As the snow begins to fall and the temperature drops, there are many holiday classics that we come back to time and time again. One of those classics that seems to have a permanent spot in the hallowed ‘Holiday Horror Hall of Fame’ is Bob Clark’s 1974 film Black Christmas.
Released in the US on December 20th, 1974, the film still manages to unsettle, maintain relevance, and intrigue audiences 44 years in. The film tells the tale of a sorority house that has become terrorized by a stranger who makes obscene phone calls before meticulously murdering the girls during Christmas break.
“Black Christmas is commonly referred to as the ‘First Slasher Film’ or the ‘Mother of Modern Slashers’.”
One of the most interesting things about the movie is the way in which it combined influences while creating a sub-genre all it’s own. Though it’s giallo film influences are clearly evident, the interpretation of those influences set the stage for classics such as Halloween and Friday the 13th.
Black Christmas is commonly referred to as the ‘First Slasher Film’ or the ‘Mother of Modern Slashers.’ While these phrases aren’t necessarily incorrect, they are loaded statements. Especially in today’s world, a term like ‘slasher’ denotes certain things and calls to mind very specific tropes. While Black Christmas certainly does abide by some of these, it also completely deviates from others. And it’s in these deviations that the film truly shines.
The Final Girl
This horror trope is one of the most widespread and commonly recognized tropes in the genre. A ‘Final Girl’ is generally recognized as a young female character who is the last character left standing after having encountered a killer. This girl often embodies virtuous or positive moral qualities and often has a gender neutral name. She commonly remains abstinent and refrains from drug or alcohol use.
While this trope has certainly undergone some renovation over the last couple decades or so, this basic structure was pretty standard throughout the late 70’s and the 80’s. If there’s one character in Black Christmas that embodies these characteristics it’s Clare. It’s even pointed out several times in the film what a ‘good girl’ Clare was. And yet somehow she becomes the first victim of the killer.
“Jess stands her ground and puts herself, her dreams and her future first.”
Our actual final girl in the film is Jess played by Olivia Hussey. Gender neutral name? Check. Survives the killer? Check. Refrains from alcohol and drug use? Check. Abstinent? Nope. There’s a couple sub-plots running throughout the film and this is the most interesting by far. Early on in the film Jess reveals to her boyfriend Peter that she is pregnant and plans on getting an abortion. When Peter proposes marriage and keeping the baby instead, Jess stands her ground and puts herself, her dreams and her future first.
The power in this choice and this sentiment being portrayed on film in 1974 cannot be ignored. In terms of stereotypes, Jess is a “flawed” character. However, it is because of her “flaws” that we find her relatable and we empathize with her.
Let’s be real for a second. While there’s a ton of us out there (myself included) who love a good slasher film, character development is not always their strongest feature. Many of the classic films we love have very one dimensional, stereotypical characters that are really just treading water until their death scene comes. Now, these characters can be a lot of fun and as fans we may even relish in their stereotypical-ness but when it comes down to it, we might not really feel for or relate to them. Black Christmas is a bit different in this regard and Jess is not the only character who is developed in the film.
Take Margot Kidder’s character Barb for instance. With her acidic tongue and clever wit, Barb embodies the role of the tough, alpha female with an ever present drink in hand. Aside from simple comic relief, there are a few scenes that show that perhaps that tough exterior is merely a cover for a much more sensitive soul beneath. With a few well written lines of dialogue, Barb‘s feelings of guilt over Clare‘s disappearance and her handling of the situation are revealed. The correlation between her constant drinking and inner demons is established and her friend’s sympathy and understanding of this is well conveyed.
Phyl, played by Andrea Martin, takes on the maternal, responsible, comforting friend role. And yet, even she struggles with the events that are happening around the sorority house and breaks down to Jess. It’s in little details like these that the characters in Black Christmas become more than simply victims.
When it comes to many slasher films, one of the things that is usually very prominent and deliberate is the score. Like many giallo films before them, a lot of slasher films (like Halloween and Friday the 13th) developed interesting and recognizable themes. However, Black Christmas goes the complete opposite direction.
Carl Zittrer’s score for the film is minimal, atonal and unsettling. Integrating the piano/Peter sub-plot into the score creates a level of mistrust surrounding Peter while also creating a general environment of unease. We don’t really get a lot of the musical cues and hints we are used to in a typical slasher. Silence is used just as deliberately as those long reverberating piano string strums.
Cinematography and Visuals
Alright, this is a big one. There’s a lot of things in this film that we will see time and time again in slasher films. Take the POV shots for instance. The stalking of the girls while they are unaware of the danger that lurks in the shadows. There’s many interesting scenes where we are seeing things from the killer’s perspective in Black Christmas. This is not specifically new to this film, but it is one that will become common place. However, what is unique about this aspect of the film is the unknown identity of the killer. While we come to learn a bit about his character and that perhaps his name is Billy, his full face is never revealed. The most we are ever given is that one iconic shot of his eye while he holds the crystal unicorn above the sleeping Barb. To the very end, Billy‘s identity is shrouded in mystery.
Another interesting point of note in regards to the visuals of the film is the lack of gratuitous violence and sexualization of women. Obviously, there are murders. Obviously, they involve women. And of course there are those phone calls. Yet the film never takes it to the next unnecessary level by exposing the women’s bodies. Now, gratuitous nudity is certainly not solely a common trope in slasher films, but it is one nonetheless. This combined with the overall lack of blood and gore in the film is yet another way in which Black Christmas bucks the status quo of the slasher genre that it helped create.
“Black Christmas is a film worth revisiting year after year.”
These are just a few of the reasons why this movie has retained it’s relevance and standing over the last 44 years. Just like anything, there are perks at being the pioneer in a given field. While helping to establish a whole new genre, Black Christmas also had the flexibility to create a rule-set all it’s own. It wasn’t constrained by the invisible framework that would come to define the slasher film and became all the stronger for it. Through it’s strong characters, well written plot and dialogue, suspenseful cinematography and it’s genuinely creepy killer, Black Christmas is a film worth revisiting year after year.