To get into the holiday spirit, I’ve decided to focus on a few films and TV specials that are set on or around Christmas time. However, because I’m the kind of pretentious tosser who loves irony, I’ve decided to focus on Christmas stories that are a little more, shall we say, grim. These are stories of darkness and despair during “the most wonderful time of the year”. Some of these are horrific. Some are tragic. Some are even hilarious. But all focus on the opposite of Christmas cheer. Welcome, my friends, to the Bleak Midwinter.
First off, a rather classic little horror I re-watched a couple of nights ago: Black Christmas. Something of a cult classic, it has many tropes used by the slasher genre. There’s a killer hiding in a sorority house. College girls get picked off one by one. There’s eventually a final chase between the killer and the last survivor.
However, there’s a lot that sets Black Christmas apart from most slasher films. Perhaps that’s unsurprising, because, released in 1974, four years before John Carpenter’s Halloween would create a thousand imitators, this is one of the earliest examples of the genre. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that it stands out due to having a few key differences to your typical slasher movie.
For one thing, there’s a surprisingly slower pace to it. Instead of all the murders happening in one night, it’s actually split across a couple. This means we get to see what happens when one of the college girls goes missing and her father and friends start looking for her.
We also get to see quite a bit of the lives of some of the characters in the film. I’ll be honest, some parts worked for me and some parts didn’t. While I wasn’t too keen on the focus on the relationship between main character Jess and her boyfriend Peter, I did like seeing the interaction between the cops in the film. For once, they didn’t seem too incompetent, (well, not overall, anyway,) and actually have a rather strong presence in the film’s plot that really helps it to develop. Especially when one cop says a really classic line to Jess towards the end.
Something else that stands out about the film is its sense of humour. I know a lot of slasher movies tend to have a little bit of humour mixed in, but it’s how well it works here that I found surprising. Most of it is delivered by two characters. The first is Sgt. Nash, a cop who’s not only rather inept but horrendously naive. Thankfully, his superiors tend to be a lot smarter, but it doesn’t stop Nash from giving both his fellow officers and the audience a few chuckles due to how stupid he really is. I think what makes Nash work really well is that he’s dumb in a believable way. He’s not a caricature, just someone who’s really not that great at his job.
The other key character who gives us a few laughs is Barbara, played by Margot Kidder (yes, the same Margot Kidder who would later play Lois Lane). A college girl who not only likes to drink but also say and do some pretty bad things, including getting very young kids drunk and being rather vicious to her “friends”. Yes, she couldn’t be more obvious an example of your typical slasher movie “Asshole Victim“, but that doesn’t prevent her death from being absolutely fucking terrifying.
Which leads me to the most important point of the film, and what really helps to make it stand out – Billy. As a slasher movie villain, Billy gets rather overlooked compared to the likes of Freddy, Jason and Michael. And to be fair, it’s really not hard to see why. Particularly since we don’t really see him at all. Most of the time, either we’re seeing things from his perspective, or barely the slightest hint of him, such as his shadow.
And that’s what makes him so fucking terrifying. What’s easy to forget about many of the best movie monsters, such as the Shark in Jaws or the Xenomorph in Alien, is that they work best when we don’t actually see them, when they play on the fear of the unknown. (While we do eventually see both of those creatures in their respective films, in both cases, apart from the occasional glimpse, we only truly saw them towards the end.)
Billy is a classic example of that. We never truly see his face, except for an eye in a couple of shots. And both times, it is disturbing as fuck.
Seriously, how terrifying is that shot? Almost completely in shadow, except for a single eye, and it totally works.
While we never see Billy on screen, we do hear him a lot. Particularly as he keeps calling the girls on their phone. Some of what he says is just perverted. Some of it is utter nonsense. A lot of the time though, it’s creepy as hell. Especially the hints we get of his past trauma. Nothing more than hints, but just enough to make us wonder. Ultimately, though, whenever we hear Billy speak, the only thing we truly know is that he is utterly insane.
And that’s what makes Billy work so well – the fact that we don’t really know anything about him. We don’t know why he chose the house to stalk and kill his victims. We don’t know where he came from. There is absolutely no bullshit origin story to explain who he is, and it works completely.
It’s a big reason why I’ve avoided the 2006 remake. Apparently, it not only gives him a backstory, but reveals that the sorority house is where he used to live! Honestly, why would you do that? Why would you make it a place no one would even want to stay at, instead of a place where you should feel safe?
In my opinion, that’s what makes great horror truly work. Whether it’s your house, your hometown, or even your own sanity, really great horror takes what you can trust and feel secure in…and then finds a way of destroying that feeling of safety. And Black Christmas is, without a doubt, a classic example of great horror. Horrendously overlooked, it’s a great precursor to John Carpenter’s Halloween, and an essential watch for any slasher fan.