Trent Film Society presents: Black Christmas (1974)

TFS presents the next screening in our fall line-up: Canadian filmmaker Bob Clark’s legendary horror film Black Christmas (1974)!

Black Christmas
Black Christmas (1974) movie poster

Since December is upon us, and we’ve shown a fair number of horror films so far this term, perhaps we should explain our reasons for showing a slasher flick at this time. It could be because Halloween is in the fall, and we did a slew of horror films then. Another reason is that this week marks the transition between fall and winter. Another reason is that we don’t show enough Canadian films at TFS, and Canadian films as a whole don’t get enough exposure. Clark, who is best known for his lowbrow comedy Porky’s (1982) and partially redeemed himself with A Christmas Story (1983), made it early in his career when slasher films had just begun to peak. Although the film was a success (it made back several times its budget, which was fairly small), it has been largely forgotten about now. Like many films from the 1970s and 1980s, it was remade in 2006, which was critically panned.

Today, the film has been reassessed as an important influence on the genre and credited with originating many of the conventions of the genre. (I’ll get to that.)

Films invoke memories in us. Black Christmas reminds me of being in a video store in high school. (It wasn’t that long ago.) I went there fairly often with my girlfriend to rent movies (Netflix had not become popular yet). While browsing, I noticed she was looking at what to me looked like the cover of some horror B-movie: a slasher flick set around Christmas? I put this in roughly the same category as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and wondered why she was even bothering with it, since she had good taste in films – probably better than mine. She explained that she had heard of this low-budget Canadian film from her father, who saw it when it originally came out in theatres (!) and said it was one of the scariest films he had ever seen. We later rented it and even though I generally only watch horror around Halloween, I enjoyed it: my taste in horror cinema tends towards psychological thrillers (hello, Clarice…) more than outrageous gore-fests, and that describes this film. Perhaps “scary” isn’t the right word – I don’t find many films to be scary – but it was intriguing and definitely different from what I was expecting.

Black Christmas is a strange film. It’s nominally a horror film, but it’s also set at Christmastime, which provides an ironic background for the events of the film. It also has comedic elements, which seems unusual for a slasher flick. Perhaps it would be better categorized as a (no pun intended) black comedy. The film seems to treat alcoholism as something of a gag, which probably wouldn’t fly today. There are lighthearted moments and also atmospheric, creepy scenes. It sounds like the premise for some lurid exploitation film from the 1950s – sorority sisters are stalked by an unknown terror! – but its feel and overall look are definitely all 1970s. Some of the content was edgy by the standards of its time. The heroine is pregnant and wants to have an abortion, for example, which is plot-relevant but isn’t treated with excessive angst or moralizing. The film depicts young women in a realistic way, something that the slasher genre is not known for: they drink and swear and do everything that young people do. The college-aged women in this film aren’t stupid; the heroine Jessica knows she’s being stalked by a killer, and she is properly wary. The police aren’t useless like they are in most films; they believe her and try hard to catch the killer and use clever tactics to lure him out in a cat-and-mouse game.

Not unlike Psycho, the plot concerns an unknown psychopath who hides in an attic. Like The Silence of the Lambs, he taunts the heroine by harassing her with phone calls. (You know those creepy phone calls where some guy just breathes heavily?) The film drops false leads about the identity of the killer. Is it Jessica’s boyfriend, the conservatory pianist who’s prone to emotional outbursts? She suspects so. How does the killer always know when she’s at home to harass her? (Spoiler: the calls are coming from inside the house!) Here, we can see a precursor to countless films like When a Stranger Calls (1979) that exploited this trope/urban legend. One way the film disguises the killer (again reminiscent of Hitchcock) is by filming from his perspective. Like The Silence of the Lambs, there is a tense standoff in a basement. Do the police get the right man in the end? Like many great horror films, it deals in ambiguity, and that makes it interesting. If not anything else, the film has originality.

Certain cast members stand out to contemporary viewers: Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet, 1968) is the star, and Margot Kidder (Superman, 1978) also appears in a supporting role, but the rest of the cast are unknowns. It’s impressive that this film was made at all: Bob Clark simply liked the script and it became something of a vanity project for him.

TFS is showing Black Christmas this December 2 at Artspace, in conjunction with that organization. Popcorn and drinks will be available, and it’s free!