Chances are, you and your loved ones carry on the following tradition: Starting on Christmas Eve, all the way through to Christmas night, someone turns on the TV, flips over to TBS for the network's 48-hour marathon of A Christmas Story. There's a soothing comfort that comes from watching little four-eyed Ralphie daydreaming about the elusive Red Ryder BB gun, and even littler Randy falling onto the ground, wearing that ridiculous snowsuit, complaining, "I can't get up!" It feels good hearing Ralphie's curmudgeon father mangle the pronunciation of the word "fragile," and witnessing those damn Bumpus hounds decimate the family's Christmas dinner turkey.
With its "triple dog dares" and "You'll shoot your eye out, kid," A Christmas Story has evolved into a holiday staple as mandatory as egg nog and candy canes since its November 1983 theatrical debut. For inspiration, writer-director Bob Clark sought the charming, nostalgia-thick short stories written by author Jean Shepherd, specifically his 1966 collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Clark's A Christmas Story is in the same hallowed ranks as yuletide classics like Laurel and Hardy's March of the Wooden Soldiers, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the stop-motion animation version of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Just as one's December 25 doesn't feel complete without seeing Charlie Brown's minuscule Christmas tree, the day feels lacking until one feels secondhand pain as Ralphie's unfortunate buddy Flick freezes his tongue onto a pole. It's a must.
My own tradition, however, is far less pleasant, though the Bob Clark connection is similarly present. For me, 12/25 doesn't feel complete unless I revisit Clark's original holiday film, the straight-up horror movie Black Christmas. What can I say, I'm a man who loves his horror cinema, and Black Christmas, released back in 1974, is one of the genre's all-time greats, the grandaddy of more widely celebrated slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
Before Bob Clark captured the holiday's wonderment and youthful magic in A Christmas Story, he did his best to kill its spirit, one murdered sorority girl at a time. Black Christmas takes place mostly inside a sorority house in a quaint suburban neighborhood, where a few of the members remain over Christmas break. They don't realize that there's a deranged serial killer establishing residence in the attic, or that it's he, this unseen, enigmatic psycho, who's been making obscene phone calls, speaking gibberish whenever he's not talking about "Billy" or telling the girls he wants to lick their pink…well, you get the idea.
Employing Christmas hallmarks in the film's grisliest scenes, Clark cleverly juxtaposes the holiday's endearing byproducts with horrific brutality. One of the victims is stabbed to death with a glass ornament you'd normally see dangling from a Christmas tree, not smeared with blood and poking out of a co-ed's chest. As one of the murders is happening, with the doomed girl screaming for dear life, her yells and the commotion are drowned out by loud, harmonizing carolers.
It could've been easy for Clark to have fun with those contrasts, like how the filmmakers behind the terrible 2006 Black Christmas did, but he was too smart and too nihilistic for that. Black Christmas is a pitch-black, non-gratuitous creepshow, particularly in how those phone calls are handled. At first, the killer's delirium is off-putting—he's clearly batshit crazy, as evidenced by his snorting, maniacal laughter, and how he switches back and forth from one person's voice to another. But as the calls keep coming in, their demeanor become more and more sinister, and Clark wisely doesn't break from the deathly serious tone. Right down to the film's chilling final shot: the killer's first caught body, that of sorority gal Claire, seated in a rocking chair, next to the attic window, the plastic bag used to suffocate her still covering her head. It's a far cry from Ralphie lying in bed, clutching that toy gun.
If the concept of a killer making threatening phone calls sounds familiar, you're probably thinking of Mr. Ghost Face's preferred method of pre-slaughter intimidation in Wes Craven's Scream. Considering how in-the-know that film is when it comes to horror trivia, it's totally justifiable to think that Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson was quietly paying homage to Bob Clark and Black Christmas.
He wouldn't be the only one, either. Giving Black Christmas another look recently, I was taken aback by just how many of its ingredients have been pilfered by subsequent horror directors and screenwriters. In addition to the killer making phone calls, there's the third-act reveal that "the calls are coming from inside the house," a dread-heavy reveal that, five years later, would be front and center in When a Stranger Calls. Playing the wisecracking, ever-sassy best friend "Barb," co-star Margot Kidder provides inspiration for the countless scene-stealing slasher movie BFFs to follow, like, say, Rose McGowan's "Tatum" in Scream. The film opens with a first-person POV shot of the killer scaling the house and entering, before killing his first sorority girl, and it's quite similar to the first-person POV opening of John Carpenter's Halloween, which came four years after Black Christmas. And, for good measure, it's worth pointing out that the old cop-stationed-outside-for-protection-gets-killed storytelling component used in Black Christmas has been redone to death, too. A recent example? Scream 4. Yeah, Kevin Williamson is a fan of Bob Clark's film.
As he should be. It'd be grossly negligent to write a self-aware slasher movie like Scream and not pay respect to Bob Clark's O.G. film, even if Black Christmas has never received the accolades and reverential acknowledgements it deserves.
One reason for the film being so minimized is its lack of identifiable antagonist. When people think about Friday the 13th, they see Jason Voorhees and that iconic hockey mask. For Scream, there's that ghost-face mask. Halloween, of course, has Michael Myers. Even the inferior but more often discussed Silent Night, Deadly Night has its killer in a Santa Claus costume. Black Christmas, on the other hand, only has the killer's eyeball, seen through cracked-open doors, and his hands, seen during chase scenes in which his body is largely obscured. By the film's end, the killer's identity is no less mysterious than when he offed Claire for no apparent reason other than bloodlust. Therefore, folks don't have that Jason/Leatherface/Freddy Krueger anchor to grab onto when referencing Black Christmas. Hats off to Bob Clark for trusting in his own moviemaking skills enough to prefer such ambiguity over a scary, marketable face.
He may go down in history as the yuletide movie king for having directed and co-written A Christmas Story, but in my eyes, Bob Clark—who passed away in 2007—is eternal royalty for the overlooked horror movie gem that is Black Christmas. In a perfect world, a horror-centric cable channel like FearNet or Chiller would follow TBS' lead and air nothing but Black Christmas all day tomorrow through the morning after Christmas. Until that happens, my DVD copy will continue to get worked out. One day, my future, unborn kids will be just as happy to check back in with Claire's corpse as they with Ralphie.
No, that's not weird. At all. Give Black Christmas a look and you'll see why.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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