Horror Education of the Week: ‘Black Christmas’

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“Agnes, it’s me, Billy…”

Director Bob Clark is best known for the classic A Christmas Story. Some may also know that he directed another holiday film years before. Black Christmas.

After unknowingly being stalked during a Christmas party, a house full of sorority girls receive a series of harassing phone calls. Major creepiness ensues and the girls are picked off one by one. While the killer is never given a clear motive for his actions, there is one theme that threads the entire movie together.

Starring Olivia Hussey as Jess, Margot Kidder as Barb and Andrea Martin as Phyl, Black Christmas was shot in Toronto and first released in October of 1974. The title was changed multiple times including Stranger In The House and Silent Night, Evil Night. Black Christmas also predated most slasher flicks and the use of point of view shots as the killer.

Black Christmas is said to be based on real murders that occurred in Quebec around Christmas time, however a search for these murders leads to little detail.

The movie is more than likely solely based on the Babysitter and the Man Upstairs urban legend.This urban legend originated in the early 1960s. The concept behind it being the idea of girls transitioning to womanhood and the responsibilities of taking care of children. Babysitting is like a dress rehearsal for motherhood and the idea of being too self absorbed can lead to failing. This is played out in the urban legend as the killer, who is usually hiding upstairs and calling from within the house, consistently asks “Have you checked the children?” The girl has not, as she believes they are simply prank calls, and fails in her duty, later discovering the children dead. Though the legend varies, the girl normally falls victim herself.

While Black Christmas does not revolve around babysitting, the aspects of motherhood are seen throughout. The concept of the failure of this dress rehearsal and growing up to be proper women is definitely easy to point out.

Our first victim, Clare, is going against her father’s wishes and running around with her boyfriend. An adult make believe that would lead her to womanhood. The fact that she is suffocated can also be seen as a metaphor as her father is always on her tail, trying to see what her every move is. Clare is placed in a rocking chair by the window and a doll is placed in her lap – a very maternal display.

Mrs. Mac, the sorority house mother, is a drunk, neglecting her children at every turn she can have a drink. She is also careless with her cat, Claude, who wanders through the house and happens upon Clare’s dead body in the attic.

Barb herself is a drinker and also implies through her words and actions that she’s promiscuous and loose. She blatantly propositions a cop who simply is unaware of the word ‘fellatio’. Her own mother is unreliable. Barb is reckless and perhaps this is why she, too, falls victim.

Jess is the last victim, or so it seems as the credits roll, and is the easiest to see in terms of failure in motherhood. Jess is pregnant and wants to have an abortion. She is harassed by the killer, who refers to himself as Billy, on the phone where he speaks in ramblings. Yet Billy makes an obvious point to Jess with one of his statements, insinuating that her aborting the baby seems to be as simple as removing a wart.

Billy is not free from this concept, either. He is stalking women and refers to ‘Agnes’. Either it is the simple ramblings of a lunatic or perhaps Billy once upon a time had a hardship with Agnes. Who Agnes is exactly – and who Billy is – is never explained. There is something, however, the two have done that Billy insists cannot be discovered. He is also overly concerned about a baby, which again leads right back to the concept of motherhood throughout the film – and the failure to take the role seriously. He is also very angry with the ladies in the house and is vile and crude in reference to their lady parts.

Side Note: The name Billy, from William, means ‘protection’ while Agnes means ‘pure and holy’.

The last part of this puzzle could be overlooked yet it is right there in your face. The film is set at Christmas. The birth of Christ can be seen in parallel to Billy’s rampage. Both are meant to give a sense of redemption. Billy is ridding the world of sinners, just like Christ absolving sin. Yet the major part of Black Christmas being set when it is ties directly back to motherhood. Christmas and Jesus Christ’s birth was a simple transition for his mother Mary – who is said to be very young in the Bible when giving birth – from a child to a mother.

 
  • coldblood

    Black Christmas was released before When A Stranger Calls and Halloween and is believed to have partially inspired both films.

    • LaurenTaylor

      Right!

    • Skratchy

      From what I understand, Bob Clark was originally working on a followup that ultimately evolved into John Carpenter’s “Halloween” even.

  • Zombie-Killa

    Good stuff.

