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“Black Christmas” Remains Emblematic Of Canadian Horror

Tuesday, December 1, 2020 | Opinion


“Hey, quiet, it’s him again… the Moaner,” bellows Oliva Hussey, the coeds of the sorority swarming around her, as though death lingered in the air, its acrid scent morbidly drawing them in. “Hello,” she says once more. “Blah, blahh, ack, heick,” a raucous cacophony of noise from the other end. Barbara (Margot Kidder) quips, “He’s expanded his act,” to which Claire (Lynne Griffin) responds, “Could that be one person?” The paradigmatic slasher victim, Claire is naïve, chaste, and tormented by the other girls, namely Barbara whose rejoinder “No, Claire, that’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir doing their annual obscene phone call” agitates her. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” hums in the background.

The Moaner starts to squeal like a pig, one at the nub of exsanguination. After pigs are drained, they are thrown into a vat of boiling water to remove the hair, and much like a pig nearing its slaughter, the Moaner begins to squeal thunderously. He laughs. “Pretty cunt. Preeetty cunt. Let me lick it. Let me lick that pretty, piggy cunt. Pretty cunt. Lick it.” The dialogue is crude, graphic. Barbara seizes the phone and jests, “Listen, pervert, why don’t you go over to Lambda Chi, they could use a little of this.”

“You want my fat cock, don’t you” the Moaner replies.

“Oh, why don’t you go find a wall socket and stick your tongue in it, that’ll give you a charge.”

“I’ll stick my tongue up your pretty pussy.”

“You fucking creep!”

“I’m going to kill you,” the Moaner vacantly says before the call is disconnected. The heavy, mechanical dial tone overwhelming the scene.

BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), adapted from a speculative script penned by Montreal resident A. Roy Moore, was released on December 20th, 1974 by Warner Bros. Pictures. Bob Clark, by virtue of his directorial prowess, was later offered the opportunity to direct perennial holiday staple A Christmas Story (1983), but BLACK CHRISTMAS is unequivocally different than Clark’s family holiday staple. Inspired by an unspecified slaying in the Canadian City of Westmount – most likely a barbarous case of matricide wherein George Webster bludgeoned his mother to death in the dark of the night – BLACK CHRISTMAS follows the sorority sisters as the “Moaner,” later identified as Billy, butchers the sisters left in the house over the holiday break.

BLACK CHRISTMAS was momentous insofar as it set the framework for future slasher texts: Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1979), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), all formative films, are just three of the myriad horror movies whose sheer existence was engendered by Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS. However, while those films are products of the United States,  BLACK CHRISTMAS is distinctly, manifestly Canadian. Indeed, Canada, and its horror films, were at the heart of the world in the seventies. The 1970s were an era of uncertainty, technological flourish, and languishing film development, but Canada had a preeminent interest in the independent film market, which is to say, the horror market. Canadian horror was important because the films didn’t just adapt older texts, they adapted older fears. Seminal Canadian slashers had wholesale influence, making use of the techniques, narratives, and subversive content that, at the time, were considered to be too avant-garde for horror films. Canada was a prolific producer of some of the best horror films of the time, and BLACK CHRISTMAS, in every way, was – and still is – the definitive Canadian horror text.

Before 1960, when the National Film Board of Canada focused exclusively on documentaries, their antiquated polices and systems of production had a difficult time reconciling with the demands and climate for narrative film production; the first narrative films premiered in the late 1950s, but horror wouldn’t appear until the 1960s. Canadian horror output in the ‘60s was still nominal at best, with fewer than a dozen films being produced and distributed for mass audiences. But in 1974, Canada sought to change the filmmaking process. The Capital Cost Allowance (CCA), a tax shelter where investors could deduct their investment in a certified Canadian film from their income, was raised prodigiously from 60% to 100%, and on that account, a boom in Canadian film production occurred. Though it only had a lifespan of seven years (the tax breaks eroded and dematerialized in 1982) these financial incentives were responsible for the production of droves of horror movies during the period: Prom Night (1980), Terror Train (1980), and My Bloody Valentine (1981) being among the most exceptional.

Canadian horror films endured until the early to mid-1990s, when the direct-to-video market saturated consumers with gaudy, amateurish horror films, depreciating the genre and constraining its remunerative nature. Profitability collapsed, and it was not until the new millennium – with the emergence of digital filmmaking – that Canadian horror recovered, shepherded by contemporary, post-modern horror films such as Ginger Snaps (2000). Digital technology created a profitable climate for growth and gave rise to a new generation of auteurs working within the horror genre. The Canadian horror industry, again, became of the most interesting in the world.

