Back in 1996 Wes Craven released the first in a trilogy of films that seemed to push the ‘slasher’ sub-genre into new and unfamiliar territory. Indeed, Scream and its following two chapters rather sagely reinvented the weary clichés and all too familiar paradigms that have defined such films, but more importantly they successfully satirized the narrative quirks and idiosyncrasies that make them so overwhelmingly familiar to an increasingly savvy movie-going public. Subversion, it seemed, was the way forward – but where did it all begin? Where did the hoards of virginal sorority girls come from? Why are relatively minor transgressions such as pot-smoking and pre-marital sex the kiss of death? The answer it seems, does not wear a mask.
The Bloody Patriarch?
It’s a common assumption amongst horror aficionados that John Carpenter’s Halloween (1977) is the bloody patriarch of the slasher family. It is, after all, imbued with the characteristic hallmarks so successfully parodied by Craven two decades after its general release. Indeed, it perpetuated the myth that good girls in knee length pop-socks who conscientiously do their homework and avoid the pitfalls of casual sex are likely to survive the ensuing bloodshed, while those who skip their ‘how to survive a horror film’ classes inevitably feel the sharp end of a knife/axe/chainsaw/random utensil within the first 60 minutes of screen time. True, the focal point of Carpenters career is perhaps the most iconic of the genre, the innovator of the classic horror paradigm, and in some minds the catalyst for an array of slasher sub-genre derivatives, but in truth it didn’t start in Haddonfield, Illinois, at all. It started in a sorority house in Toronto, Canada, some three years earlier.
Black Christmas: The Starting Point
It’s all here – threatening phone calls, a big ole’ house, a psycho in the attic and an ever dwindling group of sorority girls. With hindsight, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas employs familiar looking stock characters to drive an archetypal narrative construct; after all, sexually active co-eds, faceless killers and fundamentally hapless cops have been the genre’s stock-in-trade for the last thirty years or more. But on December 20th 1974 it was unexplored terrain for those who initially paid to see it on the big screen.
Indeed, retrospective parallels are easily drawn with later film franchises such as Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and the aforementioned Halloween, but it’s the residual quality of Black Christmas that sets it apart from its bedfellows.
Here, the antagonist is a barely tangible presence, unseen and indefinable, more often than not a deranged voice on the phone or an ominous shadow in the attic or – at its worst – a hand grasping at a fleeing sorority girls hair. Unlike distant cousins Michael, Jason and Freddie, his modus-operandi would appear to be devoid of motive, fuelled only by an insatiably misogynistic rage. Such randomness – a long way from the often premeditated, well orchestrated and highly ritualistic killings of later sub-genre slasher’s – added to the film’s maddening sense of ambiguity help steer it away from the more conventional narrative constructs employed elsewhere. Had it been made now, Black Christmas may have been one of those films that heeded Craven’s message, but as it stands it’s the starting point for a sub-genre.