Undoubtedly, the great success of Halloween (John Carpenter 1978) allowed the modern slasher to thrive in the 80s, but prior to this the genre had already taken form in Canada. Bob Clark’s 1974 film Black Christmas was the first of many to be produced and cherished in the North.
Everyone has heard the argument that Halloween changed the face of horror and created the slasher formula, with those to follow upping the ante by showing more violence and more nudity. What fewer people realize is that four years prior, Black Christmas set the stage for the better part of this formula. In fact, the film is even more graphic, with more blood and a higher body count.
Violence and the Killer-Point-of-View :
While Halloween only boasts 4 on screen murders, and one extra body, Black Christmas features 3 on-screen deaths (all more gruesome than Carpenter’s 4), and 4 more bodies, 3 of which are shown for bloody effect. Moreover, while Halloween is so often credited as the first to use the killer-point-of-view, the truth is, Black Christmas did it first - perhaps even more effectively.
The film is set in a sorority house just as the holidays approach. Many of the girls have left to visit family, and the ones who stayed behind are festively celebrating, and drinking quite heavily. A point-of-view shot opens the narrative inviting the viewer to immediately identify with the killer, as he peeps into the windows of the house. This five minute opening sequence crosscuts between the killer-point-of-view as he sneaks into the attic, and the unaware girls and their party guests carrying on. Like Peeping Tom (an early example of slasher cinema from Britain), the film prioritizes the insidious action of looking as the main source of horror, bringing to mind Carol Clover’s statement that “eyes are everywhere in horror cinema”. At the level of narrative, she explains, either seeing too much, or seeing too little, is problematic. In this brilliant scene, Black Christmas reveals the danger of both. The gaze is positioned as dangerous since it belongs to a psychotic serial killing pervert. On the other hand, being ‘blind’ to the dangers around them, the girls’ lack of seeing is what will inevitably get them killed. Throughout the film the point-of-views will continue to shift back and forth, always keeping the audience privy to what the killer is seeing. This keeps the tension very high - and his heavy breathing invading the sound track keeps the atmosphere very creepy.
The Women (Spoilers):
The Final Girl is one of the most important aspects in a slasher film. While Laurie Strode will always be my number one, it must be pointed out that the concept was first developed by Clark in Black Christmas.
Barb is the first girl introduced. Despite a subtle knack for observance when she yells at the other girls for leaving the front door open (ironically this is not how the killer enters), Barb is drunk and continues to be so throughout the film. The viewer learns very little of her, but it is clear that she has left an unstable home in the city to attend university in a small town. Likely on her own for the first time, she takes full advantage of the free-spirit of the sorority house, wailing “this is a sorority house, not a convent!” Not surprisingly, Barb’s irresponsibility is said to provoke the ‘moaner’, a name given to the killer by the girls for his perverted phone calls. Her character is a lot of fun (played by Margot Kidder - yes! Lois Lane!), but obviously, she is too wild to qualify as a Final Girl.
Enter Jess. She is sweet and protective of her “sisters”. But she is also career-oriented and rational, and it is these “masculinities” that make her a great Final Girl (the idea that the Final Girl is masculine is still very popular in the scholarship although I find the concept outdated). She would rather not fight, but she will when backed into a corner. In fact, she is one of the few Final Girls to have actually killed someone.
You may recall, even Laurie can only hold Michael off until help arrives.
Although Black Christmas does not feature any sex or nudity, for it’s time it is unmatched for crudeness. Barb gets all of her kicks from dirty jokes, from convincing a police officer ‘fellatio’ is a new telephone exchange, to dinner conversation about the mating habits of turtles. Meanwhile, the alcoholic House Mother traipses around cursing like a sailor and her efforts to appear stable only make her seem more ridiculous. This comedic aspect provides a much needed break from how incredibly scary the situation is.
With no idea who the killer is, the viewer only knows he is in the house, and that he is taunting them over the phone while he knocks them off, one by one. Leaving them in poses (yes, like in Halloween with Linda and Annie) when he’s finished.
In an interview, Bob Clark was asked how he felt about Carpenter ripping off his film. But Clark is a stand up guy and while he admits that when his film was released he did spend some time with Carpenter who was eager to discuss the possibility of a sequel, he also gives Carpenter credit for his own masterpiece. Clark states, “John was a great fan of Black Christmas… He loved the movie and I believe he was influenced some by it, but he did not copy my movie and Halloween is entirely John Carpenter’s and it’s one of the Greats of its kind.” And, that it is!
Meanwhile, the slasher continued to make its mark on Canadian Cinema and the Horror genre with some of the most popular films being Prom Night and Terror Train (both 1980 featuring Jamie Lee Curtis), My Bloody Valentine (1981) and Visiting Hours (1982). Also, many Canadian slashers have recently been subjected to the US remake (co-produced). Sadly, Black Christmas was one of these.
It’s nothing against remakes in general - but really, take my advice, and stay clear of this one.