Black Christmas screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Friday, December 17th at 9:30pm.
All cliches have to start somewhere, but there has probably never been a film to kick start as many cliches as Bob Clark's Black Christmas. Generally regarded as the film that birthed the slasher subgenre of horror movies, Christmas creates all the moments in horror history that would quickly grow to annoy audiences in a litany of Friday the 13th and Halloween sequels by the end of the 1980s. Back in 1974, however, Black Christmas was seen as nothing short of groundbreaking. Looking back on it today, it is still a wonderfully taut and tightly crafted thriller. It is a shame this film quite often gets defined as a part of the genre it helped to create because it is also one of the best suspense thrillers that Hitchcock or Polanski never made.
The plot is brilliantly minimalist. The girls of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority have been subjected to an increased number of lewd and scary phone calls that eventually grow violent and deadly. When one of their own goes missing (but the audience knows is dead) the girls begin to fall apart and begin to get picked off one by one by the incoherently moaning and babbling killer.
Looking through the lens of history, Black Christmas might be the eeriest and most subtle slasher film ever created. The film is relatively bloodless and none of the characters are really caricatures (save for the woefully incompetent police Sargent Nash) and they all have real world problems to deal with outside of the killing spree that is occurring around them. The specter of abortion also hangs heavy over the proceedings, making the subject matter itself damn near revolutionary for the time. The cast is also top notch, led by Jess (who is actually the antithesis of the "final girl" found in most horror films), played by Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet), who not only has to deal with the stress of her friend's disappearance and murder, but also her own unwanted pregnancy. There are also great turns from Margot Kidder as a tough minded sister with a raging alcohol addiction and John Saxon, this time playing a cop (surprise, surprise) who isn't crooked or troubled. It might be the only time post 1965 that Saxon played a normally functioning officer of the law.
On a technical level, anyone looking to make a slasher film needs to make this required viewing and take copious amounts of notes. Clark's point of view shots are used to great effect. The musical stings are either subtle uses of popular Christmas carols or noise that sounds like piano strings getting plucked by hand. The script never makes it's red herrings obvious until the final third and it leads to a conclusion that is still very unsettling and creepy to watch even if you have seen every slasher film that has followed in it's wake.
Sure, Black Christmas is a film full of stock cliches, but they weren't so plentiful when the film was released in 1974. Hence why I am not listing any of them in hopes that if you haven't yet seen the movie, you watch it in the proper context and with an open mind. That way the film can be viewed as the revolutionary experience it it. Black Christmas is a film that is often duplicated, mimicked, ripped off, and remade (both in name and in concept), but it has never been fully replicated. In this case, such imitation is the highest and most sincere form of flattery.