Geek Speak

The Twisted Holiday Tradition of Black Christmas

Have you ever received an obscene phone call? Deep breathing, moans or lewd suggestions intruding on your otherwise unremarkable day? I have, and it is fucking creepy, even for a guy. My obscene caller was a woman, and she propositioned me for some pretty weird shit, in graphic detail. Despite the supposed willingness of my sex to jump at any offer proffered, I was not tempted. I was really, really squicked out, and paranoid for hours afterward. Was this person watching me? Did they know I was alone? Were they trying to lure me out for some kind of murdery thing? This was even in the days of caller ID, when I could -- and did -- see her number, and was able to block it to keep the creep out. Imagine what that must have been like in the analog telephony days, when you just had to put up with it while the phone company and/or police shrugged and told you there wasn't much they could do. Or stop imagining and go see the 1974 classic Black Christmas (showing Christmas Eve at the Alamo Drafthouse), which uses a series of such obscene phone calls to create unbearable tension and dread for its sorority-house slasher kills.

See also: I'm Dreaming of a Weird Christmas

The film is a favorite of former Alamo Drafthouse creative manager (and current Westword contributor) Keith Garcia, who's done his damnedest to make it a Denver tradition. He's moved on now, to become a filmmaker in his own right, but regardless of what happens next year, local slasher/Christmas fans have at least one more chance to see this holiday horror classic on the big screen. That makes it even more important that you consider making this Christmas a black one.

Directed by Bob Clark -- the same man who directed the more traditional holiday classicA Christmas Story -- the 1974 film is a master class in tension and a blueprint for the then-nascent slasher genre. You have your increasingly elaborate kills, starting with a simple strangulation and escalating to a stabbing with a unicorn knick-knack, stopping along the way for such fun as a hook to the face. You have some impressive and disorienting POV shots from the killer. Red herrings abound, and there's even a twist ending that leaves the story open for a sequel (none was ever made, though). In just a few short years, films like Halloween and Friday the 13th would take this blueprint and build off it to create million-dollar franchises and launch an entire sub-genre of horror.

The film works remarkably well to this day, even for those raised on the genre it helped to birth. Sure, there are some genuinely ridiculous clothes and hairstyles that might incite a few giggles, but the content of the film is nearly as effective now as it must have been forty years ago when the film hit theaters. Knowing what happens in a slasher will tip you off to some degree as to what to expect, but the movie never feels predictable or tired. That's partly because it's obvious this is where so many of those tropes started, but it's also because the film itself is much more twisted, Hitchcockian thriller than typical slasher -- a departure point in the genre's evolution, like the first proto-amphibian fish that flopped itself up on the beach and managed to breathe instead of drying up and dying off.

It's also because this is a really good film. Margot Kidder is great as a sad, sarcastic alcoholic sorority sister, and Olivia Hussey makes a fine proto Final Girl. John Saxon, as usual, turns in a good performance as a square-jawed cop who lacks enough imagination to figure out what the hell is really going on. And the third act, when the killing ramps up and the cops are trying desperately to trace the calls, is executed perfectly. The tension builds and builds, driven largely by the bizarre phone calls. The killer howls and moans and says filthy things, screams and makes animal noises and spews unintelligible gibberish. It's unnerving and unrelenting, and it's easy to empathize with the poor sorority sisters of the story when your own heart is in your throat and your pulse is pounding. The viewer knows by this point exactly where the calls are coming from, but poor Olivia Hussey and the somewhat overmatched cops do not, and by the time they find out ... well, you'll just be relieved it's all over. At least until next Christmas, when you'll want to see it again.

See Black Christmas (on 35mm film, no less) at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 24 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. Tickets are $7. For tickets and info, visit the Black Christmas event page.

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Cory Casciato is a Denver-based writer with a passion for the geeky, from old science fiction movies to brand-new video games.
Contact: Cory Casciato

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