Essay: Black Christmas & Bob Clark Love

phone-blackchristmasBlack Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)
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Nestled in between the great giallo explosion (1960s – early 1970s) and the American slasher phenomenon (late 1970s – 1980s) is the great Canadian film that connects the two, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. Clark would go on to make another holiday classic, A Christmas Story, along with other notables like Porky’s, Rhinestone, Breaking Point and, yes, Baby Geniuses, but it’s his foray into the horror genre found in his early works like Black Christmas, Deathdream and Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things that are clear markers of his stylistic influence on cinema. So while it carries the giallo tradition of an unseen/masked serial murderer preying upon innocent young women, Black Christmas marks the turn into North American territory where things hit a whole lot closer to home.

It would be hard pressed, for instance, to not notice the influence of Black Christmas (as well as films by Mario Bava and Dario Argento) on John Carpenter’s Halloween. As Halloween ushered in a new era of horror in the United States, Clark’s Black Christmas didn’t exactly become forgotten but somehow it never really received the attention it deserves. And this is a shame because it’s truly the foundation for the nearly the next twenty years of horror filmmaking: the sorority, the questionable boyfriend, killer prank callers coming from inside the house, distrust of the home, ambiguous ending, and the discord between the good and bad girls.

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Black Christmas begins with its own homage to Italian horror with a tracking shot that scans the facade of a sorority house; what the camera shoes is the killer’s viewpoint. He enters into the attic and continues along with his barrage of what would still be considered today truly obscene phone calls. It rattles the sorority girls but they are more focused on leaving for the holidays or dealing with unwanted pregnancies to take it all too seriously…that is until a friend goes missing. From here it’s that glorious mixture of comedy and horror that Bob Clark manages to produce so very well (the drunken sorority mother is divine, Margot Kidder steals every scene, and John Saxon’s cop is the eager hero) as we go down girls getting murdered on the “who done it” road. Clark manages to take a story occurring during a particularly joyful time of year into dark waters by making the film very black, night time seems to permeate everywhere, with the jarring glow of Christmas decoration lights punctuating the frame. I don’t know why but I find this to be particularly frightening, it’s as if we’re being told not only is it not safe inside your house but it’s not even safe during Christmas!

Recently Black Christmas has been revisited, mainly due to its long-awaited Blu Ray release and the hideous remake we won’t discuss here, and that’s a very good thing. A bona-fide Christmas classic along with Clark’s A Christmas Story, Black Christmas is the pre-slasher, the post-giallo film that horror fans should flock to this time of year and on Halloween as much as any other cemented genre staple film we’re all too aware of.  And while you’re at it, watch Deathdream.

Long live Bob Clark!