman Marz who was a vile man by all accounts. Abusive to his family until he decides to kill them with an axe. He then casually goes to his local tavern to have a drink or ten but not before he’s placed the bloody axe on the bar. He’s then jumped by a posse of men who bury the axe in his face and attempt to hang him for his crimes. When they go to cut down his body the next day they find that it isn’t there anymore.

Three guesses where he is and that he’s still murdering people.

I watched this film on the same day that I watched another film I had heard plenty about- Pieces. Hows that for a double-bill?

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My first thought on watching Madman was ‘Oh my God! That’s Gaylen Ross!’ Yes, Fran from Dawn of the Dead is one of the cast members. Why wasn’t she in more films? She’s a legend.

The other prevailing thought I had was that Madman kicks ass royally. This is far from your bland and cliched summer camp based slasher film. The kills are amazing, it’s gory as hell and the killer is fantastic.

Madman plays with the tropes of the early 80’s slasher film and feels like a breath of fresh air in much the same way as Jeff Lieberman’s Just Before Dawn. There is deft and innovative direction by Joe Giannone which places this head and shoulders above similar fare.

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Add to this an excellent and very effective electronic score by Steve Horelick and you have one hell of a ride.

Madman also went under the alternate title of Slaughterhouse.

Grade- B

31 Days of Halloween- Day 26- White Zombie (1932)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 26- White Zombie (1932)

We see the soon to be wed Madeleine and Neil being driven by horse drawn carriage to the house of plantation owner Charles Beaumont. They pass by a man named Murder (a red flag) Legendre played by the one and only Bela Lugosi. His evil face is another red flag. This isn’t a good man as is obvious for any sane person. Beaumont is also in love with Madeleine and goes to see Legendre to enlist his services so that Madeleine will marry him instead of Neil as Murder is a master of voodoo. He even has zombies that he has created as workers at his sugar cane mill. Legendre states that the only way for Charles to get Madeleine to love him is to turn her into a zombie also. But will his dastardly plan work?

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Lugosi in White Zombie. Just an average looking kinda guy

White Zombie was one of the films on the list I have labelled in my head as ‘Horror Films That I’ve Heard Are Really Influential But Haven’t Gotten Around To Watching Yet’. That is until now.

And I’m so glad that I finally have. It’s a fantastic film that still holds up as an experimental piece of cinema with superimposed images, the use of shadows and is perfectly framed. It’s a joy to watch. And the plot and subject matter is far from conventional for horror in the 1930’s.

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But best of all is to see horror maestro Lugosi at the top of his game. He can say more with his eyes than most actors could even dream of. I’m so glad that someone who was destined to star in some of the genre’s very best works actually ended up doing just that. And by the time he starred in White Zombie he was already a star of the genre through his starring in Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue.

If I had to compare this film to any other it would be to the equally experimental (and brilliant) Vampyr. This is compliment in itself.

Grade- B+

31 Days of Halloween- Day 24- No Place To Hide (1981)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 24- No Place To Hide (1981)

Amy leaves her art class late at night and goes to her car. However, she then finds a man dressed all in black resplendent with a black balaclava and shades waiting for her in her backseat. She gets away but isn’t taken seriously by the police when she goes to report the incident. Apparently the same man has been following her on previous occasions but has always gotten away. The police think she is a crank and that this mysterious man who is threatening and stalking her is a figment of her imagination.

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Soon afterwards she receives a funeral wreath from the same man. Realising that this is the first tangible piece of evidence that there is that in fact someone stalking her, she goes with her stepmother to the florists to ask who placed the order and what he looked like. The florist is amused as he says that it was her, Amy who walked in and placed the order just hours earlier.

Is Amy mad? Or is there really a man stalking and threatening to kill her?

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No Place To Hide is another example of an excellent made for TV horror movie. Tense, suspenseful and very well written not to mention perfectly acted.

In fact it has so many twists and turns that it would make a great episode of either Tales of the Unexpected or Thriller.