As mentioned previously, Canadian cinema, in its own distinct way, adapted older fears. BLACK CHRISTMAS is emblematic of the fear of womanhood, the fear of senseless violence, and the perennial dread innate in the nature of misanthropic killing. Yet, despite these notions, all of which have been defended convincingly and considerably, BLACK CHRISTMAS is conclusively an adaptation of the long-established urban legend, “The Babysitter.”

Urban legends magnify societal, global, and transnational fears and anxieties. The natural transition for Canada was to progress from the oral tradition, while simultaneously retaining its potency and innovation, and apply what worked well within the insulated sphere of storytelling to a filmic medium. “The Babysitter,” then, and by extension Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS, recounts the story of young women, within the domestic sphere, receiving menacing phone calls that are later traced to a caller presently within the house. Indeed, though the text has changed with every decade, BLACK CHRISTMASretains the legend’s most enduring line: “The calls are coming from inside the house.”

Urban legends often negotiate the politics of everyday fear and anxiety, and in “The Babysitter’s” case, it has been suggested by folklorists that the deaths in the house represent the babysitter’s failure as a future homemaker and mother. The killer’s positioning upstairs – above the female sitter – signifies the traditionally dominant role of men in sexual and power relationships. It’s no coincidence that Billy spends most of BLACK CHRISTMAS upstairs in the attic. In parallel with “The Babysitter,” BLACK CHRISTMAS can indeed be interpreted as a fictional paradigm that examines the rapidly shifting roles for women in the 1970s, whether they are Canadian or not. Horror films, much like these perennial, goosebump-inducing legends, explicate the undercurrent of fear and unease that shapes behavior. BLACK CHRISTMAS, like “The Babysitter” and other older texts, has achieved an enviable longevity.

Visually, director Bob Clark and director of photography Reginald H. Morris fundamentally grasp the idea of “writing in movement,” insofar as what is filmed is equally as important as what is not; the killer, for instance, is never seen, save for a close up of their lurid, brown eye through a crack of a door, with Oliva Hussey’s reflection imposed over the pupil. The film is lensed in conventional holiday reds and greens, with nightmarish and oppressive bulbs lighting most every scene; Visually, BLACK CHRISTMAS earns its title. Morris uses the camera to his advantage, with static shots of Claire’s corpse rocking in a chair in the attic (a scene that the film grimly ends on, no one finding her body upstairs), punctuating the more dynamic, fluid shots where Jess (Oliva Hussey) is chased through the house by an assailant shrouded in black. BLACK CHRISTMAS, like Peeping Tom (1960) before it, popularized the killer point-of-view that would become a mainstay of slasher films.

The sound design has a cadence, too, as though it were an aural narrative in its own right. Carl Zittrer, the film’s composer and musical director, said in an interview that “he created the bizarre music score for the film by tying forks, combs, and knives to the strings of his piano so the sound would warp” as he struck the keys, whereupon he would “distort the sound further by recording audio tape while putting pressure on the reels of the machine to make it turn slower.” The sound design is enduringly frightening and timeless as it relays the ambition not only of the filmmakers but of the entire production team to chill the marrow of the audience.

Canadian slasher films, more so than their Hollywood counterparts, take filmic risks because, in spite of the narrative potency, a horror film often fails to resonate if it is not, above all else, scary. Bob Clark penetrates the interiority of the audience, extracts their repressed perturbation, and exploits it to great effect. When Hollywood films fall into a cycle of complacency, Canadian films take risks, in both the technique and narrative, and deliver the requisite jolts and relevance. The most curious aspect of BLACK CHRISTMAS, though, is how in retrospect, the film looks irrefutably “Hollywood.” The production, distribution, and audience were uniquely Canadian, but from a contemporary eye, BLACK CHRISTMAS appears to model itself after seminal American slashers. Yet, those elements considered “Hollywood” were, in fact, appropriated from other international production epicenters. The film feels like a Hollywood slasher because it had an enormous, unprecedented impact on the framework for future slasher flicks.

BLACK CHRISTMAS was structured as a response to the languorous nature of ’70s Hollywood horror, and Hollywood responded by structuring horror films in response to Clark’s film. Though it were an Ouroboros, there is an infinite capacity for film to borrow, expand, and build upon the techniques and stories of others. For film to grow, and for exports to scare, borders need to collapse, and the availability of art, of all kinds, needs to surge. It has in the past, and should it continue into the future, Canada seems primed to frighten the world beyond compare once more.

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