director Bob Clark
Bob Clark directed the modern Christmas classic A Christmas Story in 1983, a film that has gone on to play 24 hours back-to-back on cable television and to have cracked the canon of best loved films of the Yuletide holidays. Clark made a lot of films in his career, including such titles as Porky’s (1982) and Baby Geniuses (1999), but little do probably most people know but that Clark made another Christmas classic of another kind nearly a decade before.
Clark’s Black Christmas is one of the original “slasher” films, a genre of masked or unkillable menaces murdering young adults in brutal but creative ways. Clark’s film is frequently cited as the first of the genre, though the film has many antecedents including Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960). It was after happening upon watching My Bloody Valentine (1981) that my interest was piqued for the genre and I decided to queue up some of the films of the period in somewhat chronological order.
What’s particularly interesting about Black Christmas is that while it’s a genre film, it also sort of isn’t adherent to genre because so many of what would become standard expressions, sequences, and elements had yet to be codified. In a lot of ways, it’s very inventive as far as the concept of a sorority house full of nubile soon to be corpses could be. The killer is never actually unmasked, nor seen even directly (is he even wearing a mask?) At the end of the film he remains undetected and at large, and while this would be a common aspect of the genre, set up to beget sequels, here it is just an eerie comment on the failure of society to discover him.
We see through the killers eyes, hearing his breathing, accompanied by some musical motif (albeit a dissonant one), ideas that would be picked up and reused ad nauseum in the genre. The nudity (doesn’t exist) and the gore (somewhat minimal) belie the film’s entrenchment in the genre it would ignite. The film, if anything, plays on the edge of the mystery of who is killing the women, harassing them in dirty phone calls, and whether it is someone they know or not. It’s a mystery, sort of. A who’s doing it.
There are a number of familiar faces here including Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, and John Saxon to name a few. There is an amusing amount of boozing going on. Both Kidder’s character and the house mother are pronounced sots. And like many films, it’s a bit of a time capsule back to the mid 1970’s.
Because the killer is never named, no backstory, except his maniacal rantings about “It’s me, Billy” and some probably tragic home life, we never really “know” the why of this happening. In that sense, it’s much more grounded in reality. Part of the eventual cult of personality around the slasher killer anti-heroes is the often elaborate and eventually fantastical qualities of their origins, which make for more in depth grist for fans in sequel after sequel, but move these deathless beings further and further from the horrors of actual spree or serial killers who essentially they depict.
The slasher film eventually disinterested me over time, though I came of age during its heyday and had a reasonable relationship with it throughout my younger years. But as “horror” it’s come to be less of a “thing” for me, so I haven’t wound up watching many in the last decade or so.
This is something that I will change shortly. I’ve got a number of films queued up. We’ll see where it takes me.