With Christmas an entire year away, what better time to review 1974’s Black Christmas? They do say it gets earlier every year.
The festive story of a sorority house stalked by a psycho, this Canadian horror film is generally considered to be the original slasher – as well as spawning the less popular sorority house slaughter sub-genre, whose entries include Sorority House Massacre, Sorority House Massacre 2 and Sorority House Massacre 3: Hard to Die. Nevertheless, Black Christmas is an interesting and unsettling slasher flick – and this is the original we’re talking about, not the 2006 remake, which was written as Black Xmas for the texting generation.
Director Bob Clark would make another Christmas movie a few years later – the family classic A Christmas Story. But no one in their right mind would watch a family film made by the man responsible for Black Christmas, any more than they’d let their child sit on the knee of a violently drunk Santa. But for all its nastiness, Black Christmas opts for suspense over gore – and is all the more disturbing as a result. There is little blood but some indelibly nasty images and a creepy use of sound. Clark’s panning shots are painfully slow, suggesting danger lurking in every shadow cast by the Christmas lights. And the danger is never explained – it’s just a Christmas creep, whose hands and shadow are all we ever see. Maybe it’s Santa.
Another suspect is Peter (Keir Dullea), the boyfriend of our hero Jess (Olivia Hussey), who resents her for aborting their baby. This plot thread is interesting from a feminist perspective – like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, Jess must fight against the patriarchal forces around her for control of her own body. When the young women turn to the police for help, they respond with incompetence and sexism. “It’s probably just one of your boyfriends playing a little joke,” says Sgt. Nash (Doug McGrath), echoing the authorities’ disturbing propensity to dismiss victims of sexual harassment. At the start of the film, the foul-mouthed Barb (Margot Kidder) makes the off-colour joke: “You can’t rape a townie.” It seems like a throwaway remark, but it’s significant in its anticipation of the police’s attitude – that you can’t rape a sorority girl.
Jess herself is the original final girl, and an admirable character – in a refreshing subversion of gender stereotyping, she’s cool-headed while Peter is emotional. When he proposes, or rather demands that they get married, Jess responds: “You can’t ask me to drop everything I’ve been working for and give up all my ambitions because your plans have changed.” In the midst of second-wave feminism, Jess turns her back on the traditional gender roles of motherhood and domesticity, and takes up pointy arms against the man whose sexual and physical threats are equally political threats. Hussey is impressive in the role, making Jess a formidable scream queen. Other notable performances include John Saxon as Lt. Fuller, who would reprise his police chief role a decade later in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Marian Waldman as Mrs. Mac, the housemother whose random booze hiding places provide some welcome comic relief, and of course Claude the cat.
John Carpenter would perfect the slasher formula in Halloween, but here we find its inception, from the killer’s POV shots to the wild illogic of the characters – why does no one think to look in the attic?! As in the case of The Exorcist, but to a much lesser degree, the conflict between moralistic writing and nihilistic direction creates an interesting tension. The matter of reconciling slasher movies with feminism continues, but Clark’s suspenseful and unsettling direction gives Black Christmas a nastily festive effect. After all, what could be more Christmasy than fending off a stalker using a fireplace poker?