How the Black Christmas of 1974 changed the Slasher genre
How Black Christmas helped create and define the genre, while ignoring the rules its successors would adhere to.
Often cited as the original slasher movie, Black christmas helped create and define the genre, while ignoring the rules to which its successors would adhere. Released in 1974, Black christmas initially received mixed reviews and criticism for its violence, which was seen as senseless and exploitative. It is now considered a cult classic and has been cited as inspiration for other genre films, such as John Carpenter Halloween.
Inspired by the urban legend of “The babysitter and the man upstairs”, Black christmas tells the story of a group of sisterhood girls who begin to receive harassing phone calls. Although the calls are initially dismissed as a harmless but disturbing prank, Jess (Olivia Hussey) worries after a friend of hers goes missing. Her fears intensify after the body of a thirteen-year-old girl is found in the park, and the phone calls become more vulgar and violent. Two more of his friends are murdered before Jess receives the horrific news that the calls are coming from inside the house.
Menacing phone calls from inside the house are a familiar trope in horror, but what makes Black christmas standing out from stories of this ilk is how the film thrives on fear of the unknown. Black christmas does not reveal the identity of the killer, leaving his motives and story deliberately ambiguous. Unlike the films he would inspire, neither the audience nor the characters ever learn the truth about Who stalking girls, or why they’re being targeted. Only a few details about him are revealed during the course of the film – the name “BowlSees a peeking eye through a door and hands holding a hook, and several frightening shots. Rather than spoiling the mystery, these little moments add to it and intensify the overall unsettling tone of the film. This approach, in turn, helps Black christmas set itself apart from other subsequent slasher films while simultaneously laying the groundwork for what made the genre so successful.
Although elements of Noir Christmas are left intentionally vague, one thing the film doesn’t shy away from is its portrayal of female characters and the misogynistic world they live in. Their concerns about their missing friend are dismissed until Lt. Fuller (John Saxon, A Nightmare On Elm Street) begins an investigation, and Jess’s boyfriend becomes more and more off balance after learning that she is planning to have an abortion. Despite the backlash and the occasional misogyny that Jess and her friends endure, the girls themselves are never ashamed of their actions, and the narrative doesn’t condemn them for it. Jess is one of the first final daughters, and the candid portrayal of her sexuality and bodily autonomy helps her stand out from her successors, many of whom were considered good virginal girls. It is common for slasher movies to punish those who participate in activities such as alcohol consumption and premarital sex, but not in Black christmas. By having a killer with unknown motivations and a last sexually active daughter, he manages to sidestep the clichés that would dominate the genre for years to come.
Almost fifty years after its release, Black christmas remains an influential piece of horror cinema, inspiring many films and spawning two inferior remakes. It was able to establish several tropes and themes of the genre, without being limited by the conservative rules that later films would follow, making it a timeless and essential horror film. In all its simplicity, it manages to be both empowering and terrifying, even decades after its release.
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