Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas”, a moody, modestly budgeted thriller, shot in Toronto for a mere $40,000, is now understandably heralded as one of the key founding works in the establishment of what later became known as the slasher genre: that much-maligned, formulaic ‘body count’ horror flick with minimal plotting, usually built around the killing frenzy of a masked maniac with seemingly endlessly inventive methods for murdering attractive, sexually active young women. During its heyday in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the slasher was at first thought to be closely aligned with the Italian mystery genre known as Giallo; but this type of movie often involved elaborate (if implausible) plotting, while the pure slasher pic came increasingly to focus on the distinctive and controversial stalk & slash element of the giallo until, eventually, a typical slasher film could be expected to consist of one long, (hopefully) suspenseful, but virtually plotless string of stalk and slash set-pieces. This is best illustrated by the “Friday the 13th” series, which started out in 1980 as a gialloesque ‘tribute’ to Mario Bava’s densely plotted 1971 film “Bay of Blood”, but had developed by its fourth and fifth episodes into a series of celluloid charnel houses in which a motiveless, supernaturally animated Jason Voorhees existed for no reason other than to indiscriminately slay as many sex-mad youngsters as possible.
“Black Christmas”, by contrast, although one of the first movies of its type to familiarise audiences with the many motifs that would go on to define the slasher film in the popular imagination, stands out and continues to grip even modern audiences who may stumble on it -- many of whom will have by now seen many of its best moves reproduced countless times in various inferior guises since the film was first released in 1974, (one of those being its own slick and gutless remake from 2006) -- because of the way it often departs radically from what we’ve come to expect from more typical examples of the genre in a manner that has since only contributed to its status as one of the great horror movies of the seventies. The film definitely owes much to the giallo genre that spawned it, but it subverts the whodunit aspect of such films to magnificently macabre ends. Also, with a few broad, deftly applied strokes it rapidly establishes a number of believable, complex characters and an evocative setting; its killer is one of the most mysterious, ambiguous and chilling creations in the history of such films; and despite the simple ‘killer in the house’ plot, it somehow effortlessly weaves in much thought-provoking contemporary subtext based around the issues of the day, which feminists critics can still shed much ink in interpreting. This is especially apposite considering how controversial the slasher movie became for a while, especially in the UK during the early eighties, when the genre was lambasted politically by both the radical Left and the moral majority Right at a time when films like “Dressed To Kill” appeared to many to be delighting in the graphic on-screen portrayal of the murder of young women, with such scenes served up simply as a spectacle for their own sake during a social period when the country’s female population often felt itself terrorised by the activities of the Yorkshire Ripper.
In this early example of the genre, though, the freeing up of morals during the continuing social revolution of the seventies, and the various attempts of men – both of the older and also of younger generations -- to express control over or to suppress the social and sexual choices of young women, forms the backdrop to the depiction of the events which take place in a sorority house on the eve of the Christmas holidays, as the body of a child is recovered from the grounds of a nearby park. Unknown to anyone inside, a deranged killer has made his home in the upstairs attic, emerging only periodically to claim another victim from among the sorority sisters.
The sorority house itself could be seen as a variation on the typical Gothic psychological metaphor: supposedly a haven for growing girls, it is closely aligned to a patriarchal educational institution and within spitting distance of a Catholic church whose bells peal out a hymn to male power in the one period of the year it gets to claim the most authority. The comforting, orange-rose Christmas glow that emanates from within the house -- a symbol of protection from the forces of winter darkness outside -- has been ‘sullied’ though: corrupted by the liberated, independent spirit of ‘70s women, who’ve decorated and defaced the dorms with ‘free love’ posters and who appear to spend all their free time smoking dope and swearing and (gasp) seeing boys. Even the one adult authority over them, Mrs Mac (Marian Waldman – giving us a rare example of a comic performance in a horror film which doesn’t detract from the final product), has given up the ghost by now, and simply joins in with their drunken, sweary debauchery.
When male authority decides to reassert its self over these errant females, we get to see just how ugly it really is beneath its mask of ‘civilising’ norms: the male subconscious (which has made its home in the sorority attic, in true Gothic tradition) is unleashed to wreak revenge in the form of the prototypical killer, who is at first content with crank phone calls -- which, incidentally, are shockingly explicit for the time, and make the much better-known cussing in “The Exorcist” sound like kiddie speak by comparison. Even the Devil himself, it seems, cannot compete with the scorned male psyche; and Margot Kidder’s reaction to them as Barb is priceless, and will make me adore her forever! But this representative of subconscious aggression then moves on to abducting the girls in various parts of the house and dragging them, unseen, up to the attic room. The first victim is suffocated in plastic wrapping and left in the rocking chair in the attic window -- in full view of anyone who really looks at the house and what it stands for. But of course, nobody ever does.
