The Greek System Kills (Review of Black Christmas)

In scouring the interwebs for great horror films to watch, I kept coming across Black Christmas.  I was skeptical.  I like a good slasher where sorority girls get brutally murdered as much as the next bloke but…well, for one, there was a remake done in 2006 which looked pretty terrible and got fairly heinous reviews.  For another thing, it’s one thing to be a sorority slasher and possibly sneak onto a couple top 100 lists if people are big fans of slashers and boobs, but Black Christmas was often falling in the top 20 or 30.  I was intrigued…suspicious, but intrigued.

Why are children's toys in attics always ten times more creepy than they should be?

This movie was NOTHING like I expected.  Your typical slasher this is not.  It felt to me almost more like a haunted house.  The setting itself fit the plot – a bright, young, sorority house – but the emptiness due to the girls being away, the placement of key objects, such as abandoned children’s toys in the attic, the creaking of old floor boards made the house feel cold and ominous.

Why couldn't the Saw series have recognized that creative ways of killing people can also be accompanied by a plot?

More important, however, was the depiction of the killer himself.  Throughout the film, almost all of our contact with him is first person. We are him as he creeps into the house and shuffles through the attic.  We burst through the plastic bags hanging in the closet to choke the first victim.  We slowly rock the rocking chair that a dead girl is poised in.

I see you!

The killer becomes a disembodied entity almost possessing the viewer, a ghost haunting us rather than a corporeal murderer.  The only glimpse we actually  get of him is of his eye, an eye that through lighting or effects or something looks very wrong.  It’s not exactly inhuman, but it’s not exactly normal either.

As if to compensate for his lack of body, we are constantly subjected to “his” voice, both through the rages he goes into as and after he kills and through the phone calls he keeps making to the sorority house.  I put “his” in parentheses because that ain’t just one voice.  The calls seem to almost be a psychic representation of a memory, with multiple voices and sounds overlapping each other.  As one other reviewer mentioned, it’s almost Exorcist-esque.  Instead of one killer, there’s a legion of psychotic personalities, ghosts, or demons lurking in the unseen body.  Moreover, the legion of voices keeps referring to some long off event that, presumably, made “Billy”, the killer, the terrible human being he is today.  But we only get slight clues, something about a baby, something about mother and father, something about someone named “Agnes”.  We have no idea who this guy is and what his motivation springs from – but, it’s not completely left out either so we’re left wondering.  If that ain’t a haunting, I don’t know what is.

Worst...Santa...EVER

Yes, in case you were wondering, then, how Black Christmas is really a slasher, it has all the elements you would expect from a good slasher.  It has creative and creatively shot death scenes, including death by strangulation, hook, and crystal unicorn (yes, by crystal unicorn…now you’re intrigued).  It has some good laugh moments, such as the sorority house-mother who has about 50 bottles of booze stashed around the place or the drunkard of the house giving champagne to a 6-year-old.  It has a cast of young girls getting slowly and methodically whittled down until one is left alone for a climactic cat-and-mouse game in the house with the killer.

There is seriously nothing that a cat will not at least try to eat

But what makes this movie great is its atmosphere.  It is a deeply unsettling movie.  Watching it on a computer, with all the lights on, in the early evening, I still felt slightly queasy every time the phone rang in the film.  I still felt my pulse quicken as a shot of an empty hallway had a shadow move slowly and silently across it.  I still cringed as the camera cut to yet another shot of the first murdered girl, her face still in terrified agony, swaying slowly back and forth in a rocking chair perched in front of the attic window.  There weren’t many jump moments and I wasn’t terrified, huddling in my sheets after I went to bed.  But I was creeped out in that delicious way only a well done horror can do.

I’m not going to reveal the ending. It just wouldn’t do much good.  It’s not that it’s one of the greatest surprise endings I’ve ever seen.  I felt the red herring planted in the plot played out somewhat predictably, and the ending was what it should have been.  But the *way* the ending was done, in light of the way the rest of the film is shot and written, just was incredibly creepily satisfying.  If I said what it was, you wouldn’t get it.  You just have to watch.

And watch you should.  This movie made me really happy.  It’s just a good, subtle horror that’s deeply unsettling, well shot, and pretty well acted.  If you’ve been craving something that will rivet you to the screen and send shivers down your spine, look it up.

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