A group of young girls is being mercilessly targeted by a crazed killer on a beloved holiday. At the end of the film, only one survives and the killer has disappeared into the night, presumably to strike again.
If you thought I was describing John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), you would be wrong, but not off base. In fact, without Black Christmas, there might not have been a Halloween at all. Carpenter, a huge fan of Black Christmas and friend of director Bob Clark, was talking with Clark about a potential sequel to Black Christmas. Clark’s response: While he didn’t want to make one, if he did, he could imagine the killer breaking out of a mental institute and wreaking havoc. Oh, and it would be on Halloween. Carpenter ran with it and created an indelible masterpiece that has gone on to reap all of the acclaim of being the progenitor for the slasher.
But it’s not only the potential plot that Carpenter borrowed from Clark. If you watch Black Christmas, you will see a few of the tropes that have gone on to define the genre which have been attributed to Halloween:
- the camera stands in as the POV of the killer = the opening sequence of Halloween outside the Myer’s home, which Carpenter has long attributed to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), can also be found here.
- the lone girl survivor = while this trope should technically be attributed to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which was released in theaters a week earlier, Black Christmas sets the killings within a sorority house (another trope continued to this day in TV shows like Scream Queens). Where Halloween differed and laid new ground is that while Laurie Strode was the virginal goodie-two shoes that came to define the “lone girl,” Black Christmas’ survivor Jess was a liberal minded woman, set on getting an abortion.
- the killer attacks on its victims’ own turf = While Michael Myers slew and stalked his victims in places in which they felt at home, Billy (the faceless murderer in Black Christmas) actually committed all of his murders within their home, the sorority house, even making his ominous phone calls there, a trope later popularized in When a Stranger Calls (1979) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and parodied in Scream (1996).
- the killer disappears into the night = Halloween‘s glorious ending sequence, as the camera takes us through the various murder locations, can also be found at the end of Black Christmas.
None of this is meant to take anything away from the majesty of Carpenter’s masterwork. Seriously. It is one of the greatest films ever made and possibly the greatest horror film of all time (barring Psycho, of course). But in fairness, Black Christmas should get some of the credit it is due.
Black Christmas, a parody on the famous Bing Crosby tune, is set during Christmas break at a sorority house. The girls have been receiving prank calls from an anonymous moaner. Up until now it has all been rather amusing. But when one of their sisters disappears, the others think it may have something to do with their disturbed caller. Suddenly, it is a race against time with the police (led by the sexy John Saxon) in tow to try and catch him before he strikes again. Along for the journey is the father (James Edmond) of the missing girl, Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her obsessive boyfriend who may be the murderer (Keir Dullea), the sorority drunk Barbara (Margot Kidder), the wallflower (Andrea Martin) and the comedic den mother of the sorority house (Marian Waldman, paging her best Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life).
So is Black Christmas just “important” or is it good too? Well, it’s both. In particular, some of the murder sequences are very artfully crafted, albeit without the blood and gore to which we are accustomed; it wasn’t until Friday the 13th (1980) rolled around that this became an acceptable and expected element (although Herschell Gordon Lewis had already made a name for himself in the 1960s as the Godfather of Gore with his cult films, relegated to the fringes of cinema). The performances are more earnest and stronger than in some of its later knock offs because the script tries to give them all three dimensional characters with stakes – and very talented actors were cast; Olivia Hussey was fresh off of Shakespeare and Margot Kidder had just completed her dual performance in DePalma’s Sisters (1973). However, the story of Black Christmas is overdrawn and over complicated and feels at times that it is unsure what type of movie it wants to be. Is it horror? Is it police procedural? Is it black comedy? All questions one must work out when laying the ground work for a new genre. Black Christmas, while not as great as its descendants, deserves a viewing. Especially for those interested in the history of horror.
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*The film is also known as Silent Night, Evil Night because distributors were worried that people would think Black Christmas was a blaxpolitation film.
*For further viewing on the history of the slasher, see Michael Powell’s excellent Peeping Tom (1960).
*Available on YouTube.