by Evan J Peterson
This Sunday, join us for our SHRIEK holiday party at Naked City Brewery in Greenwood for Black Christmas! This 1974 Canadian horror film helped start the slasher film trend in North America, but there’s a lot more to it than there is for most of its knockoffs. Come for the drinks and the Babeland gift bags, stay for the horror film and the community discussion.
Tickets available here.
Stats on Black Christmas (1974)
Country of origin: Canada
Director: Bob Clark
Writer: Roy Moore
Major actors: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, Keir Dullea, Jon Saxon
Score: Carl Zittrer
Sexual Assault: obscene threats via phone
Major Protagonists: female
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test? Yes!
Black Christmas is a vital turning point in North American horror cinema. Released the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this Canadian film sets up many of the conventions of the slasher genre, though not all of them. While it’s debatable which are the earliest dyed-in-the-wool slasher films, Black Christmas is certainly a contender. There’s a sorority house, a previously safe suburban neighborhood setting, a mysterious killer, a final girl, a red-herring cat, a holiday theme, and a by-now-cliché urban legend that I won’t spoil here. This film predates many of the most iconic slasher/stalker films, coming before Suspiria, Halloween, Alien, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street.
There’s also social weight; characters struggle with alcoholism and abortion. In Canada, abortion became legal under certain circumstances in 1969, later having all legal restrictions removed in the late 1980s. The topic of the abortion becomes more and more central to the film during the second half. Jess (Olivia Hussey) makes the choice to inform her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) that she’s not only pregnant but unshakeable in her decision to abort. She risks his interference in her decision in order to make sure he’s aware, and interfere he does—but is he the killer? If so, has the abortion pushed him over the edge? These questions raised in the film actually explore male opposition to abortion, as opposed to women’s right to choose. Things escalate quickly during the last half of the film, with an ending that can’t be called a resolution, though the characters believe it is.
While women’s autonomy and safety is explored, the film doesn’t consistently empower women. Margot Kidder’s line, “You can’t rape a townie,” is particularly egregious in hindsight. Then again, her character is the naughty one. In a film that features a major character adamantly insisting on her option to abort, the “naughty” character means something quite different than it does in an American slasher film, wherein sexually active women are frequently the first to die.
This film isn’t really about the men. Men are major characters, but they revolve around the women central to the film. Men assist or interfere, but even the police are powerless to keep the female characters safe. Ultimately, it’s the final girl who must keep herself alive, but even then, well-meaning but oblivious male interference puts her once again at risk. Although Black Christmas is written and directed by men, it’s the women who come across as the most likable—even the belligerently drunk Margot Kidder ends up being someone I don’t want to see die.
On the subject of “seeing” them die, the film keeps the blood and gore minimal. Gore needn’t be an expensive special effect, but this film eschews the explicit rending of flesh seen in previous and subsequent horror films. The glass death scene is particularly poetic, with a splash of blood but no entry wounds. The film also sidesteps nudity, despite taking place in a sorority house with plenty of opportunity to see breasts galore. In these ways, it manages to show a degree of respect for the females on screen even while killing them off.
See you this Sunday, December 11, for SHRIEK: Black Christmas!
21+, please. Food and alcoholic beverages available on site, as well as day-of tickets.
Evan J. Peterson (evanjpeterson.com) is a college professor, author, and journalist. He is a Clarion West alum, and he received his MFA from Florida State University. His writing has been featured in The Stranger, BoingBoing, Weird Tales, Nightmare Magazine, Queers Destroy Horror, and TheBody.com. His books include The Midnight Channel, Skin Job, Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam: Gay City 5, and the forthcoming nonfiction book The PrEP Diaries. He lives in Seattle with his werewolf, Dorian Greyhound.