Attics in theory aren’t threatening. If anything, they have no presence at all — just dusty places to store garbage bags of old clothes, duct-taped boxes of Christmas ornaments, spittle-stained baby toys long discarded. With their dust and cobwebs and belly-up insect corpses, they are spaces to be avoided. Why? Maybe the reason is that on some level, we understand that the attic is where things go to die.
Watching Robert Clark’s deeply alarming “Black Christmas,” it’s amazing how adeptly he plays on this unspoken notion. When the girls in a Canadian sorority house start receiving regular creepy (sleep-with-the-lamp-and-TV-on creepy) phone calls and a sister goes missing, no one considers how real and close the danger might be. It’s some random kook with a telephone, no girlfriend and too much time on his hands, and probably Clare (Lynne Griffin) went to spend some time with boyfriend Chris (Art Hindle) before Christmas break. Even when the bumbling local police get involved, the girls and their cheery alcoholic house mother Mrs. MacHenry (Mariam Haldman) feel a certain safeness closed up in the sorority house, locked away from the danger outside. Safety in numbers, they assume. They never think to check the attic. They never think the calls are coming from inside the house.
Tempted to rip out chunks of hair at the thought of seeing that cliché onscreen again? Have mercy on the strands and remember that “Black Christmas” came before all the standby horror movie gimmicks, all the yawn-worthy boilerplate and filler. “Black Christmas” is a slasher film before slasher films were given that name. Clark hit heights that later directors (excluding John Carpenter, whose “Halloween” emulated Clark’s film and improved on the score) couldn’t reach. This did not stop so, so many from trying. For horror fans who like their mind games with a side of murder, “Black Christmas” is the standard. Any tricks found in “Black Christmas” that years later became contrivances were done right here.
This horror gem’s plot — essentially “hens trapped in a fox’s den” — supplies sorority girls as the ready-made victims for a mysterious (and clearly mentally unbalanced) serial killer. The happy surprise is that Roy Moore’s screenplay is full of wicked cleverness (Margot Kidder, Doug McGrath and Haldman are the comic relief) — enough scattered laughs to make the scares doubly convincing. And the scares start straight away, with the iconic scene of someone barely visible in Clare’s closet, hidden behind the plastic sheeting he uses to asphyxiate her. That’s an image that has sticking power. He deliberately, almost lovingly, positions her body in a rocking chair beside the window in the attic. When she never shows up to meet her stern father (James Edmond Jr.), her sorority sisters Barb (Kidder, playing the frank-speaking party girl), Phyllis (Andrea Martin) and Jess (Olivia Hussey) seek the help of the police. Initially they get the brush-off from idiotic Sgt. Nash (McGrath), who’s so clueless he doesn’t know what “fellatio” means when Barb tells him it’s part of their phone number. However, they find a sympathetic ear in Lt. Fuller (John Saxon), who thinks the obscene calls and Clare’s disappearance are connected. He assures the girls they’ll be safe. He is mistaken.
Clark prefers to amp up the intensity in uncomplicated, terrifying ways. In the opening sequence, the prowler scales the trellis outside the sorority house, entering through the attic. These scenes — and those in the attic — are shot from the killer’s perspective, which Clark achieved by having his cameraman mount the camera on his back as he crept through the house. The immediacy of this approach knocks out the barrier between the audience and the action. The director capitalizes on other small opportunities to create chills: quick cuts of moving shadows and creaking floorboards; Barb’s sudden ashtma attack after “a bad dream” of a man sneaking into her room frightens her awake; quick shots of the killer’s eye, bulging and wild. Yet nothing is scarier than the pregnant silence, punctuated only by a yelping, insistent telephone promising death threats and incomprehensible shrieks on the other end. When the mere ring of telephone is cause for cowering, you’ve stumbled upon the work of a master.