‘Black Christmas’ – The Seminal Proto-Slasher That Set the Mold

Black Christmas is the prototype for the modern day slasher film. The film takes place on a holiday and features a group of sorority girls and their house mother. One by one they are murdered by an unseen killer who terrorizes them after each murder with obscene phone calls. One of the girls, Barb, played by Margot Kidder, is the template for the teenagers who would be hacked, slashed, and diced by the likes of Michael, Freddy and Jason. She drinks, has a foul mouth (in a hilarious scene, she tells the desk sergeant at the police station that the number to the sorority house is Fellatio 2880) and is more than likely sexually promiscuous. Olivia Hussey plays Jess, the final girl. For those of you who don’t know, the final girl is the last girl to either live or die in a slasher film. She is also the one who finds all or some of the bodies of the previous victims. You could also say that Hussey was the prime example of how the final girl should look as she is very beautiful in a wholesome sort of way. The killer, Billy, is never seen and the film is left wide open for a sequel the same way Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween were left open. This is not to say that it’s a bad film or that its predictable. It is quite a good film and the only way it is predictable is that we’ve seen the exact same thing time and time again in the movies that followed it.

The straightforward plot follows a sorority house terrorized by an unseen stalker as he murders the residents one by one and torments them with disturbing phone calls. But the simplicity proves deceptive, as Clark maximizes suspense with the unseen killer’s creepily disjointed voice and jarring POV shots.

With its virginal final girl Jess and foul-mouthed rebel Barb, the film introduces character types that became requisites of the slasher formula. And the ambiguous identity and motive of the killer known only as Billy generate mystery that horror franchises would echo for decades after.

While the Gorier imitators grabbed headlines, ‘Black Christmas’ achieves terror through tone, atmosphere, and suggestion. There’s a chilling randomness to the murders that taps into our fear of evil existing with no rhyme or reason.

Without resorting to sensationalism, Clark simply pieces together the standard ingredients in fresh ways to cultivate dread. In doing so, he left an outline successors followed like ritual, cementing ‘Black Christmas’ as a seminal work that spawned an entire subgenre.

This is a very good film and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know just exactly where their favorite slashers got their start. Billy was their teacher and he was a good one.