Grade- B

31 Days of Halloween- Day 23- The Case of the Hillside Stranglers (1989)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 23- The Case of the Hillside Stranglers (1989)

A pretty faithful account of The Hillside Stranglers starring Dennis Farina as Angelo Buono and Billy Zane as Kenneth Bianchi. Richard Crenna is cop Bob Grogan who is hunting them. This made for TV movie is based on the book Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers By Darcy O’Brien.

I love TV movies based on true crime cases especially those made in the 80’s ever after I saw The Deliberate Stranger starring Mark Harmon as Ted Bundy.

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This movie has chilling reverberations to the recent Sarah Everard case as it depicts the killers using a police badge to get their potential female victims attention so that they would go with them.

The film also has it’s fair share of tense moments such as Grogan’s girlfriend going to see Buono just to see what he’s like after she had discussed him with her cop boyfriend for so long. Obviously, this was a really foolhardy thing to do!

A solid TV movie.

Grade- C+

31 Days of Halloween- Day 21- The Last Shark (1981)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 21- The Last Shark (1981)

The opening scene of this opus shows us what could almost be a kind of commercial of a windsurfer doing his thing on the water. However suddenly he is attacked and killed by a shark. Following this, successful horror novelist Peter Benton teams up with wizened shark hunter Ron Hamer to try and find and kill the shark which could very well attack again now that it has gotten a taste for human flesh. They want to cancel the upcoming windsurfing regatta but the local mayor doesn’t want this as it may harm his election campaign for becoming the new state governor. 

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. This is basically the plot of Jaws. And you’d be right for thinking that. This Italian film is a blatant Jaws copy made on a millionth of the budget of the original but herein lies something great about the film and about cult cinema in general. Whilst it’s easy to dismiss a film like this, it’s harder to dismiss that The Last Shark is also fantastic and very cheesy fun. There are great kills, a groovy soundtrack and a feel that is more reminiscent of an early 80’s Euro porn movie as well as a horror rip-off.

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In fact, the film seems to want to be a ‘homage’ (ahem) to not just Jaws but also it’s sequel judging by the ‘shark vs helicopter’ scene which is as genius as it is laughable. 

But whilst you may get mainstream Hollywood films that have budgets of millions of dollars which earn back much more at the box office, they may be completely soulless, forgettable and mediocre. And these are three words that could never be levelled against The Last Shark. It has character and charm coming out of every pore even if most audience members will choose to laugh at proceedings rather than fully suspending their disbelief at what is happening in the film’s running time.

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Give me this film over the myriad of boring, bland and beige Hollywood films made to run in any number of worldwide multiplexes any day of the week. 

Grade- B-

31 Days of Halloween- Day 13- The Wasp Woman (1959)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 13- The Wasp Woman (1959)

Janice Starlin sees that the sales of her cosmetics company are slumping as her customers see that she appears to be (shock horror) getting older (!) Dr Eric Zinthrop, a scientist, finds that he has been able to extract chemicals from royal jelly that can reverse the ageing process. Starlin agrees to become a human subject regarding this but when progress is too slow for her liking she takes additional doses of the chemical. This has disastrous results as she starts to transform into a half-woman, half-wasp type hybrid.

This 1959 film is a fantastic piece of Roger Corman goodness. It’s also a film that I had seen the poster for many many times but had never actually seen. Until now.

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I’m pleased to say that it was worth the wait. Not only is it a fantastic piece of 50’s horror that must have truly shocked and astounded audiences when it was released but it also has some perceptive things to say about the role of beauty, youth and cosmetics particularly regarding women who are held up to more stringent standards regarding these issues than men.

The film’s commentary reminded me of Georges Franju’s masterpiece Les Yeux San Visage and also the episode of the TV show Tales of the Unexpected and the episode called Royal Jelly.

A brilliant time capsule of 1950’s drive-in Americana that tackles wider issues that are more than still relevant today.

