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Halloween Love’s 40th Anniversary Black Christmas Retrospective

Black Christmas posterIt’s almost always impossible to pinpoint the horror movie that started any given sub-genre, though there are films within each that have more or less had that honor bestowed upon them. Though not the first of its kind, for example, The Blair Witch Project is nevertheless seen as the ‘first’ found footage movie, due mostly to the fact that it popularized that style.

When it comes to slashers, it’s oftentimes Halloween that is considered the one that paved the way for all the rest, which is not entirely untrue. Again, it’s far from the first movie of the sort, with the Italian Giallo films predating Carpenter’s masterpiece by many years, but one need not stretch the truth to suggest that it inspired a plethora of similar films that came in its wake.

True, the landscape of the horror genre was forever changed when Michael Myers walked on screen in 1978, but to give Halloween all the credit for spawning the slasher movement is somewhat of an injustice to another film that came four years before it. That film is of course 1974’s Black Christmas, a Canadian production that is all too often left out in the cold when the discussion turns to slashers.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Black Christmas was directed by Bob Clark, who interestingly enough went on to win over an entirely different holiday audience with 1983’s A Christmas Story. It was Clark’s holiday horror film that directly inspired Halloween not just in execution but also in conception, as it was an off-hand remark from Clark that seems to have given Carpenter the idea for his film.

In an interview with Icons of Fright, Clark mentioned that Carpenter had in the years prior to making Halloween asked him if he’d ever do a sequel to Black Christmas, and though he wasn’t interested, he did have an idea in mind. Basically, the sequel would take place on Halloween and center on the killer escaping an institution and returning to the sorority house – sound familiar?

In that same interview, Clark was quick to note that Halloween was in no way a direct copy of Black Christmas, though it’s hard to imagine that the sequel conversation didn’t have an impact on Carpenter. Though far different in many ways, it’s impossible not to draw parallels between Clark’s holiday horror film and Carpenter’s, and if you’re asking me, the films are on equal levels of quality and deserve equal levels of fan appreciation and respect.

Ironically, it’s the one thing that makes Black Christmas such an effective chiller that was responsible for it not garnering the same fanbase that Halloween did. Despite the insistence of Warner Bros., Clark made a ballsy move by shrouding the killer’s identity in secrecy, making it the rare ‘Whodunit?’ slasher that doesn’t bother to answer that question. Would Black Christmas be as iconic as Halloween is today if it gave rise to a new horror icon? Impossible to say, but quite easy to answer ‘yes.’

But again, the beauty of Black Christmas is that it doesn’t play into the tropes that it helped paved the way for, and the lack of an identified killer was a smart decision in every sense other than the financial one. Sure, a scary looking creep in a mask could’ve easily led to sequels, action figures and all sorts of franchise perks, but it’s the restraint Clark showed in that department that makes this early slasher effort one of the most genuinely frightening of them all. After all, the unknown is always scarier than the known.

All we ever really see of Billy are quick glimpses and POV shots that were lifted and popularized by John Carpenter four years later, and the only insight we get into his mind are a handful of threatening phone calls made to the sorority sisters. It was Clark, actor Nick Mancuso and an unknown actress that provided the various distorted voices of the so-called ‘moaner,’ and the bone-chilling calls from inside the house predate When a Stranger Calls‘ similar plot device by five years.

Though it lacks an iconic killer, at least in the palpable sense, Black Christmas more than checks off that box in other ways, thanks to a handful of moments and characters that are some of the most memorable in slasher history. No list of ‘Final Girls’ is complete without Olivia Hussey’s Jess Bradford, nor any list of slasher kills complete without a nod to the infamous image that adorns the poster art.

Of course, it would be downright criminal to reflect on Black Christmas and not also mention Margot Kidder’s Barb, an unapologetic booze-hound who is one of the most fun characters to ever die in a slasher. Kidder is terrific in the role, lacing the proceedings with an immature sense of humor that works with the horror, rather than takes away from it. And who could ever forget Mrs. Mac, the sorority’s house mother who would hide a bottle of sherry up her butt if she could fit it.

When it comes to horror films, simple is almost always better, and Black Christmas is a great example of that edict. Lacking the makeup effects that would soon become synonymous with the sub-genre, Black Christmas is a relatively bloodless film that squeezes maximum terror out of the simple premise of a killer being inside the house with his victims, proving that slashers can be more than cut ’em up body count flicks, when in the right hands – just as Halloween further solidified, four years later.

Unfortunately, the curse of holiday horror films is that fans don’t seem to pay much attention to them outside of the holiday season they embody, and Black Christmas is particularly forgotten about during the months that don’t start with the letter D. Of course, that only makes the film more special when December rolls around, but it’s a shame considering the fact that Michael Myers is a staple of horror fan discussion all year round, while Black Christmas is only really appreciated for 30 days each year – at best.

Regardless of the films it inspired or the sub-genre it helped give rise to, Black Christmas is just plain one of the very best horror films ever made, and you’ll find me saying that in June as often as you’ll find me saying it in December. Slashers don’t get much better than this one, and it’s not out of line to suggest that some of the other greats of the sub-genre would’ve never entered our lives, if it weren’t for Bob Clark’s other Christmas movie.

Just two weeks shy of your 40th birthday, we salute you, Black Christmas. This month and every month. This year and every year. You are truly one of the all-time greats, and a genre pioneer worthy of feet-kissing 365 days of the year.

So get on your hands and knees, horror fans. And pucker up.

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If you don't get enough of me here on Halloween Love, you can also find me on Dread Central, iHorror and Shock Till You Drop. Contact me via john@halloweenlove.com.
  • cubbies1967

    Excellent article. I agree that it is a horror masterpiece. I would have added in your description of Billy that bone chilling shot of his eye through the crack in the door, which I feel is one of the scariest shots ever. PS, thanks for not mentioning that awful remake/insult to the original.

  • John Squires

    Haha, I’m actually going to be reviewing the remake later this week, which is why I didn’t mention it in this post!

    And yes, that shot is indeed awesome. One of my favorites of all time.

  • @SBofSelfAbuse

    Good post. It’s definitely one of the most important movies for the genre. I had forgotten that bit about Carpenter talking to Clark. Black Christmas has been in my yearly holiday rotation for probably a decade or better. Unfortunately I didn’t see the film until I was in my early 20s, but it’s remained a staple ever since. It’s right in there with A Christmas Story for me.

    Can’t wait to read your follow-up on the remake. I think it’s one of the better modern remakes, and is pretty underrated. The approach they took with it was pretty interesting in that in some ways it’s a very faithful remake, while in others it’s almost the complete opposite of Clark’s film (particularly in its lack of restraint). The latter is probably the problem most people have with it, but I think it helps it stand on its own and bring something different to the table. It’s just a fun horror movie, and I like to include it in the yearly rotation as well.

  • Michael D. Okum

    Great Article! Great Film! Thanks John Squires!

  • Graham

    This is one of my favourite horror movies, favourite Christmas movies, and I guess just one of my favourite movies, period. Oddly enough, though, I didn’t like it when I first saw it, probably because it was so different from what I expected it to be. I expected something along the lines of a typical slasher film with a clear resolution and when I didn’t get that, I was unsatisfied. I revisited the film again a few years later, and by that time I suppose my taste in horror and film in general had developed because I thought it was actually a lot better than I remembered it. I’ve watched it several more times since and my appreciation for it grows every year. I think it’s a masterful film, particularly in how the emotional, psychological horror is entwined but never explicitly or directly tied to the physical horror. This makes the film not only frightening, but thought-provoking as well. I love it! And as a side note, as a Canadian, I’m so proud that Black Christmas is too!