It begins at a sorority house. A coterie of young women are enjoying a few drinks at a party before the Christmas holidays. We see the house from the outside, through somebody’s eyes: He’s ambling up to the window, trying to peer in, and we can hear him mouth-breathing heavily. Inside, a few minutes later, the girls take a call — another obscene rant from “the moaner,” as one of them calls the panting, sniveling, oinking voice on the other end. The girls shrug it off and retire to their rooms. One of them finds someone there waiting, someone not so friendly lurking in the recesses of her closet. She won’t survive the night. The others won’t make it to New Years.
If you have even a passing familiarity with slasher movies, all of this will no doubt seem familiar. The college girls, the point-of-view shots, the knife-wielding maniac: these are the cliches of the slasher. But when, forty years ago this weekend, Black Christmas hit theaters, there was no such thing as a slasher movie. The scene described above had never been done before. The director of the film, Bob Clark, is best remembered today for his raunchy teen comedy, Porky’s, from 1981, and from there he would soon go on to make one of the most popular and beloved holiday movies of all time, 1983’s A Christmas Story. But Clark’s most important contribution to movie history was his early horror masterpiece. Some movies start trends. Black Christmas started a genre.
Proto-slashers Psycho and Peeping Tom are very much about their murderers, sympathizing with them even as they do horrible things — in fact that’s central to why both are so fascinating. But Black Christmas isn’t interested in getting to know the killer: his identity is never even revealed. (That’s part of the reason why the recent remake is so terrible — it added an elaborate and totally unnecessary backstory to explain away the murders.) The killer in Black Christmas butchers young women, we can only assume, because he’s uncontrollably compelled to, but we can only guess at the reasons. As a result he stalks the place like a quintessential boogyman: a faceless, nameless killer whose motivations remain obscure. We like to understand serial killers because we like to account for their evil. Black Christmas is scary in part because it doesn’t afford us that luxury.
One of the most remarkable things about Black Christmas is how the familiar slasher arrives fully formed. The basic mechanics are in place: The killer, never seen directly, lumbers around the sorority house picking off his (almost exclusively female) victims one by one, often in inventively gruesome ways, while the local law enforcement proves pretty much useless. The character archetypes span the usual gamut from motherly lush (Marian Waldman) to outspoken rebel (Margot Kidder), each brutalized in turn. (Though, not incidentally, here the virgins aren’t spared: Lynne Griffin’s undefiled beauty is the first casualty, despite the rules Scream would later delineate.) Even the killer’s grotesque phone calls would become a fixture of the genre, weaved into everything from Don’t Answer the Phone! to When a Stranger Calls.
Roger Ebert dubbed a certain strain of slashers “dead teenager movies,” and Black Christmas, with its clutch of co-eds variously stabbed and strangled, falls squarely into that category. But unlike so many of the lesser replications that would follow in its wake, Black Christmas expends time and effort developing its leads into characters rather than merely victims. These girls feel like actual people, with their own well-defined interests, desires, and needs; and when they start dying you actually care. The central man, meanwhile, is the killer, and he isn’t even granted a face — and those who are, from hapless cops to unhinged boyfriends, are fools and jerks.
Slasher movies are often written off as mindless (because they encourage us to hoot as disposable, two-dimensional teens are butchered) or, worse, sexist (because they often encourage us to leer at young, attractive women in various states of undress), among other things. Maybe that’s fair, but the critique doesn't hold water in regard to Black Christmas. It’s significant the faceless killer is a man hunting down young women: smart, fiercely independent young women in college, who drink, misbehave, have sex, and (in one case) want abortions. This is the ugly side of masculinity reigning terror on women who get to do what they want. It’s been forty years since Black Christmas was released and the movie still seems profound - if you let it marinate long enough. It isn't jolly, but it's fun in precisely the way most holiday movies aren't. That's a good enough reason to turn it on after the caroling ends.
Photos by Warner Bros. / Everett Collection