Thursday, December 21, 2023

‘Black Christmas’ & ‘Silent Night, Bloody Night’ Make for the Perfect Creepy Christmas Double Feature

What do Black Christmas and Silent Night, Bloody Night have in common? 

Blurry first-person POV? Check. Mouth-breathing killer? Double check. Creepy phone calls? Triple Check. In both Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) and Theodore Gershuny’s Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972), an unknown killer stalks their victims around the Christmas season, both striking terror and intrigue. Each entry succeeds to varying degrees in balancing cheer and fear; one becoming a holiday classic and the other a largely-forgotten gem. As a slasherific double feature, this holiday season brings a little goodwill and a whole lotta torture.

Gene Siskel once called Black Christmas a “routine shocker,” giving it a measly 1.5 out of 4 stars. That’s a paltry review for a tightly-wound and tense proto-slasher that helped catapult the slasher genre into the limelight. It might have come four years before Halloween, but it does many of the same things and in some ways, does it exceedingly better.

Unlike its descendant, the killer in Black Christmas lingers in the shadows, both literally and figuratively, for the entire runtime. Billy, as he’s known, stalks sorority girls on a college campus. We’re first introduced to his character within the first five minutes of the film, as he peeks into the windows of the sorority house and eventually climbs a trellis into the attic. There, he flails in anger – knocking over a lampshade, shoving a rocking horse, and then making the space his own makeshift funeral home.

Clark engrains Billy’s aggression towards women into the fabric of the film. From the vulgar phone calls (which include words like “cunt”) to the bursts of violence against the characters, Billy’s actions directly correlate to the treatment of women in society. At the time, a woman’s autonomy was only in its infancy.

It’s hard to imagine there wasn’t specific intent behind giving Jess (Olivia Hussey) a pro-abortion storyline. The film dropped one year after Roe v Wade in the States. While it’s a Canada-made film, it presents itself as a direct response to what was going on just across the border. As far as Canada goes, there was a famous abortion caravan that took place in 1970, a sojourn from Vancouver to Ottawa to liberate the abortion law. Jess and her resolve to have an abortion seems to parallel what was happening right outside her front door.

‘Black Christmas’

With Jess and her friends the target of malice, Black Christmas unravels a potent socio-political allegory about a woman’s right to choose, a willingness to stand up for what is right, and finding the gumption to confront toxic masculinity. Jess’ boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) represents the poison of machismo throbbing in society’s veins, as he makes his anger-filled emotional response Jess’ problem rather than a blinding demonstration of his own fragile ego. “You selfish bitch,” he seethes to her in one of the film’s most appropriately timely scenes. She’s just told him (again) that she plans to have an abortion, and despite his rage, she keeps an even temperament, a striking counterbalance to a society that dictates what she can and can’t do with her own body.

In the end, Jess mistakenly kills Peter, believing him to be the killer, but it’s also a symbolic gesture. It bookends her journey, from a meager sorority girl to a heroic fighter. She had every reason to believe Peter was the killer, his strange, aggressive behavior toward her an indication that something far more sinister simmered below the surface. Of course, Peter wasn’t the killer but his death signified the death of cultural pressures to uphold the patriarchy. “The calls are coming from inside the house” means more than just a plot point – it’s the notion that toxic masculinity is perpetuated by everyone in society, not just by men.

From a stylistic vantage point, Black Christmas utilizes first-person POV to give the film a great sense of foreboding. By sitting in the front seat of the killer’s perspective, the audience is made uncomfortable and downright terrified, in much the same way Peeping Tom (1960) did before it. There’s the suggestion that Billy, who uses different voices in the phone calls, could have a split personality – or at least is so deranged that he’s play-acting every one of his murderous fantasies. The calls pepper throughout the film; each time Jess answers the phone, they grow more peculiar and unsettling. “What are you doing?!” she asks, clearly rattled.

