Black Christmas (1974)

When discussing films that established the standard structure & tropes of the slasher genre, Black Christmas is the one that most often slips through the cracks. Arriving more than a decade after proto-slashers like Psycho & Peeping Tom and just a few years before full-blown American slashers like Halloween & Friday the 13th, the Canuxploitation classic is somewhat of an island as a genre pioneer, disconnected from the movement that followed in its wake. That’s not for lack of cultural clout or stylistic specificity either. If nothing else, the cast of Black Christmas is incredibly stacked for a low-budget horror movie, especially considering Margot Kidder & Olivia Hussey’s central roles as sorority-girl victims. The film is also significant as an early adaptation of the “The call is coming from inside the house!” babysitter-murder urban legend, which would prove to be a significant influence on the genre. All the standard tropes & techniques of the typical slasher are already present too, especially in the first person POV shots of the killer stalking his sexually active teen-girl victims. Black Christmas is as much of a foundational text of the slasher’s DNA as any other that you can cite, yet its status is considered more “cult classic” than household name.

Because this is a genre template that’s since been set in stone, there isn’t going to be much in Black Christmas’s basic premise that surprises anyone who’s seen a horror movie or two since the 1980s. A mysterious killer makes threatening phone calls to a sorority house & methodically offs a series of victims therein. The killer’s identity remains hidden and we often see victims through his weaponized gaze while heavy breathing overpowers the soundtrack. Like with most genre films, Black Christmas’s premise is only interesting in where it deviates from the norm. The Christmastime setting might have been repeated in subsequent slasher franchises like Santa’s Slay & Silent Night Deadly Night, but I’m sure it was a novelty at the time. Black Christmas also deviates from what would eventually become the traditional slasher by resisting devolving into a bodycount film, spending most of its runtime investigating the murder of one sorority house victim instead of letting the corpses pile. Our de facto Final Girl protagonist (Hussey, laying on her posh British accent as thickly as possible) is also far from the naïve virginal cliché that would soon become standard; she spends most of the film refusing to be swayed from her decision to have an abortion. She also cedes a lot of screentime to Kidder’s mean-drunk sorority sister, who would normally be a two-scene archetypal annoyance before being killed off. In as many ways as Black Christmas resembles a typical slasher, it’s also freer than most to defy that genre’s conventions, since they had not yet been fully established.

As interesting as the film’s cultural context might be as an early pioneer of its genre, Black Christmas is just as notable for its in-the-moment effect. The urban legend of the murdered babysitter that ends in the punchline “The calls are coming from inside the house!” may seem too overly familiar to scare horror audiences without subversion or embellishment, but its in-the-moment tension is still horrifically unnerving as told here. The lewd phone calls the college-girl victims receive in Black Christmas are grotesquely unnerving. The killer gargles, shrieks, and moans in sexually explicit menace over the phone while the girls cower in disgust around the receiver. The effect is anguished & inhuman, an unholy assault of aural discomfort. The kills, although infrequent, have an unseemly nastiness to them as well. The killer has no known motivation or weakness, like a Michael Myers prototype. He strangles victims with dry-cleaning bags & phone cords with a cold, uncaring brutality, leaving corpses to rot without purpose or emotion. He hides in closets, attics, and basements – the exact nightmare environments that are relatable enough to feel genuinely threatening but are also oddly otherworldly. The film’s camera work is also off-puttingly crass, stumbling through the sorority house in search of victims as if it were in a blind drunken rage. Its unconformable angles & up-close split diopter framing are nearly as unnerving as the lewd phone calls from the killer – a high bar to clear.

It’s difficult to make sense of Black Christmas’s place in the cultural zeitgeist. Horror nerds hold it in high regard as a foundational text for the slasher genre, but it’s unclear whether that status has amounted to wider recognition & respect. Director Bob Clark’s larger catalog is no help, as attempting to make sense of any career that includes this film, A Christmas Story, Baby Geniuses, and Porky’s only results in pulling out your own hair. Regardless of its larger cultural context, however, Black Christmas remains perfectly potent as an isolated work. The kills are brutal, the soundtrack & camera work even moreso. The characters are more complex than what we’ve been conditioned to expect in this low-budget end of genre fare, resulting in more than just a skyrocketing bodycount. The drive-in era tagline warns “If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl . . . t’s on TOO TIGHT,” and it’s one of the few films that lives up to that kind of carnival-barker grandstanding. You could likely find a better example of an early slasher pic that colors within the lines set by its genre and there are certainly ones that are more willing to exploit the novelty of their Yuletide setting. There’s just very little chance they’ll offer anything as eerie or as unnerving as a single phone call made in this proto-slasher gem.

-Brandon Ledet

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