Scariest Scene in Black Christmas

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Black Christmas ushers in an exhilarating climax with a minimalist approach to the horror and a peeping eye.)

Director Bob Clark helmed not one, but two definitive Christmas classics in his career; A Christmas Story and Black Christmas, two widely varying takes on the holiday. While the former elicits endless replays on cable and theaters this time of year, the latter established itself as a prototype to the slasher subgenre and played a vital influence on John Carpenter in the creation of Halloween.

Initially released in the U.S. under Silent Night, Evil Night, on December 20, 1974, audiences failed to show up. It wasn’t until the original title was restored and re-released in theaters a year later that Black Christmas finally found its audience. Audiences who were then promptly terrified with Clark’s minimalist approach and a refusal to reveal the killer’s identity outside of a few key POV shots and obscene phone calls. It all culminates in a thrilling final act that begins with a crucial scene; one that that heightens the fear dramatically with the startling sight of a peeping eye.

The Setup

It’s Christmas break, and the residents of sorority house Pi Kappa Sigma are overwhelmed with holiday preparations and an endless rotation of visitors due to holiday gatherings and parties. That doesn’t even touch upon the stresses caused by personal crises or the recent string of obscene phone calls plaguing the sorority with increasing regularity. Jess Bradford is at a significant crossroads in her relationship with music student Peter (Keir Dullea). Housemother Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman) can barely keep her alcoholism or Barb’s (Margot Kidder) in check, and Phyl (Andrea Martin) can’t get the police to take her seriously when sorority sister Clare (Lynne Griffin) does missing. None are aware until it’s too late that an unhinged stranger targeted their house with murder on his mind.

The Story So Far

In the opening moments, the viewer watches an unseen figure climb the trellis outside the Pi Kappa Sigma house and take up residence in the attic space. It becomes his home base from which he stalks the residents one by one, beginning with the unsuspecting Clare while she’s packing. It’s because she fails to show up to the meeting point with her father, Mr. Harrison (James Edmond), that Phyllis and Barb realize she’s missing and accompanies him to the police. Sergeant Nash (Douglas McGrath) dismisses their concerns straightaway, presuming Clare to be a promiscuous college co-ed shirking responsibilities in favor of fun.

It’s only when Clare’s boyfriend, Chris Hayden (Art Hindle), returns to the police station for answers that the case is taken seriously, with Lt. Fuller (John Saxon) connecting Clare’s disappearance to that of another girl. As the stranger lurking in the sorority house’s attic picks off the residents one by one, including Mrs. MacHenry, Barb, and Phyl, Jess’s short-tempered boyfriend Peter becomes the prime suspect. To find out for sure, Fuller works with the telephone company to trace the source of the obscene phone calls.

The Scene

For much of the runtime, only the audience is aware of the killer’s whereabouts. It’s not until the beginning of the final act that screenwriter Roy Moore and director Bob Clark finally let their protagonist, Jess, in on the twisted secret. Perennial screw up Sergeant Nash has one vital task to perform when the phone company successfully traces the last obscene call of the film; instruct Jess to get out of the house while keeping her calm and clueless. She’s concerned about Barb and Phyl sleeping upstairs, unaware it’s already too late for them, and won’t listen until Nash reveals that the call is coming from inside the house- the first feature film to make use of this urban legend trope. Jess’s illusions of safety in her own home shatter and gives way to stark panic. 

She looks up to the second floor of the house and screams out for Barb and Phyl. Her back is toward the front door, the portal to her safety only mere steps away. The camera pans down from the darkened railings of the second floor, peering at Jess from the shadows as she reaches for a poker from the fireplace. She cautiously heads upstairs with a death grip on the poker.

Up until this point, Clark made continuous use of point of view shots to establish the movements of the killer throughout the film. Shots that were performed by cameraman Bert Dunk, who created a rig that attached the camera to his shoulder to keep his hands free to act as the unseen killer. The iconic suffocation of Clare, the climbing of the trellis, and the thrashing around of objects in the attic all featured Dunk’s hands. But for this key scene, the moment Jess climbs the stairs; the camera alternates between Jess and her POV. Her fear made tangible by a shaky camera and her heavy breathing as she explores the looming dark spaces of the house.

Her voice trembling, she calls out to Barb and Phyl once more, this time outside Barb’s bedroom door. She tries to open it, but something heavy blocks her entrance. She struggles, finally budging it open only to be met by the bloodied corpses of her friends. Whispers call to her from behind the door; she looks up to see an eye peering down at her. It sparks the final confrontation with the killer, but from the moment Jess receives that fateful call from Nash, the terror is relentless.

The stellar production design makes the sorority house itself a foreboding presence — a sprawling home of warm tones and dark wood that engulfs the lone survivor in that climactic showdown. The tracking POV shots put us in the shoes of the killer and keep his identity obscured from the viewer entirely, save for that single, terrifying peeping eye. It lends an unpredictability to the narrative. All it took to push the horror into overdrive was a single line of dialogue, “Jess, the caller is in the house.” He’d been there the entire time. To keep the tension coiling tighter, Clark switches the POV to Jess to convey her mounting dread. That’s it; just simple direction, an eerie setting, tracking POV shots, and one frightening eye delivered a profoundly disturbing and iconic scene in horror. If this moment doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight.

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