Cinematographer Reg Morris coats the film with a crackling static. Even when the first-person POV isn’t used, it’s as though we’re witnessing the events through an unknown party’s perspective. Even in its quieter moments, you begin to feel claw marks scraping over the images, evoking impending doom as the killer circles closer and closer. As the phone calls grew increasingly violent, and Jess’ friends are picked off one-by-one, Black Christmas does a wonderful job in forcing the viewer to confront the killer themselves. You begin to feel Billy’s words being whispered into your ears, and even feel his breath on the nape of your neck. Its a hair-raising film by all accounts. You can extract the socio-political elements, and it remains an effective little chiller. It does everything horror should do; all this to say, it’s my favorite horror film of all time.

‘Silent Night, Bloody Night’

While Silent Night, Bloody Night has no deep social or political messages, the film does make for a nice pairing with its bolder counterpart. From the tone and feel, it exacts an altogether eerie story about escaped mental patients and revenge, doused in blurry first-person POV and equally chill-inducing phone calls, which aren’t nearly as creepy and unhinged as Billy’s but still do the trick. The film’s edges are frayed, as one might expect in an early ‘70s slasher (shout-out to cinematographer Adam Giffard), and the layers by which Gershuny varnishes the film make for a fascination and gripping watch.

The story is quite simple. Jeffrey (James Patterson) desires to sell the family’s estate, much to the dismay of the town itself. The home harbors dark, terrible secrets – it was the site of a tragic fire incident which killed its original owner and Jeffrey’s grandfather Wilfred – and the townsfolk refuse to allow it to fall into anyone else’s hands. They offer $50,000 in cash for the house, and the exchange is expected to follow through the next morning, courtesy of Jeffrey’s lawyer Carter (Patrick O’Neal). But an unknown killer pops out of the shadows, first slaughtering Carter and his mistress and then many of the townspeople.

One young woman named Diane (Mary Woronov) befriends Jeffrey and finds herself in the center of the killer’s diabolical scheme. As Jeffrey and Diane draw closer to finding out the truth, they must fight for their lives if they have any hope of surviving until morning. Silent Night, Bloody Night (not to be confused with Silent Night, Deadly Night) is as straight-laced and serious as Black Christmas, nary a whiff of camp about it. Despite some wooden acting, the story is compelling enough to keep the viewer hooked until the very end.

As the pieces come unglued, the flawed narrator becomes the viewer. We’ve been given bits and pieces throughout the film, with only our deductive reasoning an avenue by which to solve the mystery. As it turns out, Wilfred is very much alive and has been living in a nearby asylum for 20-odd years. Much like Billy, we rarely get a significant glimpse of the killer. It’s only until the very end when he reveals himself that his visage comes into crystal-clear view, lasting only a few moments before Diane guns him down in the final showdown. 

‘Silent Night, Bloody Night’

With its brisk runtime, clocking in at 83 minutes (including credits), Silent Night, Bloody Night tightens the screws in a way that make you frozen to the core. Given its stylistic similarities to Black Christmas, you wonder if Bob Clark took some inspiration from this film. It would be easy to see why; distilling the unknown killer, the phone calls, and the first-person POV would be a genius move. Even if that is untrue, it’s difficult to untangle each film from one another.

Black Christmas and Silent Night, Bloody Night is the sort of double feature that’ll make your skin crawl. If it doesn’t, that just means your skin is on too tight, as the BC poster art promises. Together, the two films carry both the wonder of Christmas and the fright of never knowing if the killer could very well be standing behind you. We don’t answer phone calls quite like we used to, but the implication of what that could mean is as frightening today as it was 50+ years ago.

Black Christmas & Silent Night, Bloody Night are now streaming on SCREAMBOX.

Double Trouble is a recurring column that pairs up two horror films, past or present, based on theme, style, or story.

The post ‘Black Christmas’ & ‘Silent Night, Bloody Night’ Make for the Perfect Creepy Christmas Double Feature appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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