“Agnes, it’s me, Billy…”
With director Bob Clark at the helm, 1974’s Black Christmas is pretty much a horror masterpiece. This was the first movie to introduce so many of the elements you’d associate with a slasher movie today. It has a mysterious killer who goes around offing the leads, there’s a high body count, the murderer makes threatening phone calls complete with the “the call’s coming from inside the house” gag, and the film even features the prominent use of POV shots.
And we also get quite the ambiguous ending. In fact, one of the best things about Black Christmas is that we are never outright told who the killer is. Before it was popular to have an iconic villain that would slice and dice his way through sequels this atmospheric slasher left an open ending. And that’s what we will be disusing today. But first, let’s talk about the events leading up to the woolly finale. Needless to say, a SPOILER ALERT is in full effect.
As they are preparing to leave for the holidays, a sorority gets obscene phone calls from an anonymous, heavy-breathing man who threatens to kill them. Welp, soon enough this all escalates to cold-blooded murder, with sorority sisters being knocked off left and right. The Final Girl Jess (Olivia Hussey) suspects her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) is the killer as his behavior becomes increasingly erratic and aggressive. Throughout the film, however, the audience is privy to an intruder who breaks into the sorority house and spies on the girls. It is suggested that this is an escaped mental patient (who calls himself Billy) and that he’s the one making these obscene phone calls. Could the intruder be Peter?
In the end, Jess receives another call and manages to keep the caller on the line long enough so the police can find out that the call is actually coming from a second line in the residence. They tell Jess to get out of the house immediately. Of course she goes and grabs a poker, ventures upstairs, sees the carnage that has been amassed and the attacker assails her. She hides herself in the basement and Peter tries to get in. Jess believes he is the attacker and bludgeons him to death. She gets sedated and everyone thinks they have got the attacker. But after the hullabaloo passes we hear noises and whispering from the attic implying that the (actual) killer is still very active, and perhaps just biding his time. The telephone begins to ring as the credits starts to roll.
So, what the hell is going on here?
While it seems pretty clear that Peter wasn’t the actual killer, you would forgiven for thinking that he was. Before you jump down people’s throats with your millionth “it’s not Peter!” rant, think about all the things that made the viewer think it might have been him in the first place:
- Jess tells Peter that she is pregnant with his child.
It simply doesn’t make sense for her character to tell Peter she’s pregnant if she had already planned to have an abortion, and as she claimed “wasn’t even going to tell him”. She certainly had nothing to accomplish by telling him and was only going to complicate the situation. Obviously, if she’s going to abort the child without his go-ahead, she either knows where she can get the procedure for free or she can afford it. In other words, she didn’t approach him for any financial reasons. This is clearly one of those situations written in simply to give Peter the reason to go off the rails.
Peter screws up his piano audition.
People are in different camps when it comes to this as he doesn’t come out and say “I failed” for certain. We know very little about the kind of music Peter plays at his audition, but it seems he is struggling to concentrate, he is sweating profusely, the faces on the assessors seem less than impressed. Later, we see Peter swinging a microphone stand (or was a lectern?) at the piano indicating that things have gone badly. The fact that his life is falling apart so quickly and that he has a violent temper (demonstrated towards that poor piano) is supposed to indicate he could be a killer.
Peter wasn’t at the Christmas Party.
Jess doesn’t speak to Peter until some time after the party has ended. This is supposed to be another red herring, because if he wasn’t at the Christmas party, then he could have been “the Moaner” who made the vicious perverted call to the girls. Anytime a call is made, Peter is usually off screen in movie oblivion.
This one is somewhat subtle, but the creepy ambient music used (such as when Billy is creeping around) is low piano tones that do not sound dissimilar to what Peter played or the sounds that came from the piano when he started attacking it. This could be just another subtle red herring to have the audience (without realizing it) thinking of Peter at these moments.
Peter’s comment to Jess.
When Peter and Jess are talking about the abortion, Peter comes out with a bitter comment about her acting like it’s akin to having a wart removed. In one of Billy’s twisted calls, in a shrill witchy tone, he shrieks “Just like having a wart removed”. The line is to throw Jess off, but in addition, it throws the audience a little in that direction too.
It’s not hard to see (even AFTER watching the ending) why so many people assume the killer is still Peter. The filmmakers were throwing it as a red herring from the very beginning, by the time you get to the last 10 minutes of the film, it’s already ingrained into you. After all, lets not forget that we see a upper profile shot before our killer strikes one of his victims. How unlikely would it be for the killer to have the exact same physique, haircut, facial structure, not to mention be wearing the exact same clothes on the same day (the green turtleneck is visible during one of the death scenes).
But really, looking at this from another angle, what it all comes down to is if you believe in the end whether the sounds we hear coming from the attic are diegetic (sound presented as originated from source within the film’s world) or not?
Of course, if the killer’s hysterics are part of the diegetic sound, the killer remains to be discovered and it wasn’t Peter. However, contrary to this, it could be argued that the sound is non-diegetic. If this is the case, Peter was indeed the main antagonist of the film and the sound of hysteria isn’t within the diegesis, ultimately using audio as a technique to unnerve the audience, emphasizing the discomforting visuals on screen.
Though, one of the best things about a movie so open to interpretation is that there’s no real “solution” and there are, of course, many ways to understand it. The God-awful 2006 remake spends the majority of the film building up the back story of the intruder (a la Rob Zombie’s Halloween) and establishing him as the killer. The uncertainty in the original adds to the fear while not taking away from the plot or themes.
What did you guys think of Black Christmas and its rather indistinct ending? Do you have your own interpretation or explanations? Let us know in the comments below.