No holiday would be complete without a seasonal slasher, or five. When it comes to the crème de la crème of this particular little subgenre I very much doubt anyone is going to disagree with me when I declare that Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) is the Granddaddy of them all. The film is often cited as one of the first proto-slashers, rightfully so. But because of this the cynical beauty of Clark’s masterpiece, those wonderful little nuances that make it so good, often get drowned out by references to things Black Christmas did before Halloween (1978). There are other proto-slashers, some of them came way before Clark’s, but there is only one Black Christmas. What interests me about the film isn’t so much what it did before, or how it’s like, other films, but the aspects that makes it unique. This stems from the director’s wonderfully subversive view in taking tradition, and turning it on its head. Finding darkness in amongst the light, bright shiny baubles.
There’s something especially profane about taking Christmas and using it as a basis for horror. We only have to cast our minds back to that idiotic and embarrassing episode in the prolific careers of Siskel & Ebert, when they went on American television to declare the proceeds of later slasher, Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) “blood money”, whilst calling out the names of the cast and crew. Oh, how we laughed. Someone forgot to let them in on the secret that Santa isn’t real. But it just goes to show how precious people can be when it comes to that one day of the year. Despite this, the season has long been associated with horror. One of the greatest Christmas stories ever told Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is a ghost story. While author M.R James popularised the notion of telling “Ghost Stories for Christmas” through his own work— something the BBC picked up on in the seventies, turning the tales of James and Dickens into some of the best genre television ever made. The shortest day, the bleakness of deep winter, is perfect for snuggling in around the fire and reminding ourselves what it is to be alive by exploring morbid themes. In essence Clark took this idea, but ditched the supernatural element, instead opting for a more contemporary theme, working from the inspiration of a true story (of sorts). It works, and still remains relevant, which is why the potency of the film has endured for more than 40 years.
What makes Black Christmas special isn’t so much the violence or the horror. It is the way it captures and capitalises on the anxiety of seasonal holidays. People pushed together, disappointment, forced social situations. Bob Clark lays it all out there for the world to see. Barb (Margot Kidder) drunk at a Christmas party, shovelling wine into a small child, epitomises this. She becomes the mouthpiece with which to voice those uncomfortable feelings through her inappropriate behaviour. Barb is raging cynicism in the face of manufactured “happiness”. Christmas is sacred. We must all have a good time, or at least appear to. Barb, ever the anarchist, rallies against it, regaling members of the Sorority house with stories of turtles which can “screw for three days”, while the father of one of the missing girls (Clare) can do nothing but sit exasperated, as she continues to torment the room. But we don’t hate Barb for her shortcomings. We love her. We love her because Bob Clark (and of course Kidder’s amazing performance) makes her human, frail, vulnerable. For all her bravado we know she is damaged. The director makes sure we notice this through the little details that seep in quietly behind the scenes: the disappointed phone call, her anger, her poor coping mechanisms.
This is the beauty of Black Christmas. Everyone is real, not just Barb. From the hysterical mother, greeted with the sight of her murdered daughter, to Jess (Olivia Hussey) our would-be final girl, who is less interested in the holiday and more concerned with how she will tell her aggressive boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) she wants to abort his child. Life goes on. Carol singers come, Christmas lights shine, people go missing, others grieve. The only person who isn’t real is the unidentified assailant, the unknown obscene caller who creeps into the house to take out the girls who rejected him, one by bloody one — or at least we have to assume they are one and the same person. This is where the original film excels, and the remake doesn’t. We don’t need to know who the stalker is. His presence is enough. He is the boogeyman who penetrates the safe shrine of the home. He turns what should be a scene of gaiety and festivity into a bloody mess; where girls lay lifeless in their beds, their bodies ravaged by violence, their faces contorted in terror.
What’s even more interesting — considering how the slasher genre developed later on in regards to the moralistic code of “bad girls” get murdered, “good girls” survive — is Black Christmas makes no such judgement. The director digs into the complicated issues, giving us solid characters to really care about. Not only does Clark present seasonal anxiety, but he also uses the film to explore the wider context of cultural anxiety, especially when it comes to evolving gender roles and sexual dynamics in a society where feminism was taking prominence. This manifests through Jess’ conundrum. A young woman under pressure to study and carve out a career, versus the social expectation she should maybe take a more traditional route into motherhood and marriage to a man she doesn’t really trust. It cries out through Barb’s sexual aggressiveness, her free thinking, free talking, and the silent judgement on the faces of those around her. And gender and sexual anxiety becomes the tipping point for some of the males in the cast: the killer, mocked and rejected by the girls; Peter’s attempts at proving he can be a real man to Jess, which ends in explosive violence when he is knocked back. On a more subtle level it is seen in the fact the police won’t take sorority girl Clare’s (Lynne Griffin) disappearance seriously to start with. They assume she is off making love with her boyfriend, or partying without a thought for her worried father.
The director took a similar approach with Deathdream (1974) when he turned his sights to critiquing conventions surrounding the family unit, as well as exploring post-Vietnam trauma, in his innovative take on W.W Jacobs’ 1902 tale: The Monkey’s Paw. While A Christmas Story, which is admittedly far more jovial than Black Christmas, still flirts with cynicism to a certain degree. The story’s central protagonist, and narrator, a young boy caught up in the excitement before Christmas, conjures up much humour in his role as a sort of mini Holden Caulfield, as he cuts through some of the more phoney aspects of the season, pokes fun at ludicrous festive rituals, and makes wry character observations about his family and friends. Black Christmas makes the perfect companion for either film; as a straight up horror double-bill with Deathdream, or a celebrational holiday duo with A Christmas Story.
Just in time for the season 101 Films have presented Black Christmas on Blu-ray, with a host of extras.
The specs are as follows:
Film and Furs: Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle
Victims and Virgins: Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin
Black Christmas Legacy documentary
Original TV and Radio spots
40th Anniversary Reunion Panel: Fan Expo Canada 2014 (Blu-Ray Only)
But then Black Christmas is the gift that keeps on giving. Perfect for any time of the year. Highly recommended.