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Black Christmas

By Nick Clark

Christmastime has rolled around again, which means it’s finally time to turn the lights down low and put on one of the many classic holiday-themed slashers in the cozy darkness of a tree-lit room. There are plenty of excellent picks  1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1980’s Christmas Evil, 2015’s Krampus  but few have proven themselves to be as powerful year after year as 1974’s Black Christmas. A masterclass in combining cozy seasonal atmosphere with potent suspense, director Bob Clark's holiday classic is regarded not only as a fantastic Christmas horror film, but a foundational work of the slasher subgenre, having preceded and directly influenced many of its most famous successors. Examined through a modern lens, the film’s strengths are even more impressive today, melding excellent scares with potent feminist commentary. Few films manage to be as thoroughly terrifying as Black Christmas, and it feels only right to celebrate the season’s premiere slasher experience once more as the year winds down and the lights of warm fireplaces and glittering trees replace the now-dimming sun.

Originally conceived as a riff on a local “the calls are coming from inside the house” tale, writer Roy Moore optioned his first draft of the script to producers Harvey Sherman and Richard Schouten. After a quick rewrite to change the story to a college setting, the project was offered to director Bob Clark, at the time having just completed his other 1974 cult classic, Deathdream. He took on the gig and proceeded with his own batch of rewrites, wanting to deepen the characters and present college students with more maturity and nuance compared to other contemporary films. Shot that same spring at the gorgeous University of Toronto with an incredible cast of talent, Black Christmas released in the fall of 1974 to the sting of mixed reception from audiences and critics alike. However, with the slasher explosion of the 1980s came major reappraisals of its many progenitors, and horror scholars have since rehabilitated the film’s stature from its initial failure to its current status as an integral entry in slasher canon.

At first blush, the film’s story seems relatively straightforward: a group of sorority sisters are spending the holiday season together in the seeming comfort of their chapter house, ignorant to the shadowy maniac that’s recently moved into their attic. Following a sister’s disappearance, disturbing phone calls start coming in from a mysterious “Billy,” his voice a cacophony of screamed threats and mad ramblings. The police are, as always, no help until one of their number, Jess (Olivia Hussey), convinces the sergeant (John Saxon) that serious trouble may be afoot and insists he investigate further. One by one the remaining sisters gradually go missing until only Jess is left, and Billy’s calls are finally traced to be coming from  wait for it inside the house. Their climactic confrontation leads to Jess seemingly killing Billy, the police arriving just in time to see only the conflict’s aftermath. Declared the sole survivor, Jess is ultimately left alone to sleep off and recover from the night’s events, tragically unaware of the real Billy’s survival as he descends from the attic once more.

Despite the now-formulaic nature of the story’s structure, it bears remembering that Black Christmas is, in many respects, instrumental in establishing the slasher subgenre in the American consciousness. Alongside The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the film is considered a premiere example of a “proto-slasher,” having contained many of the stylistic and structural hallmarks of the subgenre prior to its mainstream explosion in the 1980s. Black Christmas is especially notable for hybridizing the nascent trends of American slasher films with the rhythms and cliches of Italian giallo, combining the bleak nihilism of the former with the “whodunit” mystery approach of the latter. Nearly all the boxes of both genres are checked  a red herring threaded through the story to arouse suspicion, a “final girl” to fight the villain in the climax, incompetent law enforcement, and even a cold-calling killer with bizarre vocal inflections. While later slashers did their part to substitute the giallo sensibilities of films like Black Christmas for more gore-centric experiences, Clark’s film serves as a perfect encapsulation of the subgenre’s modest beginnings and early influences in equal measure.

What truly separates Black Christmas from the other horror films of the era, however, is its surprisingly prescient and thoughtful feminist theming regarding female agency. In an early scene, Jess meets up with her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), to inform him of her plans to get an abortion. Upon hearing the news, he angrily demands she keep the baby, insisting she relent to his wishes and compromise in his favor. He sees her ability to choose outside the scope of his wants and needs as an obstacle to his control, and so seeks to constantly undermine her boundaries and decisions despite her protests. When she rejects his impromptu proposal, he grows progressively erratic, leveling threats before leaving her alone in the darkness of the house. By the time he breaks into the basement and finds Jess hiding from Billy in the climax, the film makes it abundantly clear that, through his actions, he has effectively transformed into the same kind of danger to Jess as Billy: a malevolent masculine force seeking to end the version of her life where she retains control. As a character, Peter works not only as an unsettlingly erratic narrative presence but also as its stand-in for many of the societal pressures men force upon women, robbing them of agency for the sake of masculine pride and chauvinistic superiority. 

Misogyny as a pervasive cultural attitude is a theme to much of the work, the women being regularly subjected to open displays of casual sexism in their efforts to survive. When Barb (Margot Kidder) and Phyl (Andrea Martin) initially look to law enforcement for help, they’re treated with abject dismissal by the officers, their fears belittled on the basis of their status as “sorority girls.” At the film’s conclusion, the police appear less fazed by the womens’ deaths than they are pleased with their contributions in seemingly bringing the night’s terrors to a close; they’re practically patting themselves on the back as they unwittingly leave Jess alone to her doom. Threaded throughout the film is the suggestion that, while Billy poses the most tangible threat, the psychic harm inflicted upon the women through the sexism exercised by Peter and the police is a similarly fatal form of oppression. This, in turn, offers a read of the film as a study in the patriarchal modes of harm inflicted on women, channeled through structural biases, enforced social norms, and the environment of dangers cultivated against them.

 As a seasonal slasher flick, Black Christmas is excellent; as a piece of feminist social commentary, it’s a remarkably progressive work for the slasher subgenre, and one whose themes still tragically resonate today. 

To put a bow on it, Black Christmas can’t be beat: it’s a fantastic seasonal slasher, a subgenre crown jewel, and a thoughtful social critique, all wrapped up in a ferocious, brilliant package. For fans of horror and Christmas, you’d be hard-pressed to find a film better suited to sate your appetite for scares on a snowed-in night with a warm cup of eggnog. So, go ahead  grab your glass and a cozy blanket, fire up the hearth, turn down the lights, and get ready to have  a good old-fashioned holiday scream.


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