F*CK, SCARE, KILL: An Autopsy of Teen Horror BLACK CHRISTMAS

F*CK, SCARE, KILL: An Autopsy of Teen Horror BLACK CHRISTMAS

Horrorific content by Jessica Gomez on December 22nd, 2020 | Culture | Christmas, Killer, Christmas - Slasher, Teen

A monthly column dissecting teen horror films.

John Carpenter’s biggest influence for Halloween was not the hit that Carpenter’s film was. In fact, most casual horror fans have never seen Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian horror Black Christmas. (Yes, the same Bob Clark who directed A Christmas Story.) After years on the backburner, it’s now lauded as one of the best horror films of all time - and we’re not just talking Christmas horror. Though it is considered the first holiday horror film, the plot for Black Christmas has little to do with Christmas itself. The holiday only serves as a conduit for a killer’s access to his victims.

A group of girls living in a sorority house stay behind during Christmas break. During the break, a mysterious obscene caller torments the girls in the house through a series of strange and sexually aggressive calls that escalate to death threats. When those don’t prove to be enough to satisfy the caller, he begins to murder the sorority students one by one in a myriad of gruesome ways. The killer, who remains anonymous for most of the film, is one of the creepiest in history, inducing both psychological and physical torture. The kills aren’t gory, but they are relentless. The first murder, later featured on the film’s poster art, is one of the more notable kills in horror. But the film is best known for being the mother to modern slashers, spawning one of the most popular and profitable subgenres in horror.

When a Stranger Calls often gets the credit for the “caller is in the house” trope that we’ve all heard, from urban legends to meta horror films. But Black Christmas was the originator, incorporating this incredibly scary legend into the screenplay - the one and only feature film A. Roy Moore ever wrote, which he said was also inspired by an actual string of murders in Montreal.

We are given sporadic but lengthy POV shots from the killer, another innovative effort. But what gives the movie its staying power are its memorable characters and the incredible acting, a scarcity for indie 70s movies. For a serious slasher there are scenes with great comedic timing, and Margot Kidder - who would go on to star in The Amityville Horror - stole the show with her performance as strong, bold, and hilarious Barb. The strong character development here is not something most slashers delve into. These critical elements that have made it a cult classic can be attributed to Clark, who turned what could have been construed into a sleazy exploitation into a meaningful and affecting trailblazer.

The film was profitable, garnering about $4M in international revenue from a $620,000 budget, and it became the third highest grossing Canadian release of its time. However, the release was limited in America - and it was released under the name Silent Night, Evil Night in select theaters. Mainstream reviews did not fare well; because the film was the first in the slasher subgenre, most critics didn’t know how to respond. A slated television release was postponed due to an actual mass murder in a sorority house, which would later be revealed to be the work of Ted Bundy.

Halloween is not the only film to draw inspiration from Black Christmas; the film has been an influence on countless sorority house slashers. A 2006 remake featured teen queens of the time, Michelle Trachtenberg and Lacey Chabert, but even a deranged backstory for the killer failed to live up to its predecessor. A 2019 remake put a new #MeToo era spin on it, but even a fresh take on the classic couldn’t save it from abysmal reviews. 

The original revolutionary film, whose visuals are as gorgeous as they are haunting, helped cultivate the horror genre into what it is today, and opened the door for all Christmas-themed horror. A rare novel by Lee Hays was released in 1976 based on Moore’s screenplay with even more development of plot and characters. I think I know what just made my Christmas list.

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