Black Christmas sets the standards for great horror
Whenever Canadian horror is mentioned in the world of cinema, one can’t help but think of 1974’s Black Christmas, directed by Bob Clark and starring Olivia Hussey. While the film was shot almost 40 years ago, the story is as relevant and frightening to viewers as it ever was. With characters that add depth to the slasher, themes, and ideas that are still poignant today, and the movie’s ability to play with, and exploit, our expectations it’s no wonder that Black Christmas finds its way into our 31 days of horror marathon.
Perhaps the biggest issue with modern cut-and-slash horror films is that they lack any depth and development by its protagonists. While this isn’t to say that all films made after 2012 are entirely void of characters capable of change, most films in the post-Saw era tend to lack a previously important aspect of cinema: characters the audience cares about. While a beautiful blonde in tight shorts and a wet t-shirt may hold the theatre’s attention for the first 10 minutes, her inability to learn and grow from the harrowing situations she’s thrown in will turn everyone off. And while a geeky friend with an IQ above the national average is fine, turning her into a transparent “nerd” who dies by scene three isn’t.
The great thing about Black Christmas is that most of the characters never really fall into neat little boxes. Few of them are similar to the stereotypical horror crew that we’re accustomed to seeing in big-budget Hollywood films, which is a breath of fresh air. The main character Jess, played by Hussey, is never simple. While she’s an intelligent girl, she doesn’t come across as the average nerd. While she may be pregnant, she isn’t depicted as a slut or a girl in crisis. She’s simply a smart girl who finds herself in a tough situation. She has a boyfriend named Peter, played by Keir Dullea, but won’t give into him. This isn’t to say she’s classically “feminist,” anti-man, character either. She has a backbone and a brain in her head, which, unfortunately for audiences today, makes her original.
And while not all characters are as thought through and original like Jess, even the most two-dimensional still find a way to feel alive. Barb, played by Margot Kidder, is a woman disliked from the opening scene. She’s rude, pretentious, and outspoken in an overdone “city girl” way. However, she, unlike most characters of her kind, feels remorse and guilt over her missing housemate. She feels to blame and partially responsible for whatever’s happened. While she does hide her remorse and guilt for the better part of the movie, lending her to the category of “bitch,” she eventually expresses her feelings (projecting them on others). More modern characters trying to take on the “bitch” role in a horror film are often written flat, without the ability to feel anything toward anyone. Black Christmas doesn’t allow for such unmoved or unchanging characters.
The film is also a fun flip on Canadian themes. While American horror tends to lean more toward the extreme, over-the-top, and often graphic, Canadian works are frequently more low-key. While Americans tend to get a scare from showing shot after shot of the bloodied killer, Canadian horror plays on this idea of not seeing the murderer at all. The killers are quiet, secretive, and not revealed until the very end. It plays off of the idea of being stranded, being alone, a concept that was huge in Black Christmas.
Canadian content will, often when dealing with the theme of solitude, showman versus the elements of nature. A man stranded in a forest, forced to fend for himself. Black Christmas, however, isolates man in a completely different way. The whole time the women of the sorority are within earshot of each other, the thin walls of their house, the Christmas carolers at the door, the phone ringing in the other room all keep them from being rescued. These everyday distractions provide the killer with opportunities to isolate his victims, despite them being in an urban area or surrounded by help.
Black Christmas also played with our collective idea of what it means to be safe. In Canadian works, when man is alone in the woods trying to survive, their home is a beacon of safety. Realizing their goal of getting home is what ensures their protection because a home is a sacred, safe, warm place to be. Yet in this film, Clark turns the sorority into a place of danger and death. Their home isn’t a sanctuary but a slaughterhouse. While our first instincts would be to lock ourselves in our house and shut the windows upon hearing a murderer is on the prowl, we scream for the characters to do the exact opposite throughout the piece.
This film also toyed with our expectations. While only a few frames of the whole movie show us something disturbing (like an asphyxiated teen looking out the window in a rocking chair), the work has us on edge and terrified the whole time. With long shots of a character alone in a hall, audiences are constantly expecting the killer to come into focus in the background. Whenever the character passes by a mirror, we expect to see the psychopath standing in its reflection. In one scene following the first murder, the housemother opens and closes a medicine cabinet enough times to give audiences a heart attack. Half the fun of this movie is waiting to see where the killer will show up, which as nerve-racking as it is frustrating, and never getting to actually know who the murderer is, keeping anyone from finding closure, allowing people to spend the rest of their evening in paranoia, convinced the killer is hiding out in their living room.
Overall, this film is definitely worth a rewatch this Halloween season. With compelling characters, interesting themes, and its ability to toy with the expectations of audiences, Black Christmas is one of the best Canadian horror films.
Editor’s Note: For more on Black Christmas, we recommend the following episode of the Sordid Cinema Podcast.