This article contains spoilers for the Black Christmas movies
Every December, I like to put on a Christmas classic from director Bob Clark. It features a cantankerous father, a grouchy Santa Claus, antics on school grounds, and of course, a memorable voiceover.
I refer, of course, to Black Christmas, the 1974 slasher starring Olivia Hussey (Romeo & Juliet), Margot Kidder (Superman), and Kier Dullea (2001). Considered by many to be the first American slasher movie, Black Christmas predates John Carpenter’s Halloween by three years. Directed by Clark and written by A. Roy Moore, the movie follows members of a sorority house whose members find themselves under attack by a hidden killer, who taunts them with bizarre and obscene phone calls.
While largely met with disgust by audiences in the 70s, Black Christmas eventually became a yuletide staple, at least among us sickos. It became a cult classic and then eventually received wider acceptance, much like its kid brother Halloween. And also like Halloween, Black Christmas has been remade twice, once as a gnarly Dimension Films release in the 2000s and again as a socially-conscious Blumhouse entry in the 2010s.
A cursory internet search will show that many moviegoers consider the remakes substandard compared to the original. But, of course, neither remake has had enough time to go through the process and reach respectability. Both are products of their time, which disgusted and upset their original audiences… just like the original. All three Black Christmases have their charms and deserve respect as movies that disrespect viewers’ sense of propriety and good taste.
The First Gift: Black Christmas (1974)
Someone watching Black Christmas 1974 for the first time in 2022 might not get the big deal. After all, it follows fairly familiar slasher tropes, complete with a creepy POV cam, a final girl, and outrageous kills. Of course, that’s because Black Christmas instituted those tropes – or at least imported them from Italian gialli. But Black Christmas continues to unnerve today, even as other movies copy its moves. Beyond the tropes that it copies, the original has elements of surrealism and continuing social relevance to ramp up its horror.
The former involves the lack of clarity behind the killings. Early in the movie, the house begins receiving what seem to be obscene prank calls. These can be ably handled by the risqué BARB (Kidder), but as they continue, they grow specific to the point of becoming obscure. The voice on the other line starts shouting “I know what you did Billy!” and screaming “Where’s Agnes? Where’s the baby?”.
You might think that these odd statements set up a mystery that Hussy’s Jess needs to solve. Figure out the mystery of Billy and Agnes and you stop the killer, right? Wrong. We never learn who Billy and Agnes are, nor do we really understand their relationship. The question goes unanswered, making the movie all the more unnerving.
However, Jess connects the killings to her unhinged boyfriend Peter (Dullea). A gifted pianist studying at a conservatory, Peter is given to wild and violent swings in emotion. That range is on display when Peter first learns about Jess’s pregnancy and her plans to get an abortion. He terrorizes her throughout the movie, leading the women and (eventually, when they decide to do something) the police to investigate him for the attacks.
The fact that it’s not Peter, that we only see the killer’s eyeball peering through a doorway as he continues muttering about Billy and Agnes, only cements the movie’s point. Misogyny is not just one bad man, but a systemic problem, a problem that persists far beyond Peter.
The Gross-Out Gift: Black Christmas (2006)
In the era of Rob Zombie’s Halloween movies and the Platinum Dunes remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, writer/director Glen Morrigan took on Black Christmas. A veteran of The X-Files and co-creator of Final Destination, Morgan took the grotesque de jour of 2000s horror and supercharged it. Full of canted angles, extreme close-ups, gaudy colors, and so much eye trauma, Black Christmas 2006 is one of the most abrasively ugly movies to be released in theaters. And that’s a good thing!
This excessive tendency carries over to the plot as well. The central premise remains the same, with a sorority house being terrorized on Christmas. Gone is the pregnancy plot and most of the prank calls. In their place, Morgan spells out the story of Billy and Agnes, in unsettling detail.
Billy Lenz (Robert Menz) was loved by his father but hated by his mother, who was disgusted by the kidney condition that left Billy bright yellow. When Billy witnesses his mother and her boyfriend murder his father, they lock him in an attic for over a decade. The only human contact he has comes from his mother, who rapes him to conceive a child, something she cannot do with her impotent boyfriend. She eventually gives birth to a daughter, Agnes. Eight years later, Billy breaks out of the attic, tears out Agnes’s eye, kills his mother and her boyfriend, and bakes Christmas cookies from her flesh.