    I know this isn’t a popular opinion, and I said this in your other Christmas editorial, but I enjoy the Black Christmas remake more than the original. It’s a bloody and brutal slasher film, filled with sickening gore, and clueless women. It’s mindless fun, and the remake doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

    I don’t hate the original, but man it’s a chore to sit through some times. If I remember correctly, the original’s run time is under two hours, but it doesn’t feel like it. For me, the original just drags and drags and drags, and yes, I’ve almost fallen asleep on it sometimes. The final moments are full of suspense, but certain parts before the finale drive me into a painful state of unbearable boredom.

    • LaurenTaylor

      I was told “It’s just some dude yelling in a phone, the phone ringing and it’s boring.” It’s all in how you watch it. Perhaps picking out the female flaws and failures can create a new adventure.

      • Zombie-Killa

        lol. You SORT of summed up my feelings for this film. In the end, it’s the final cliffhanger that really annoys me the most, but I definitely understand where you’re coming from.

  • KeepDoubting

    Definitely my favorite Christmas-themed horro film.

  • Baphochrist

    An essential classic and for good reason: it’s creepy as fuck! It definitely deserved more attention than it got and luckily newer fans seem to be discovering it the last few years. I will say it’s not *perfect* imo as a good deal of the humor is hopelessly dated and sort of takes away from the tension. Some of the humor is still funny today though! Still the dark tone and sinister atmosphere is absolutely outsanding and those phone calls are STILL freakin’ scary. Killer minimalistic soundtrack too. The remake had a decent color scheme with the lights and all, and some decent gore but holy shit EVERY other aspect of it was terrible. I would have loved to see an H20 (but hopefully better than) style sequel with “Billy” returning twenty years later to haunt another sorrority!

    • LaurenTaylor

      That would’ve been a cool concept! I agree – the phone calls aren’t a simple “Check the children” – they are vile and violent and creepy, indeed.

  • djblack1313

    i love this movie!! the voice of the killer on the phone is quite terrifying and so (wonderfully!) disturbing! Margo Kidder (who i LOVE) was hilarious as drunk, foul mouth Barb! lol. there’s nothing i don’t like/love about this movie. it’s haunting/disturbing with no gore involved (which is GREAT!) and it also has excellent atmosphere.

    i DO have to admit i also love the remake but as a fun, gory guilty pleasure (with a hot cast!). as much as i enjoyed this remake i hated the voice they used for the killer. he/she sounded like every other SAW type voice (meaning bland/run of the mill/not unique/generic) that’s been in countless slashers. the voice of the killer in the original BLACK CHRISTMAS was unlike anything i’ve ever heard before and there’s never been anything close to that horrifying, completely insane voice since.

    • LaurenTaylor

      Definitely enjoy the remake for what it is, too!

  • Joe-Banger

    Ive yet to see the original Black Christmas. Re make still rocks! Good article here!

    • LaurenTaylor

      Thanks! Go check it out!

  • xAshleyMariex

    Black Christmas is one of my all time favorite movies c:

  • WalkingDeadGuy

    I love this movie, I watch it far too much every December :-) I love the characters (Margot Kitter is the best), the simple story, and the creeptastic killer. I’ve always wondered why the general public never gave it the recognition it deserves.

    Over time I’ve grown to like the remake for what it is; although it’s overly complex and a bad movie overall, it features a great cast, the death scenes were fun and gruesome, and I love how it captured the Christmas spirit. I just don’t understand why they had to have Agnes as the second killer.

  • viking1983

    this is brilliant and still freaks me out as you never see the killer, the original slasher film and the best, the remake was fucking awful, they should never reveal “billy” and the remake made him look as yellow as a simpsons character

    • djblack1313

      viking you bring up an excellent point! the fact we, the audience, NEVER sees what Billy looks like was a brilliant move. as far as i know (i very well may be wrong on this) not showing the killer at some point was never done before and i don’t think it’s been done since. it really made the movie all that more creepier NOT seeing what he looked like. he did all these killings with total anonimity.

  • Edo

    A very nice article! Some interesting facts I never knew. I personally don’t enjoy this film nearly as much as I used to, but it definitely deserves recognition for its influence on the genre. I remember an interview with Bob Clark on the DVD where he says that he had told John Carpenter in 1974 that if he were to make a sequel he would set it during Halloween and call it Halloween XD

    • LaurenTaylor

      Thanks!

  • coldblood

    Director Bob Clark had never really gotten the credit he deserved. Not only did Black Christmas inspire When A Stranger Calls and Halloween, but his movie Porky’s started the teenage sex-comedy revolution. He only ever really got props for A Christmas Story. Try watching A Christmas Story and Black Christmas back to back, its really trippy. :->

    • LaurenTaylor

      Very true! :)