Maybe it’s odd to classify Bob Clark’s Black Christmas as Christmastime comfort, but for horror fans like myself, there’s no December without Billy’s rampage. Why would someone ruin such an eggnog-punchy, peace-on-earth holiday with death, criminal depravity, and Krampus’s influence? I mean, who are you, my mother? Once a horror outsider, always a horror outsider, but those very reasons that make the pure of heart so uneasy around Christmas Horror appeal to the genre appreciation within. I’ll watch Elf, the claymation favorites, even A Christmas Story (once, for Bob Clark), but an eventual counterbalance is imminent.
Without question, that choice is always Black Christmas (1974). A sorority slasher ahead of its time, deserving credit as a pre-Halloween prototype that paved a golden road for Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Charles Lee Ray–you know the famous names that followed, but what about Billy?
Maybe that’s because the mayhem methods employed in Clark’s Canuxploitation masterpiece don’t resemble what the slasher genre became through evolution. Black Christmas is sustainably nerve-shredding, while kills aren’t comparatively graphic nor even on-screen in some cases. Clark emphasizes the insidiousness of actions, not their grotesque consequences. It’s a film defined by first-person voyeurism as university sisters gallivant unaware, or vulgar telephone calls rant sinister misogyny via a chorus of voices like someone possessed. It’s about what’s not known and how our imaginations process dread or direness or insanity–sometimes through the eyes of a killer.
As slashers would transform, sequels in need of rejuvenation turned toward death sequences as a means of drawing attention. A simple machete hack or bladed gardening glove slice wouldn’t cut the mustard a seventeenth time. Appreciators of the late-era slashers that abandoned everything but grotesque practical effects might not even classify Black Christmas as one of the subgenre’s pillars, if only because they might begrudge its slow-burn approach. No heads-flying-through-midair decapitations? Nor victims clutching their intestines, like they could reassemble themselves? It can’t possibly be a slasher film without at least one instance of a Tom Savini-approved dismemberment. And yet, all that video nastiness stems from Clark’s frigid snow-in entrapment.
In 1974’s Black Christmas, the power of performance and aggression of atmosphere is everything Bob Clark needs. It’s no surprise that Marian Waldman, as housemother Mrs. Mac, is the runaway fan favorite, pulling an excessive amount of hidden liquor bottles from hiding places in each room. That’s not to discredit Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, or the other sorority sisters. As Billy leers at his prey from peeper holes, the coeds bemoan Christmas traditions about consumerism, religion, the works. Roy Moore’s screenplay doesn’t just use festive moods as a backdrop; they’re satirized and roasted over an open fire as a searing bit of counterculture.
Further distinguishing Black Christmas against the slaughterhouse sleepover fodder that’d set the slasher genre on a path toward extinction, I’d argue that, while most think of exploitation as unconscionable gore or smut, Moore’s screenplay retorts. Exploitation is ferociously enacted in protest, against injustice, such as including an abortion subplot in 1974’s Black Christmas, only a year after supreme legislators passed Roe v. Wade. Clark fearlessly pushed against the norms by allowing Jess (Hussey) full bodily autonomy, sneaking actionable change into an otherwise “disgusting” horror narrative. We continue to misunderstand the value and definition of “exploitation” in cinema, but Black Christmas sets the example once again. Studio attention spans struggle to see the big picture, unfortunately. As a result, the slasher genre devolved into sleazy, sensationless inhumanity driven by a shortsighted assessment of what draws audiences to Halloween, Black Christmas, or A Nightmare On Elm Street.
Zip forward to 2006, where Glen Morgan’s Black Christmas remake (the first of two) becomes a compare-and-contrast lesson. It exists as everything Clark’s original needn’t encourage. Billy is issued a sexually abusive backstory, jaundice, and cannibalistic tendencies, most nauseatingly shown by munching on eyeballs. Storytelling retools the same sorority archetypes but cares less about sustained tension and more about icicle impalements and cracked open skulls. These two movies exist on opposing extremes of the slasher spectrum, and suffice it to say, there’s little detective work required to appreciate what Clark accomplishes and how more modern slashers might have benefitted from lifting Moore’s structural integrity.
Black Christmas isn’t merely an outstanding frostbitten Christmas Horror tale meant to deck the halls pitch-black. Bob Clark’s anti-cheerful caper is a chapter in horror history, predicting and formulating the mythos for slasher subgenre dominance to follow. Hang the stockings with care, polish your jingle bells, but maybe this December, you can squeeze in a bit of ho-ho-horror appreciation? There’s more to the proceedings than a roster of charismatic yet dismissive cops, sassy-rebellious Margot Kidder, and the unsilent bastard haunting one end of a telephone receiver. Those who complain about “pointless” slashers that feature nothing but death, sex, and vapid gross-outs must understand how imitators learned from one another and forgot their roots. Those who still quiver at the mention of Black Christmas, hearing Billy’s raspy voice atop the vision of a bag-suffocated woman, respect an O.G. title that terrifies with the best that any decade’s slasher crop has to offer.
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