Sometimes it’s better not to know the full story. Morgan’s Black Christmas revels in the grotesque, disgusting viewers with glee. As Billy escapes from a mental institution and returns to his old house – now the sorority house – for Christmas, he leaves a trail of bodies strewn in his wake, mostly with missing eyes. The sorority sisters – who include Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead – fight back, only to find that Agnes lives (Dean Friss) and is working with Billy.
Black Christmas revolted viewers of 2006, which is fine – it’s clearly intended to be revolting. But somehow, people argued that the 2006 movie tarnished the legacy of the 1974 original. That only makes sense if you approach the original as an unimpeachable classic, a sacrosanct perfect picture that deserves respect. But most viewers in 1974 had not seen a slasher movie, let alone a nihilistic one set at Christmas. Black Christmas was disgusting trash before it was a legend, and the 2006 remake understands that.
The Clear-Eyed Gift: Black Christmas (2019)
Where the 2006 Black Christmas restored the shock value of the original, the 2019 version restores the social consciousness. And that makes sense, given the state of horror and the movie’s distributor, Blumhouse. Written by April Wolfe and directed by Sophia Takal, Black Christmas 2019 retains the Christmas sorority house setting, but disposes of Billy and Agnes altogether (thankfully, after the previous movie). Instead, this movie focuses on systemic misogyny.
Imogen Poots plays Riley, a member of the Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority at Hawthorne College, a liberal arts school. Even before they realize that one of their sisters was killed by a masked man while walking home from school, tensions have already risen at Hawthorne. Not only have women on campus successfully removed the bust of school founder Calvin Hawthorne, but they have started work to expel literature professor Gelson (Cary Elwes), who, like the founder’s namesake Nathanial Hawthorne, dismisses female authors as “a damned mob of scribbling women.” To top it off, Riley revealed the president of the respected Delta Kappa Omicron fraternity as her rapist.
Into this crucible comes a series of murders perpetrated by men in black masks, forcing Riley and her sisters to fight back. Their battle reveals that Gelson discovered black magic created by Calvin Hawthorne to control people. Through the DKO fraternity, Gelson has been using the magic to make pledges murder “unruly” women on campus.
For some, Black Christmas 2019 steers too far from the original to be worthy of the name. It removes the Billy and Agnes phone calls (however, it does use harassing text messages from “Calvin Hawthorne”) and introduces a supernatural element. However, it does retain the righteous anger of the original.
While the women of Black Christmas 1974 never learn who Billy and Agnes are, they do know that men call them regularly to harass them. When the first girl goes missing, they know that the police will be reluctant to help them, dismissing the crime as an emotional outburst after a lover’s spat. More importantly, the movie deals frankly with the issue of abortion. Throughout the movie, men make claims on her body, and the stigma against abortion leaves her vulnerable, not least of all from Peter, who violently attacks her because of her wishes. Coming just five years after the permission of “limited abortion” in Canada and a year after the passage of Roe v. Wade in the U.S., this plot point was just as “on the nose” to original viewers as the “elevated horror” of today.
But where 1974’s Black Christmas limits the pushback to Kidder’s gleeful performance, the 2019 movie lets all the main women fight back. Where the original ends on an ambiguously nihilistic note, Black Christmas 2019 ends with explosive victory, as the women destroy the bust of Calvin Hawthorne, freeing women and men alike from his toxic legacy.
Have Yourself a Unnerving Little Christmas
Clearly, all three Black Christmas films have pronounced differences, which is good for movie fans. If you want a groundbreaking slasher, you’ve got the original. If you want something nasty and gross, you’ve got the 2006 remake. And if you want something with a necessary and still-relevant message, you’ve got the 2019 remake.
And yet, as different as the three films may be, they all share a central goal. Whether it’s by leaving you puzzled or grossing you out or drawing attention to real-world horrors, every Black Christmas movie unnerves.