Black Christmas: The anti-Christmas Story
By Daniel Kraus

A Christmas Story, the timeless tale of hapless, bespectacled Ralphie and his quest for a Red Ryder bee-bee gun, is a bona fide American classic. It is so beloved that cable stations have reverted to running it for 12 hours straight on Christmas Day. Only It’s a Wonderful Life is more linked to the holiday.

Its reputation is richly deserved. We have seen it so many times that Ralphie’s escapades of humor, tragedy, warmth, and sadness mix freely with our own memories. Was it our turkey that got eaten by the hound dogs or was it Ralphie’s?

Since A Christmas Story is so much a part of our holiday memories, we’d like to think of director Bob Clark as one of the family, probably a lot like Wilford Brimley—kind, bearded, and constantly offering a hot bowl of oatmeal. Even his name is all-American. Bob Clark, for crying out loud.

But a quick glance at Clark’s filmography proves that—oatmeal notwithstanding—he’s not as harmless as we might hope. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) is a zombie movie considered well above average among zombie fans. Deranged (1974) is a fantastic, grisly film based on the life of grave-robbing serial killer Ed Gein. And the teen sex comedy Porky’s (1981) is, I guess, a classic in its own special way.

Sandwiched between lunatic necrophiliacs and lewd nymphomaniacs was 1974’s Black Christmas. Made some nine years before A Christmas Story, is it Clark’s "other" Christmas film—the twisted, deformed twin that is kept hidden away in a cellar while its younger sibling is celebrated each December. I say it’s time for that twin to see the light of day.

No, Black Christmas is not an African-American version of A Christmas Story. Nor is it the hilarious story of a Christmas gone awry due to an untimely electrical blackout. It is "black" as in "bleak"—there are stabbings, stranglings, and enough holiday cheer to fill a teaspoon. Maybe.

Black Christmas tells the tale of a Canadian sorority house where most of the girls have left for the holidays, and the few remaining girls are preparing to leave, including sassy, alcoholic Barb (Margot Kidder, slurring her speech a little too convincingly in her still pre-Superman years) and Jess (ex-"Juliet" Olivia Hussey). Their holiday cheer is disrupted by a series of phone calls, which feature pig noises, screaming, and charming holiday phrases like "I’m going to kill you" and "Suck my juicy—"… well, you get the idea. "A Holly, Jolly Christmas" it ain’t.

Even more upsetting, their pal Claire is strangled to death upstairs. Of course they don’t know this because Claire’s body has been stashed in the attic, wrapped in plastic, and strapped to a rocking chair—a pretty bummer of a spot to spend Christmas break. Soon Claire’s corpse is joined by several others, each of whom have had unfortunate holiday rendezvous with our killer. (If you thought the tongue-on-a-flagpole in A Christmas Story was rough, how about a metal hook to the face?)

Black Christmas is truly the anti-Christmas Story. Whereas Story looks back on childhood with warm, fuzzy cinematography and an exuberant voice-over, Black refers to children as "those little bastards." Story sees Christmas as a magical time; Black’s cheeriest line is "Ho, ho, ho, bitch."

But Black Christmas is not to be confused with Christmas-themed slasher flicks like Silent Night, Deadly Night and Jack Frost. It is considered in some circles to be a highly influential horror film. If you buy into the theory that John Carpenter’s Halloween spawned the slasher genre, then you have to concede that Halloween (1978) borrowed a lot of its tricks from Black Christmas. The point-of-view camera and killer’s labored breathing are the most obvious, but even the shot compositions are similar, carefully allowing room for ominous figures to pass in the background. Plus, it might be the first film to use the time-honored "the phone call is coming from your own house!" trick.

The sub-genre of "holiday horror" (Valentine, Leprechaun, Mother’s Day, et al) usually uses the "irony" (I use the term loosely) of how the victims die as their main selling point. Say, for example, we were to make a horror film about Easter. We would then be obligated to do away with our teenagers by using objects such as eggs, bunnies, and, uh, wicker baskets. (Maybe that’s why there’s no Easter of Evil…)

Black Christmas, on the other hand, is a serious picture that creates a realistic, dreadful atmosphere. The film is tight, economical, and extremely quiet—when the closing credits roll, there is no music—only a phone, ringing and ringing. The killings are blunt, dreadful, and off-screen. There is no nudity or even near-nudity, which is all the more shocking because the film takes place in a sorority house—which, in horror films, is tantamount to having a blinking neon sign reading "Kill us all, but wait until we’re in our underwear!"

With every fiber of its being, Clark’s A Christmas Story embodies everything that is familiar and joyous about Christmas. Clark’s Black Christmas, then, embodies the flip side—everything that is lonely and scary. Clark fully grasps the quiet sadness of Christmas lights blinking against the dark, snowy night, and the eerie quality of haunting Christmas carols coming from an old, scratchy record player. It is always reported that suicides rise during the holidays, and I’ll bet Clark knows why.

Clark names his fictional town "Bedford" after It’s a Wonderful Life’s Bedford Falls, and at times it is this melancholy Frank Capra classic that Black Christmas most resembles. Black Christmas has a solid fan base who proudly tout it as one of the scariest films ever made. And while it is hardly as embraceable as A Christmas Story, it is well worth a look, and may help balance out television’s tendency to over-schmaltz the holiday season.