Before Jason, before Freddy, before even Michael, we had Billy.
In 1974, Bob Clark unleashed a dark, foreboding piece of horror that quietly snuck into our homes in the middle of the night and brought death instead of presents. Mixing Clark’s trademark black humor (the man would go on to direct A Christmas Story, after all) and a mix of psychological horror with urban legend, Black Christmas is an often-overlooked yet fantastic piece of horror cinema. So why isn’t it always remembered as such?
To discuss this, we’ll need to talk about the events that transpire throughout the duration of the film. So if you haven’t yet watched it, go see it and then return to the article. It’s Christmas horror at its absolute finest.
If you simply need some refreshing, the basic storyline is this: A deranged psychopath named Billy begins making obscene phone calls to a sorority house. After one of the sisters goes missing, a hunt is on for the identity of Billy. A young girl has also been killed in town, and to complicate things, our protagonist Jess (Olivia Hussey) is pregnant and wants an abortion. Her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea) does not. All signs point to Peter, and it seems quite clear that Peter is actually Billy.
But here’s the thing: He isn’t. Billy and Peter are two separate people, and Mr. Clark has been trailing us along the whole time. In fact, we never see more of Billy than his silhouette and his right eye. Black Christmas even teases us throughout by showing the killer’s point of view. We are able to see through his eyes, but we never even get to know what he looks like, or why he’s doing this.
Therein lies the greatness of the film. At the end, nothing is resolved. We’re left unsatisfied. Why did Billy kill these girls? And he never left the house, so who killed the young girl in town? What made Billy so deranged?
The simple takeaway that I had always left the film with is that life is not so black and white. Some things we will never get to know. Sometimes, horrible things happen to good people for absolutely no reason, making it all the more tragic. It’s one of the scariest concepts I could think of, and it’s disturbing to this day.
Yet, unfortunately, so many of us have been catered to with over-explanation and brainless exposition throughout the years. We’ve been spoiled rotten with too much backstory and too much resolution. In knowing everything, we the viewer become satisfied, despite the fact that maybe our beloved characters have been brutally murdered right before our eyes. So maybe everyone dies, but hey, at least we know why.
It could ruin a film, as well. Though Alexandre Aja’s High Tension has been widely regarded since its release due to the revelations in the film’s twist, I believed it to be way too blatant. When the reveal happens, all the mystery of the film is gone. There’s nothing left to wonder about because we’ve had everything explained to us in an effort to make the viewer happy. It’s a good feeling when we can sit back and say, “Oh, so that’s what this means!” But in a horror movie, I don’t always believe that to be the best route. Black Christmas understands this.
Many horror films set around Christmas tie the killer in with some sort of holiday theme. Silent Night, Deadly Night, Krampus, A Christmas Horror Story all do, and they’re great for what they are. Black Christmas is simply set during the holiday period and that’s about it. There are no killer Santas or Yuletide demons. It’s just that much more tragic when these events unfold during such a joyous holiday.
Black Christmas exists to paint a picture of mystery, terror, and despair and excels at it. It’s possibly the greatest Holiday horror film of all time, and if you don’t believe me, maybe you need a second watch. If you still don’t agree, that’s fine, but there’s one thing I won’t leave up for debate, and that is the fact that it holds the title for the greatest tagline of any horror movie ever: