(Bob Clark, 1974)
(essay by Kevin)
Ever since I was a kid I can remember the coverbox to Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. It wasn’t just the simplicity of the title and its juxtaposition of those two words or the fact that it was directed by the man who gave us A Christmas Story and Porky’s, but it was the image on the front: a woman screaming with a plastic bag over her head, and the image of this woman was inside of a wreath. I remember that I needed to see this movie. However it wasn’t until I was much older that I finally got a chance to visit Black Christmas, and I was shocked to not just find a really terrifying and intense stalker film, but to also find one of the earliest examples of what would later be known as the “slasher film”.
With hindsight we can clearly say that the plot – a bunch of girls in a sorority house are being harassed by obscene phone calls that are…COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE! – is as banal as any slasher film’s plot. However, Clark’s film predates Halloween by four years, and Friday the 13th – the film responsible for making the slasher profitable – by six years; however, none of that seems relevant if we’re discussing who came up with the template first because despite the Canadian’s having a four year edge on the American’s they were all behind the Italian’s, where Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood predates Black Christmas by three years.
Whew. Did you get all of that? Here’s the thing, though: I don’t really want to get into the debate about which came first, or how Carpenter blatantly ripped off Bob Clark (we can save that for the comments if you’d like), or how the slasher actually originated with Hitchcock’s Psycho…nope, I’m not interested in it. Oh, not because it isn’t interesting to debate such things, but more so because I think it takes away from just how well crafted a horror film both Black Christmas and Halloween are. If we only spend time talking about things like Carpenter asking Clark certain information about an unofficial sequel to Black Christmas (which is definitely left open-ended and ambiguous to whether or not the killer is actually dead) that would take place at a different holiday, Halloween, then we lose sight of just how gifted both Clark and Carpenter are at making horror films that to this day remain as intense as they must have seemed upon their initial release.
One of the interesting things about Black Christmas is actually what is so interesting about the Canadian slasher in general: an uncanny focus on character development and a horror that is more about the tightening of your nerves than the unsettling of your stomach. Post-Black Christmas the most popular Canadian slashers would all stand out from the drivel that America was producing, films like: Visiting Hours, Terror Train, and My Bloody Valentine. All of these films share common traits and aesthetics, and they all derive from the influence of Clark’s Black Christmas.
The other thing that makes Black Christmas memorable is its use of good actors. Clark definitely wasn’t just trying to make a “dead teenager” movie, as the slasher would late be called, and used Olivia Hussey (the Final Girl), Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, and John Saxon (!) to great effect. The level of acting here gives the film a professional feel, and not just some claustrophobic, amateur horror film.
Clark does indeed make his horror claustrophobic by keeping a lot of the horror in the sorroirty house; however, to his credit (and Carpenter did the same thing to a greater effect in Halloween) the film never feels overly-claustrophobic. During certain moments we are appropriately feeling closed-in and panicked because of the logistics of the sorority house, but Clark uses the spaces inside and outside of the house to establish an accomplished mise-en-scene not normally found in low-budget horror films. Clark also uses crosscutting to great effect as we never really see the gruesome murders happen, but they’re always implied; or, as in one of the film’s most virtuoso and creepiest moments a girl is being stabbed in her room upstairs which is crosscut with the rest of her friends and chaperons downstairs unable to hear her screams as they listen to children singing carols outside the front door. It’s a powerful moment – not just for its restraint, but its non-cynical use of Christmas conventions/traditions to compound upon the horror of the moment. This isn’t some exploitative holiday horror-themed film like Silent Night, Deadly Night.
Bob Clark was an interesting filmmaker who wore many hats; the man made films ranging from Deathdream to A Christmas Story to Porky’s to Baby Geniuses. Here, though, he shows an incredible ability to build fear and dread using a single location and having all of the film’s horror swirl around it. His use of POV is especially creepy (also cribbed by Carpenter, but what great trope or effect isn’t cribbed in filmmaking?), as are the obscene phone calls the killer makes. Clark definitely had talent for making horror films (his Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things is another good horror film, along with Deathdream), but I find it interesting that in spite of the talent on display here he would simply fade away into cinema oblivion making films like Karate Dog and Baby Geniuses. The man had the talent to do what a lot of talented filmmakers do with the horror genre: use it as a jumping off point for a successful directing career. That’s not to say that Clark’s films haven’t been financially successful (I can’t imagine those kids movies costing much, and they all probably made some kind of profit), but it just seems sad that he would waste his talent on, for example, a movie about a dog who knows karate.
Regardless, in 1974 Bob Clark made a film that he’ll always be remembered for because we horror fans are a cultish bunch, and we don’t forget the importance and the impact that a film like Black Christmas has on a genre. Even though I don’t want to get into a lot of the urban legends and historical context about Black Christmas and Halloween, I do think it’s more than safe to say that if we didn’t have the former – and the template it provided for future horror filmmakers – then we wouldn’t have the latter. It’s as important a marker for the horror genre as something like Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street; however, it sadly still remains the most unheralded of the bunch, despite being the most influential of them all.
(this film appeared on Jamie’s list at #13, Kevin’s at #21, Troy’s at #43, and Robert’s at #7)