Forgotten Masterpieces #3: Black Christmas (1974)

“I’m not so big on Christmas,” is what I usually tell people around this time of year. But perhaps it would be more accurate to communicate that I have a distaste for the obscene kitsch that accompanies the year’s biggest celebration of mass consumerism. Sure, the colorful lights are nice, and I have absolutely nothing against christmas trees. The biggest culprits are obviously the advertising industry and Hollywood movies, which act in concert to shamelessly and endlessly overwhelm us with the worst kind of ersatz sentimentalism. Not so Bob Clark’s oft-overlooked holiday-themed classic Black Christmas, which should be right at the top of everyone’s Christmas list.

The film is often cited (if it’s mentioned at all) for its historical value, its defenders pointing out that journeyman director Bob Clark was way ahead of John Carpenter’s 1978 hit Halloween with his innovative holiday-themed slasher film. But although there is a kernel of truth to that statement, it should also be obvious that the things that made Halloween such a popular and influential blockbuster are absent in Black Christmas. First of all, there is none of the ostentatiously virtuoso cinematography that makes Halloween the masterpiece of stylization that it remains to this day. Instead, Clark’s film has a naturalistic quality that hinges on moments of atmosphere and stillness. It contrasts the increasingly fragile sense of community among the female students who are stalked and threatened with the isolation that defines the unhinged killer.

Secondly, Black Christmas keeps the viewer’s sympathies firmly aligned with the women whose lives are threatened by this maniac, and -crucially- with the first victim’s relatives, whose increasingly desperate search for their daughter lends weight to the first death, which thereby comes to loom large over the rest of the narrative as it develops. By contrast, Halloween and its many, many imitators tend to transform the intended victims into objects for us to stare at as they are being stalked, pursued, and threatened by the killer, thereby aligning us with the aggressor’s point of view. The implicit misogyny of the resulting formula was parodied most effectively by Brian de Palma in the opening scene of his masterpiece Blow Out (1981), where every sexist cliché in the genre book is thrown at us. As early as 1981, it was apparently obvious to someone as astute as De Palma that slasher movies were all about ogling women as fetishized sex objects before taking sadistic pleasure in seeing them suffer.

Black Christmas then offers a fascinating road not taken for the slasher film: a thriller in which it becomes all but impossible to identify with the killer, who is presented within this narrative as an entirely twisted, ultimate “Other” whose actions have devastating consequences for the very human (if hardly innocent) group of women he targets. By penetrating, infiltrating, even desecrating the safety of their home, he is neither transformed into a mythological figure, a status that characters like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger quickly claimed, nor are we able to identify with his point of view. Instead, we react along with the all-too-human main characters played by Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey and Andrea Martin, who find that existing tensions in their group become magnified once they realize they are being treated as prey by a male hunter. In other words: it becomes a metaphor for the way in which friendships between women are systematically sabotaged by the male gaze that creates envy, distrust and hostility.

But metaphors and symbolism aside, Black Christmas is also a film that never fails to surprise with its many tiny moments of human observation and its quixotic, playful attitude. Expectations that have since become ingrained by years of reductive genre exercises are consistently defeated, and even if the resulting film isn’t the kind of auteurist exercise in which every aspect of the film has been constructed with an eye for absolute symmetry and formal precision, it is the kind of classic that deserves more credit and wider acknowledgment. And since the film is available in an absolutely gorgeous blu-ray edition for next to nothing, there’s no reason why this Christmas wish shouldn’t come true.

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