Image: Warner Bros.
Disclaimer: Spoiler alert, even though this film was made before the internet existed.
Released in 1974, Black Christmas saw a modest commercial reception in the US, despite at the time being the highest grossing Canadian film ever. But in the 40 plus years since its premiere, the film has achieved cult status, with many praising it as one of the earliest slasher films and for its progressive feminist themes that continue to influence the horror genre today. And, arguably to a lesser extent, paving the way for the once-in-a-while horror Christmas film like Gremlins or 2015’s Krampus.
Black Christmas was directed by Bob Clark, who would later direct the ever-quotable and inescapable A Christmas Story, and helped establish the slasher film standard: a group of young people being hunted down by a masked killer. You know the deal. The setting for this film is a college sorority house around Christmas, where the students are getting ready to leave campus for the holidays. Starring a young Olivia Hussey and Margaret Kidder, the film has a classic premise, but treats its female leads as multi-dimensional characters, something that hadn’t been done much before. It even passes the Bechdel Test.
Having a predominantly female cast, the film dealt with sexuality in a casual and realistic way. In the film, Jess (Hussey) tells her boyfriend that she’s pregnant and wants to get an abortion. He pleads with her against it, but she doesn’t budge. She eventually kills him after mistaking him for the killer (oops) and is rendered the only survivor, becoming one of the first ‘final girls,’ a trope later made popular by characters like Laurie Strode in Halloween and Sidney Prescott in Scream. The film is partially considered a prequel to the former, after Clark revealed plans to make a sequel that takes place during Halloween. And while traditional ‘final girls’ display a type of ‘purity’ (or reluctance to engaging in vices like drinking or sex), as observed by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Jess survives despite her sexual experience and without the help of a man.
Additionally Margot Kidder, who would achieve further stardom in The Amityville Horror and as Lois Lane in the Superman series, is a standout. Her brash, cigarette-puffing-whiskey-drinking demeanor earned her praise for her performance as sorority sister Barb. Bold in nature, challenging the killer who continually taunted the girls over the phone and refusing to submit to authority figures, she’s a refreshing contrast to the ‘damsel in distress’ trope. But while there’s a bit of feminist subtext in the film, it lacks intersectionality. The cast is almost entirely white.
The film’s ending is left open — the killer remains unmasked and the murders unsolved. It doesn’t reveal what his motives were or make an attempt for empathy. Future slasher films would seemingly murder victims as punishment for engaging in vices, but part of the Black Christmas legacy is reminding the viewer that evil is blind. A remake of the film released in 2006 was critically panned, so if you’re tired of the traditional Christmas canon, give the original one a look.