The Christmas season ought to be renamed. It’s not the Christmas season; it’s the Black Christmas season. Bob Clark’s original slasher is a transcendent, formative piece of horror cinema, one that solidified the slasher template and conceived the tropes and beats we still see repeated today. Black Christmas is emblematic of Canadian horror, an enduring framework for future horror texts. Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1979), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), among sundry other slashers, only exist because Clark’s Black Christmas exists. It is the preeminent Canadian horror text, and arguably the preeminent Christmas horror text, one that exploited urban myth and subverted filmic expectations with flourishes of grisly garland and ornaments of terror.
Black Christmas is about the fear of womanhood, senseless violence, and the ostensible violence creeping into neighborhoods and sorority row. An adaptation of “The Babysitter” urban legend, the calls for classic status are coming from inside the house. What props Black Christmas up like a tree stand, though, isn’t simply its tension or composer Carl Zittrer’s discordant soundtrack, achieved by tying forks, combs, and knives to piano keys, but the characters. They’ve taken on a life in their own right, with timeless sweaters and acerbic, barbed Barb jabs. It’s due time, though, to treat them as gifts on a wishlist for Santa, ranked in order from worst to best. Though limited to the 1974 original, both the 2006 and 2019 remakes effectively emulate the original’s care for deep, abiding characterization.
11. Clare (Lynne Griffin)
Poor Clare. The first victim in Black Christmas is swiftly done in by a plastic bag in her closet. It’s gangbusters scare, sure, but Clare just kind of is. She simply exists, traipsing about the house before her death, judging and indicting all the other girls. She’s so devoid of identity, her body remains undetected in the house attic even after the credits roll. She sits up there, rocking back and forth, likely assuaged by the thought that, at least in death, she’s given something cool to do. Sorry, Clare, you’re simply not it.
10. Mr. Harrison (James Edmond)
Mr. Harrison is only marginally better than his daughter, though that isn’t saying much. He arrives at the sorority house after Clare, having planned to meet him the morning after she’s killed, fails to show up. Spoiler, Mr. Harrison– she’s literally upstairs. Like his daughter, he immediately launches into an assault on the ethics and values of the sorority, threatening action on account of naked posters and a general veneer of debauchery. Granted, his daughter is missing (read: dead), but he could at least muster a smile. How anyone sits through Barb’s (Margot Kidder’s) turtle sex anecdote without grinning eludes me? What kind of monster doesn’t at least chuckle? Mr. Harrison, that’s the kind of monster. Worse still, despite early action, he’s entirely unsuccessful in finding Clare. She’s still up there. Good going, dude.
9. Peter (Keir Dullea)
It was difficult to rank Peter anything but last. Make no mistake– Peter is awful. No, he’s worse than awful. He’s “drowning in a trash barge while all your old elementary school teachers remark how disappointed they are in you” awful. Why Jess (Olivia Hussey) would have been with him in the first place is Black Christmas’s most compelling mystery, trumping the unknown identity of Billy the killer. Peter ranks above both Clare and Mr. Harrison, though, because he’s at least given something to do, and for a short beat, is presumed to be the killer. He isn’t, but it’s a cathartic moment to see Jess finally just let loose, having battered him with a fireplace poker off-screen. Still, he’s a noxious, disgusting man. He covets and demands, and worse still, presumes women and their bodies are his. They’re not, Peter, and there’s a fireplace poker ready to prove it to you.
The killer himself. Billy is a lot of people, all uncredited. Nick Mancuso plays him while also providing his phone voice, though director Bob Clark stepped in as both his shadow and for additional voiceover material. Albert Dunk, a camera operator, also plays Billy, at least in theory, by operating the camera during Billy’s groundbreaking POV shots. Billy is a lot of things, but even three men aren’t enough to give him an identity. I mean, yes, he’s a killer– and a damned scary one at that– but he’s elusive. A little playful and a little whiny, he’s like a child, impossible to understand. Prone to tantrums and homicidal outbursts, he’s an imposing killer, but one whose identity remains shrouded in mystery, never revealed. It’s a bold move, especially in a genre predicated on its villains, but bold doesn’t necessarily equate to noteworthy. The longstanding question remains: who, really, is Billy?
7. Phyl (Andrea Martin)
Phyl is irritating. There’s nothing all that evidently obnoxious about her, but when flanked by Jess and Barb, she struggles to stand out. Sure, she’s active in the search for Clare, though that activity is usually reduced to histrionics or tension. She calls Barb out at dinner and demands she go to bed, and later on, stresses everyone the hell out over an ostensible intruder that turns out to simply be a member of the search party. She’s killed when she goes upstairs to check on Barb, so she gets credit for that, though like Clare, there’s almost no zest to her character. Andrea Martin would later return to the franchise as the house mother in the 2006 remake, amply improving on her role here.
