Bob Clark’s maniacal 1974 classic is perhaps less remembered today for its own caliber as cinema than for the hell it wrought on the American film industry. Here, I refer not to the necessary, provocative, disobedient, slash-and-burn kind of hell the film wrecks with its wonderfully imprompriotous filmmaking, but the vile, corporate, franchise-baiting kind which turned horror filmmaking in the ’80s into the most cringe-inducing attempt to market the genre to the lowest common denominator. But that’s less a slight to the film’s quality than a marker of the sheer deluge of sequel-itis this proto-slasher unleashed (Tobe Hooper’s masterfully malevolent The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the other obvious culprit on that front). It’s a tough reputation to live up to. No film short of John Carpenter’s ur-slasher Halloween could stand up and stare at the massacre of common decency the slasher represented in the ‘80s and remain un-mortified at the devastation its inferior slasher-children had caused to the intelligence of the horror landscape. Still, nu-metal will never halt me from claiming that Faith No More is the most defiantly demented rock band of the past 25 years And Nickelback only occasionally makes me feel guilty for liking Soundgarden and Nirvana. I’m not about to slander a film for the sins of its descendants. Besides, those antic, anxious perspective shots strangling Black Christmas like garrote wire sure made John Carpenter happy when he weaponized them for Halloween four years later. And if we have Black Christmas to thank for John Carpenter, then who really cares how good this film is? It has already done its due diligence to the cinematic landscape.
But Black Christmas doesn’t require any future presence, good or bad, to work, and it functions best not as some sacrosanct effigy for classic horror or blasphemous totem to new horror. It works best in the here-and-now of the film screen, sharpening its knives and shaking your nerves. If we can do the film the service of pretending the ensuing four decades never happened, Black Christmas remains a bracing ice pick to the kidney straight from the underbelly of the frigid North (Canada, in this case). Even better: its proto-position to the slasher bomb that began in earnest six years later bequeaths the film with the freedom of succumbing to none of the genre’s usual foibles. As the slasher template didn’t exist yet, Black Christmas is more than liberated to carve out in its own direction, preferably on a canvas of human flesh.
Later slashers certainly stripped this film for its cauldron of college youths, the precious few left for the Christmas holiday at an unspecified Canadian university in this case. But few of this film’s children (really, only Halloween) can so fluidly navigate negative space as a reprieve from the frantic violence on display elsewhere. Even fewer could muster an antagonist that is little more than a man with a throat case calling the teens leaving garbled, adenoidal messages threatening rape via the very tone of his voice. Not to mention, thematically, the film is flayed of even an ounce of the moral conservatism that swallowed horror in the ’80s. There’s no sexual puritanism to be found, nor any sense that the film defeats or disdains its female characters (the protagonist of which is not only not a virgin but is pregnant and considering an abortion, something the film never once judges her for, a wrinkle unimaginable in the US even during the film’s release schedule, one year after Roe v. Wade). Although hardly an explicit feminist statement, the virginal pale-face is the first to go in a stirring retroactive refutation of slasher puritanism, and the pregnant-out-of-wedlock final girl is joined in the film by the most full-bodied and best side character, a shockingly complete characterization of a girl who wields her sexual agency like a badge of honor, played by the soon-famous Margot Kidder.
And, more importantly, we have craft, visual tactility, and judiciousness on the part of the filmmakers to exhibit a distinctly Carpenter-esque gift for pressurized minimalism. Conjured is a film that sits in anxious but nonchalant repose, cautiously screwing and lurking and tightening, knowing when to gnaw in and when not to, rather than cutting its teeth on anything that walks in its way. Relative to the other vanguards of the slasher genre, Black Christmas is a little on the timid side stylistically, which is its only slip from masterpiece status. It neither slinks with sinister intent (Halloween), writhes with apocalyptic anguish (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), or installs an art exhibition for the end of the world (Suspiria, Deep Red). But when you judge it against the fat rather than the diamonds (and I recognize that with horror, diamonds are cut out of bone), Black Christmas is at least at the tip-top of the second-tier (see: The Burning).
Clark’s eye for quotidian detail is impeccable, and when his leisurely camera saunter mutates into something like a prowl, you feel the bloodcurdling determination of a cold-blood killer unnervingly getting a rise. Incidentally, the killer is never glimpsed outside of POV and in semi-abstract, unrevealing shots, resulting in a thoroughly unvarnished take on evil thoroughly unobstructed by pedantic thematic significance. That sense of “theme”, that need to submit to the pressures of “thesis” and find “meaning” or “purpose” in your film, was a blood-vein Carpenter drew only sparingly from in Halloween and then opened-up fully in his later, more baroque attempts to examine the very nature of “evil” in the world, engorging himself on melodramatic exposition about the nature of right and wrong. In comparison, Black Christmas has no compunctions whatsoever about not explaining itself. In the final moments, when nothing has been answered and the fate of the final character is left hanging in the attic, the film has no preconceptions of having answered anything about the state of the world for us. There’s no need for theme. The unexplained emptiness of the filthy, lust-ridden, wildly untamed and undulating camera movements is soul-sickening and fervidly turbulent on its own. This is horror that strives not on superimposing narrative meaning but creating affect and significance in the aesthetic prism of style, distilled in the very sensations you feel watching it.
Unlike Clark’s vastly more famous A Christmas Story on the other side of the yule log, Black Christmas is never visually nor aurally defanged. It draws on visual acumen and pitch-black comedy rooted in the incompetence of law officials to take college girls, bimbos in their eyes, seriously. Likewise, although there’s only a moment or two of genuine visual splendor (a giallo-limned, crystalline beauty of a murder involving a glass unicorn turned from translucent to opaque with blood), even that scene reveals the film’s devious layer of barbed humor pointed right at the holiday season’s throat. It’s all the more inspired for how unstated it is, how unaffected the comedy is; 2015’s Krampus was its own fantasia after a fashion, but unlike that broad, somewhat pandering comedy with a depressingly literal interpretation of holiday horror, the comedy in Black Christmas is always sinister and brutal enough to be mistaken for a dark-hearted trip into the miasma that was ‘70s horror. Halloween’s icier older brother is one lump of coal well worth unwrapping in the morning from under your (preferably rotted-out) tree.