Merry Christmas from the Thursday Horror Picture Show with Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) (yes, the same Bob Clark who made A Christmas Story (1983)). What better way to spend the night before Christmas Eve than with the original “slasher” picture? Yes, Black Christmas pretty much started it all—predating Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Though it flopped in 1974 (despite being rechristened Silent Night, Evil Night, so it wouldn’t be mistaken for a blaxploitation picture), it has come to be recognized as the groundbreaking minor classic that it is. The plot is simple—sorority girls being offed one-by-one by a crazed killer in the house—but the execution is surprisingly clever, creepy and restrained.
Now, I wouldn’t call Black Christmas some kind of overlooked classic of the genre—or subgenre. I think “overlooked classic template” would be nearer the mark. There aren’t too many tropes of the slasher picure that don’t show up here for the first time. At least they originate here in modern form, since the whole “unknown madman who is killing folks for no apparent reason” is at least suggested as far back as John Willard’s 1922 play The Cat and the Canary, though I know of no actual depiction of such a character prior to “The Maniac” in Ben Stoloff’s Bela Lugosi picture Night of Terror (1933). However, that’s a kind of dead-end aberration, since the idea didn’t catch on at the time.
At its core, Black Christmas is essentially an “old dark sorority house” picture, but it offers variations that would soon become conventions. It draws from the land of the urban myth with its “oh my God, the killer is in the house” development (it’s only a development to the characters; we’ve known it all along). That’s part of terrorized-babysitter lore that at least goes back to the 1950s—and almost certainly earlier. It quickly became a staple. The much-debated use of subjective camera, where the audience “becomes” the killer, is here, too. You may recall this became a controversy—mostly due to Siskel and Ebert—in the early 1980s as an example of the depravity of modern horror, where the audience is by implication doing the killing. This was said mostly in reference to Friday the 13th, but it’s also used here. (The theory fails to consider that—in both these cases—the approach is less psychological than utlitarian, since it keeps the viewer from seeing who the killer is.)
Here we also have the ineffectual police (John Saxon might be parodying his role in A Nightmare on Elm Street), the hypocritical adults, the implication that sexual activity brings about death etc. There’s even the well-loved inconclusive ending (the better to make a sequel with). Granted, the one here works on the ludicrous assumption that the cops—no matter how ineffectual—never search the house. There are some unusual aspects to Black Christmas in its abortion subplot, but whether they really mean anything—apart from leading the viewer down the garden path—is debatable. Ultimately, this is merely an efficient—sometimes atmospheric and more than a little creepy—essay in claustophobic horror that paved the way for much that was to come.