The girls have other problems too, more immediately pressing: Jess (Olivia Hussey) is pregnant by her antsy musician boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea), and makes it perfectly clear that she neither intends to keep his baby, or settle down into the inhibiting traditional relationship he wants to establish with her. Meanwhile, having already progressed from swearing down the phone at them to murdering the girls one by one and hiding their bodies in his attic lair, the killer seems to be mysteriously energised and agitated by Jess and Peter’s dilemma; his phone calls become increasingly disturbing and focus themselves on enacting an increasingly strange, ill-defined but warped drama involving someone called ‘Billy’ and ‘Agnes’ -- which seems uncannily to echo the drama that is occurring between Jess and Peter, even to the point of sometimes repeating the same words they’ve used. Chris (Art Hindle), the boyfriend of the first victim, shows up, and he and the much-troubled Barb (Margot Kidder, doing her foul-mouthed lush act better than ever before) and the girl’s morally conservative but gentle father (James Edmond) try to get the majestically dim Sergeant Nash (Douglas McGrath) to take her disappearance seriously at the police station. The film uses the simple device of making both Peter and Chris – the two boyfriends – look almost exactly the same in profile as each other, and each of them also looks very similar to the killer, at least from the brief glimpses we get of him. On a superficial level, this is intended to make us suspect one or the other of them, of course, but it works equally well to make the killer into a sort of symbolic evil id: a representation of buried subconscious male discontent with contemporary femininity.
Barb eventually gets bloodily dispatched, as the killer once promised she would, with a phallic crystal ornament and the much more sympathetic Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon), sets up a phone tap to monitor the phone calls, which by now really do seem to be a twisted dramatic enactment of Jess and Peter’s troubles, with Peter seemingly going more and more off the rails in tandem with their increasing ferocity. Fuller, listening in with his phone tap and trying to interpret as well as detect, could be seen as representative of the Freudian psychoanalyst -- uncovering the hidden traumas, seeing through the dark forbidden violence that underpins everyday male and female interactions by listening in on a phone line from the attic which allows the killer to let rip with the violence and neurosis that really does underlie them. Perhaps the ending of the film, which I will say no more about, could be interpreted as saying that this drama can never be vanquished and that patriarchal violence will continue to attack and subjugate women unless we face up to its hidden causes. How convinced those feminist demonstrators of “Dressed To Kill” back in the 1980s, would have been by the attempt at a feminist psychoanalytic interpretation of “Black Christmas” which I’ve just briefly outlined, I don’t know -- but I do think a strong case can be made that it works quite well!
“Black Christmas” gets by with barely a drop of blood spilled, but I still find it to be one of the most disturbing films. One of the things that always gets me whenever I re-view it is the way it returns, again and again, to dwell almost pruriently on the discarded, lifeless bodies of the killer’s victims as they continue to pile up in the attic. Although the now traditional sequence in which the heroine, Jess, eventually discovers the corpses of some of her friends, which have been arranged by the killer in a macabre tableau, has been used in many films since (particularly “Halloween”), some of the victims in “Black Christmas” are never discovered by anybody – yet they are seen by the viewer repeatedly as the film returns to dwell on their frozen expressions, caught in terror at the moment of their deaths. I believe the image of the first suffocated victim, undiscovered in the rocking chair in the window, to be one of the most disturbing images in horror cinema. The only film I can think of (I’m sure there must be many more) which does something similar is Mario Bava’s “Five Dolls for an August Moon”; but that film is an arch whodunit in the giallo vein and the mood is more one of wry, detached humour than the utterly black macabre horror of “Black Christmas”.
This is the granddaddy of slashers, then, that goes to places few of them ever even contemplate; the pace may sometimes be slower than modern viewers are used to, but the atmosphere is always rich, dark and forbidding. It’s a peerless classic and doesn’t diminish with age one bit. “Black Christmas” has been out before in various special editions replete with commentaries and documentaries, and has even recently been released on Blu-ray in the US. But unfortunately Metrodome have given it only a bare-bones DVD re-release here. Although you do get quite a nice anamorphic transfer, it’s not much different to the version that was out before -- a little tight at the top of the frame (the film was shot in 1.33:1 then matted for theatrical release) and occasionally a little too dark, but otherwise warm and bright where it should be and clammy and claustrophobic when appropriate. Nevertheless, whether you plump for this budget-priced release (you should be able to get it for a fiver or a lot less online, eventually) or one of the other versions still available, you really do have to make it your business to see this classic if you haven’t already done so. Thanks goes to Metrodome for at least making it widely available again.