There is a variety of movies which, with some correctness, could be named the first American slasher. Psycho is a valid example, as is Peeping Tom. I see those more inspiration points for what was to come, and in my eyes, Black Christmas was the first true red white and blue slasher.
Directed by Bob Clark – whose A Christmas Story likely is the more familiar entry in his holiday œuvre – Black Christmas follows a group of sorority girls who, at the beginning of their Christmas break, starts receiving creepy phone calls. Soon, one by one, they begin to disappear.
Today, that ultra-simple premise has been done to death, but there wasn’t really anything quite like it 1974. The unseen killer (who may or may not be named Billy) is mostly concealed through the movie, and his voice is scrambled into an almost unintelligible rasp on the phone. Much like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, Billy is a faceless
blob (as Myers was known as), designed to be a screen on which to project your own fears. The eerie parts in Black Christmas are not those you see, but rather the ambiguous details which drip in through the film.
As opposed to many subsequent movies in the sub-genre, Black Christmas shows restraint. It is violent, but not even close to what we take for granted today. More interesting than who is killed is who the killer is, and what motivation (if any) he is operating under. That is never outright revealed, which makes the movie a whole lot more disturbing in the
it feels like somebody’s watching me sense. It’s a movie that could and should be watched more than once.
Scream Queen concept was also not a thing in 1974, and the mostly female cast work outside the genre’s future tropes. Star Olivia Hussey portrays Jess as a quiet, contemplative character, and even her brash friend Barb – beautifully portrayed by the late, great Margot Kidder – is even-keeled. The character closest to approaching any hysterics is Lt. Ken Fuller, which, today, is somewhat comical. (Let it be said, though: John Saxon brings it as brilliantly as he always does.)
Black Christmas maintains its slow, tense pace throughout, never succumbing to taking that one extra step over the top its successors soon would attempt. Who Billy is, remains a mystery, and that makes the movie that much better.
Meanwhile, in an alternate reality
Billy could have returned for a different holiday. When a Halloween horror concept was shopped around, it was briefly considered to be a vehicle for a Black Christmas sequel. Black Halloween never happened, and I assume few would be surprised what the concept was turned into. (For more, edify yourself with my Halloween 3 and Halloween 6 write-ups.)
Black Christmas was remade as a less than successful teen-scream in 2006. A completely re-imagined remake was released last week, though it seems odd to me that they decided to ride the Black Christmas name instead of something original. The movie has little to do with the original concept.