Grade- B+

31 Days of Halloween- Day 11- Misery (1990)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 11- Misery (1990)

World famous author Paul Sheldon crashes his car whilst driving in a blizzard but is rescued by nurse and super-fan Annie Wilkes who has read everything he’s ever published as well as reading and viewing every interview he’s ever given. Sheldon finds himself trapped with multiple injuries included compound fractures to his legs meaning that he is immobile and dependent on Wilkes to care for him. She also tells him that the telephone lines and down and roads closed, both of which are lies. Things take a darker turn still when Wilkes goes and buys the latest book by Sheldon which has just been published (yes the road to town has mysteriously been reopened but there’s no mention of Wilkes taking Paul to a local hospital) only to discover that her favourite character Misery has died during childbirth. Wilkes isn’t happy about this. This is bad news for Sheldon.

Misery explores the obsessive, irrational fan devotion that was explored in very different circumstances in Scorsese’s meisterwerk The King of Comedy, a film that bombed at the box office whilst Misery was a huge hit but is inferior in comparison. Oh, the irony.

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The dangerous side of fandom. The King Of Comedy (a much better film)

Before seeing Misery for the first time I had read and thoroughly enjoyed Stephen King’s masterful novel of the same name. The film adaptation feels like the finer nuances of the novel have been erased to make a big screen shocker that contains great performances by Kathy Bates (Wilkes) and James Caan (Sheldon) with Paul’s literary agent being portrayed effortlessly by the ever divine Lauren Bacall.

But the film also feels like some kind of TV movie that lacks not just the depth of King’s novel but also the cinematic grandeur that might have been envisaged and realised by another director other than Rob Reiner.

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Misery feels like an attempt to hit big at the box office by creating two dimensional characters and cheap shocks rather than delivering anything with real intelligence. And it worked. Misery brought in the money and earned Bates an Oscar. But watch Misery next to other, better King adaptations such as The Shining and Carrie and you’ll see what I mean. There’s no comparison.

Grade- C

31 Days of Halloween- Day 9- I Don’t Want To Be Born (1975)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 9- I Don’t Want To Be Born (1975)

This film has the best plotline of any movie in the history of cinema. Really!

Joan Collins stars as a stripper in a burlesque joint. Her co-star is a gypsy dwarf named Hercules. He makes advances on his co-star but when she knocks him back he places a curse on her unborn baby making the unborn child psychopathic.

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If that wasn’t enough, the film also co-stars Donald Pleasance, Ralph Bates and Caroline Munro. Kids TV legend Floella Benjamin even stars as a nurse. Holy great casting, Batman.

The film effortlessly captures the period with 70’s London looking beautiful but with a sleazy underbelly as exemplified by the strip club. The film also gives La Collins an opportunity to look breathlessly fabulous in every scene. And every scene necessitates a costume change for Joanie.

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And then there are the fantastic kills from the baby from hell. I love how the film cuts from some awful act of violence to the cutest baby you’ve ever seen. It feels completely jarring, surreal and works really well.

I Don’t Want To Be Born also goes by other titles such as The Devil Within Her, Sharon’s Baby and The Monster which is the title that is being used for a new Blu Ray release from Network Releasing who are fantastic with their titles and so I look forward to how great this title will look. 70’s Joan Collins in High Def! We really don’t deserve it. And we’ve only just had Blu Ray releases of both The Bitch and The Stud.

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I actually think this film is a masterpiece. It’s also my favourite film from 1975. Yes, I think it’s better or maybe just as good as Jaws and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Of course there are those who dismiss this title as just 70’s exploitation fluff. But that lazy summation disregards the beautiful cinematography, the time capsule aspect of the time the film captures both on and off camera (there was a real thirst for horror movies amongst British cinema goers in the 70’s) and the set design which is pinpoint perfect. Oh, and the acting is pretty fantastic too. This film may be an Exorcist/Rosemary’s Baby rip-off but just like Beyond The Door it more than holds it’s own just like Piranha did in the wake of Jaws or Zombie Flesh Eaters after Dawn of the Dead.

A classic film. Seriously.

Grade- A+