Call me a Grinch if you must, but the original 1974 Black Christmas‘s tie with the silly season has, over time, probably harmed its overall impact with horror audiences. Somehow or other, Black Christmas has remained overlooked in the pantheon of early slasher movies. Indeed, it might surprise some to learn that the original Black Christmas is, in many ways, the most influential of them all.
In recent years Black Christmas has spawned two remakes: one in 2006 by Glen Morgan and another in 2019 by Sophia Takal for Blumhouse Productions. However, neither has surpassed the original, which single-handedly gave rise to franchises such as Halloween and Friday The 13th. Released the same day as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas shares some gore-driven similarities. Where it differs is in the type of killer both the audience and final girl encounters.
We’re back in the early seventies, the decade in which the term ‘serial killer’ gained its twisted popularity. This was the time of the Zodiac killer, through to the Son of Sam and all the way to Ted Bundy. It’s unsurprising, as a result, that Black Christmas founds its foundations in true crime. In a coincidental turn of events, Bundy himself entered a Florida State University sorority house in 1978, sexually assaulting and murdering two women – reinforcing a reality into an otherwise fictional movie. The killing spree from 1969 to 71 by Canadian serial killer Wayne Boden, also known as the Vampire Rapist, was highly influential on the film. Producer and director, the late Bob Clark better known for the Porky’s sex comedy franchise, used claustrophobic techniques to feed off paranoia relating to the Vampire Rapist, and instill shock into audiences, mirroring the dangers felt in the decade.
Looking at the overall story written by A. Roy Moore (The Last Chase), you will find nothing new that has not formed the basis of multiple horror-thrillers. However in 1974 this narrative was quite original. Even if Alfred Hitchcock had planted the obscene seeds of a murderous creature in Norman Bates, Black Christmas was something new.
Set in a sorority house in the days leading up to Christmas, an unseen figure enters and hides in the attic. In a crucial detail, the killer, who is only named ‘The Moaner’ or ‘Billy’ never actually appears on screen. This adds to the concept of ‘the bogeyman’ and makes the whole scenario more terrifying, leaving the ultimate shape of fear up to the audience’s imagination. Other movies, such as A Nightmare On Elm Street (Wes Craven) began to give more and more screen time to its entity of evil, normalising the impact of the terror.
In Black Christmas the opposite is done to unnerve the audience and it works. Granted, you will see through Billy’s
eyes, but that’s as far as it goes. Apparently no actual actor played the murderer, and members of the crew were used for the voice and any shadowy presence. Further, Billy’s motivations are never really revealed, aside from the phone calls he makes (as the Moaner) to the sorority house until one housemate upsets him by pushing back. Still, that
does not explain fully the level of carnage he bestowed, and so there is no backstory to draw on.
It’s got clear feminist themes. There are mentions of abortion, early seventies misogyny – particularly from the police – and the damaged Barb, played by the late Margot Kidder (Superman 1978) reflects perfectly the frustrations of the day. The narrative of the ‘slasher’ movie begins as the unsuspecting housemates get picked off one by one. Of course this is
intensified further by the screams of the killer, mirroring the pain felt by his victims. Using glass figurines, crane hooks, and suffocation with a plastic dress bag, these deadly techniques are used instead of the heavily-relied-upon carving knives of later films.
None of the killer’s methods are in any way symbolic to the festive season, in fact other than the backdrop there is nothing else to connect it. Why base this movie then at Christmas? Perhaps it’s because Black Christmas explores how evil never stops: it does not recognize a festive season. That said, it is also symbolic of the innocence and the celebration of that time of year which is robbed, and instead drenched in blood.
Black Christmas also began the trend of the ‘final girl‘ in horror movies. Examples include Sigourney Weaver in Alien (Ridley Scott), Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (John Carpenter), and even Ashley Laurence in Hellraiser (Clive Barker). The ‘damsel in distress’ became redundant, as the female character herself provided the strength needed to overcome evil.
Furthermore, the twist at the end has left its mark on cinema, as the ‘final girl’ Jess (Olivia Hussey) fights off the killer just as the police arrive. This was a major plot-point: the fate of Jess is unknown, as audiences learn the killer still lurks undiscovered, and so it all ends on a cliffhanger. Some might expect this would have given way to a sequel, a continuing story or even franchise: but no. Director Bob Clark left Black Christmas to stand on its own, leaving the imagination of the audience to deduce what happens next – a rarity in that respect.