6. Chris (Arthur Hindle)
Chris has a very cool accent and a very cool coat. He’s been taking Clare “oot,” and he’s not too happy that the local police department isn’t taking reports of her disappearance seriously, especially when coupled with the obscene phone calls the other girls have been receiving. It’s his appearance at the police station that incites the nighttime search for Clare and other missing girls. He disappears shortly after, but his call to action and sensational coat stand out. Chris is a real one, no doubt.
5. Jess (Olivia Hussey)
Olivia Hussey was once famously approached by Steve Martin who remarked that she’d starred in one of his favorite movies. Presuming it to be Romeo and Juliet, she thanked him, though he later corrected her– he was talking about Black Christmas. Hussey is good as Jess, the final girl. She’s reasonable, resourceful, smart, and has absolutely no time for Peter’s crappy attitude. Plus, her sweater freaking rocks. Still, Jess is given little to do other than receive phone calls, act scared, and then continue traipsing around the house, at one point blithely unaware that three– yes, three– of her sorority sisters are dead upstairs. Jess doesn’t pay attention all that well, though when she’s attacked by Billy, she does ably defend herself. Plus, as a vessel for progressive politics, Jess succeeds. It’s her body and her choice. It’s enough to make up for her incessant shouts of “Barrrrrrrb!” during the climactic attack.
4. Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon)
John Saxon. I mean, that’s enough, isn’t it? The strait-laced cop who succeeds in saving Jess, he’s a serious man with threads of humor, especially as they relate to Sergeant Nash (Douglas McGrath). Saxon has always had this innate, paternal quality– one most emblematic of his role in A Nightmare on Elm Street– and it works wonders here. Every time he’s on-screen, Black Christmas feels safe. It’s easy to see him and forget that several girls have just been murdered. John Saxon is a safe space, and we love him for that.
3. Sergeant Nash (Douglas McGrath)
Speaking of, we now get to Sergeant Nash. Admittedly, he’s a terrible cop. He doesn’t believe women, makes repeated jokes, dismisses their genuine– really freaking genuine– calls for help, and doesn’t know what fellatio is, presuming it’s a new extension when Barb tells him it is. He’s a dope, but he’s a loveable dope. In any other genre property, Sergeant Nash would have been one of the first people killed. Here, he survives the entire ordeal, ready to spend another day gaslighting coeds and facilitating senseless slaughter. He’s not strictly speaking a good guy, but he’s got gusto, and in these parts, gusto counts a lot.
2. Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman)
Mrs. Mac keeps bottles of booze in her toilet tank. She also keeps them in books. She tosses the gifts the girls in the house give her– including a nightgown– and privately curses them. Mrs. Mac shouts at cab drivers, paying no mind to how long they’ve been waiting, and she wears cool freaking hats. In fact, Mrs. Mac simply is cool. She’s an older woman who knows what she wants and who she is. She’s a mouthy, quasi-alcoholic consigned to be a housemother. It sucks, but she tries her damnedest to make the most of it. That’s ballsy, and Mrs. Mac is nothing if not ballsy. It’s a shame she gets a hook to the face, but her legacy lives on.
1. Barb (Margot Kidder)
Was there any doubt that the acerbic, semi-callous Barb was going to land the top spot here? The late Margot Kidder’s performance here is representative of almost every screen role of hers. Never the kind of performer to simply trundle through a bit part, Kidder makes the most of Barb’s limited screen time. Her quips are iconic– “No, Clare, it’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir making their annual obscene phone call”– and her behavior is senselessly entertaining. She offers alcohol to children without sacrificing this genuine sense of warmth and care. Barb is the kind of friend, however wild she might be, anyone would be lucky to have in their corner. She’s killed upstairs in her bed while sleeping off a drunken stupor in what amounts to Black Christmas’ most upsetting death. It’s a genuinely classic performance, one that has earned its place in the pantheon of fantastic horror players. It’s also one of Kidder’s most iconic roles, a standout performance among a career of standouts.
Honorable Mention: Claude
Claude the cat gets Mrs. Mac killed. Perceptive viewers might notice Mrs. Mac’s white Persian cat during the first obscene phone call. He’s in the hallway behind Jess, and while there’s a solid chance it’s a different cat– it looks nothing like Claude– he’s still there, taking notes and beginning his holiday preparations. Claude isn’t going to tolerate an obscene caller. Of course, Claude might actually be in league with the killer. He leads Mrs. Mac to the attic where she’s killed. He’s in Clare’s bedroom right before she’s killed. And, in his final scene, he’s in the attic, licking the plastic bag around Clare’s head. Uh, Claude?