Slasher Through The Ages: Black Christmas (1974)
The slasher genre is filled with classics, hidden gems and duds. They’re both simple to make, but often challenging to get right. But even then, some lesser quality ones are doing something right for someone out there. As I’ve slowly fallen in love with the sub-genre, I realize I haven’t seen nearly enough of both the hidden gems and the misfires. Throughout my column, Slasher Through The Ages, I’ll watch films I loved and ones I haven’t seen, and discuss their importance in the genre regardless of quality, how they may have inspired or been referenced in future films, while also crossing off films on my watchlist. This month’s film is the always influential Black Christmas (1974).
If “season one” of this column is dedicated to the “birth of slashers,” it would be foolish and inaccurate if I didn’t bring up Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. Before he made the beloved A Christmas Story, he made a Christmas film that I could get behind and make others watch in fear. While the film has been remade twice, the original is timeless, special, and Canadian — so we must talk about it.
The film was inspired by the famous urban legend “The Babysitter and The Man Upstairs.” We often fear what we might encounter when we open our doors and walk out into the world. In our own homes, we feel a sense of comfort and safety. In the urban legend, a babysitter watches television downstairs, as the children sleep upstairs. Throughout the night, she keeps getting calls from an unknown man who tells her to “check the children.” Eventually, she’s creeped out and calls the cops. They try to track and trace the call, revealing that the call is coming from inside the house. As an urban legend, it can sound silly, foolish even, but when adapted into a film like Black Christmas? It’s bone-chilling. We watch someone realize that there’s a killer somewhere inside the home with them, breaking that illusion of safety. How can we feel safe again?
Black Christmas takes place inside a sorority house just before Christmas. We follow Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her sorority sisters — Margot Kidder’s Barb, Andrea Martin’s Phyl, Lynne Griffin’s Clare — as they get disturbing calls from an unnamed caller who has called prior and speaks in different voices, confusing and scaring the sisters. It doesn’t take long before the caller starts picking them off one by one, as they’re alone in their rooms or looking for the missing sisters. Since blade-piercing skin wasn’t in Western cinema yet, most kills happen off screen, at least at the scale we’re accustomed to now. Instead, we usually cut away or cut back to the killer in the case of Barb’s death. Akin to Psycho’s shower sequence, we believe we saw Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane get stabbed, but we never do. The film hides the murder sequences from the audience and even the characters inside the film. This is why Lt. Fuller (John Saxon) and the police start searching for Clare as she’s “missing” when her father picks her up for Christmas.
A lot more brilliant folk than myself have written about what it means for the film to have an entire movie built around Jess talking about having an abortion to her partner Peter (Kier Dullea). To have abortion being not only mentioned, but a crucial plot point in the film feels massive, considering the film was released about a year after Roe V. Wade and was only a few years removed from “therapeutic abortion” being legalized in Canada, where the film was shot (if you couldn’t tell from Clare’s boyfriend being a hockey goalie). Later in the film, Peter shows up at the house and nearly confronts Jess, continuing the nearly one-sided conversation, “let’s get one thing straight: you are not going to abort that baby.” He then lightly threatens her (“You’ll be sorry”) before being told to leave.
Fuller is later right to be suspicious of Peter, because in another horror film, he likely might be the killer picking off Jess’s sorority sisters one after another. Instead, we have “Billy” (named after the calls) who sneaks in the shadows and hides. We usually only get glimpses of him, most famously, just his eyes, piercing through the shadows always watching us. While stylistically, Bob Clark took from the “grandparents” of the genre Peeping Tom and Psycho, Black Christmas’ use of POV shots as he stalks his victims is a given in most slashers. We often are fascinated by the killers and want to understand them, and what other way is there to do so than by walking in their shoes and seeing the world as they do?
Black Christmas would eventually also be the inspiration for John Carpenter’s Halloween (initially titled The Babysitter Murders). This goes back to the cannibalization found in horror, where the creative team often takes what works and tries to make it their own. It’s safe to say that John Carpenter could do so successfully in Halloween. Between the babysitter at the core of the story, the POV, and even hiding the face of the killer, we want to understand. No matter how many times I’ve seen the film, whenever I’m left thinking of it, I always go back to either the shot of the eye in the crack of the door or the POV shots. It’s the eyes we’re looking out of, looking at these women as we hear him call the sorority house and describe sexual acts. In other slashers, when our killer stalks in the shadows and watches their victims, it’s described as stalking their prey, there isn’t a sexual element attached to it. I don’t get the same feeling watching Billy stalk the women in this film. It’s the voyeurism of it all, of watching and being watched. Even though the camera doesn’t linger over a specific body part, there’s an uncomfortable feeling that arises when he watches them.
It’s rare to find a slasher that doesn’t often cut back to the killer’s own POV shots, or seeing the victims be stalked until it’s their turn to face the weapon of choice. It’s not always sexually driven, but it always adds to the tension as we know it’s coming. Always that person sneaks up on you in the comfort of your own home until you realize it’s too late, it’s tension that’s sorely needed to make the slasher film effective. An integral piece to the genre, in the same vein that watching Black Christmas is needed to witness one of the powerhouses of early slasher cinema.
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