As the festive season looms, the Scrooges of the world need an outlet, something to transport them from the jingle hell of the holidays. As the festive shocker BLACK CHRISTMAS approaches its 45th birthday, we look back at the often ignored slasher film that not only set the bar for future generations of slasher movies, but that transported Christmas from its sugar-coated wonderland to a world of gore, entrails and the creepiest phone voice in the entire world.
Director Bob Clark, perhaps better known for his 1981 film PORKY’S, created what was at the time a frightening, original and humorous slasher film that still deserves an annual visit after the decorations are up. BLACK CHRISTMAS follows Barb (Margot Kidder), Jess (Olivia Hussey) and their fellow sorority sisters as they’re terrorised during their Christmas party by “the moaner”: a deranged serial killer who hides in the attic and makes salacious phone calls, before stalking and murdering the students. BLACK CHRISTMAS is regarded by most as the original slasher film, whose only contenders are Mario Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD (1971) and fellow 1974 slasher THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, all of which paved the way for films such as SCREAM (1996), HALLOWE’EN (1978) and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) to name but a few.
Watch BLACK CHRISTMAS today and it may look predictable and unoriginal, but it was the first of its kind and gave birth to so many of the clichés and thematic conventions that we see in contemporary horror cinema. When we think of a killer calling from inside the house, the go-to film is WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) but unknown to many, BLACK CHRISTMAS did it first. John Carpenter’s HALLOWE’EN was hugely influenced by Bob Clark’s film, and striking similarities can be seen between the two, such as the prowling POV shot as the killer enters the house and the scene in which Hussey’s character discovers a body in a bedroom before being attacked by the killer. Similar to an iconic scene in HALLOWE’EN where Jamie-Lee Curtis discovers her friends’ bodies in a bedroom before her arm is slashed by a waiting Michael Myers.
The phone calls between the killer and Hussey’s character are integral to the film, leading to its climax. SCREAM is another film associated with a phone-happy killer and whose plot hinges on dialogue between killer and potential victim, the element of the known but not known. The characters can hear the killer’s voice but never see their true face until the end. BLACK CHRISTMAS only ever hints at a solution, and the audience is left questioning the killer’s identity: unlike SCREAM there is no big reveal. BLACK CHRISTMAS also introduced the concept of the “final girl” (Hussey) which has been a staple of the horror genre ever since.
In 2006 audiences were subjected to the dreaded re-make, unwelcomed by many critics. However, despite the lack of substance, cinema-goers were treated again to a comprehensive demonstration of the slasher movie conventions audiences know and love. It could be seen as a celebration (although wrapped badly) of the original 1974 film and its influence on horror cinema.
Not only was BLACK CHRISTMAS the first slasher film but it was also by default the first Christmas slasher film, a motif that has been repeated and has given audiences some sensational (and some not so sensational) holiday horrors such as RARE EXPORTS (2010), GREMLINS (1984), CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) and SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984). There has always been this desire in cinema to transform something originally perceived as joyous and warm and turn it on its head into something terrifying and violent. Christmas is a great example, the time of year where people are supposedly content, sitting in front of warm fires, drinking overpriced gingerbread lattés. This proves too much for some, and the need to create chaos ensues. This concept can easily be interpreted as the Western world’s fear of the Other, in a guise of a monster or serial-killer trying to disrupt American culture. BLACK CHRISTMAS was released in 1974, in the midst of the Cold War, where fear of communism was rife throughout the United States. This makes sense in a society with a constantly increasing fear of the unknown which would have played a part in the creation of the entire horror genre in the first place.
As BLACK CHRISTMAS approaches a cool 45 years old, it’s time to revisit the mother of all slasher movies as the lights go up and the plastic tree is laboriously heaved down from the attic. Although, after watching this terrifying treat, viewers may want to think of an alternative place to store their Christmas decorations this year.