Is Black Christmas the first slasher film? If you ask what was the first slasher film you’ll get a lot of different answers ranging from the obvious Friday the 13th and Halloween to Peeping Tom and Blood Feast and all the way back to Thirteen Women which came out in 1932.
Another film that will get cited, probably more than a few times is the original 1974 version of Black Christmas, written by Roy Moore (Riel, The Last Chase) and directed by Bob Clark. Clark was already known to genre fans for Deathdream and Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, and would go on to direct Murder by Decree, Porky’s, and an entirely different take on the holiday, A Christmas Story.
The film opens with point-of-view shots of an unknown person as they prowl around and eventually break into the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house. Inside the sisters are winding down a party and getting ready to leave for Christmas vacation. Barb (Margot Kidder, The Amityville Horror, Superman) is on the phone arguing with her mother but almost as soon as she hangs up another call comes in, an obscene one that ends with a death threat.
The police don’t take the call seriously, but after Claire (Lynne Griffin, Strange Brew, The Amateur) vanishes and a girl is found dead in a nearby park Lt. Fuller (John Saxon, Enter the Dragon, The Bees) begins to pay their case more attention. Black Christmas might not fully fit the description of a slasher it’s certainly an important link between them and the more mystery-oriented giallo. Coincidentally, Saxon also starred in one of the first giallo, Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much/The Evil Eye.
From the opening scenes from the killer’s POV to the sorority house setting, Clark and Moore deliver several plot elements that would become slasher staples. A predominantly young group of potential victims, a holiday setting, “The calls are coming from inside the house!”, and given the tax shelter funding behind so many of the classic 80s slashers, a Canadian setting.
However, its urban setting and slower pace ensure that Black Christmas has one foot in the giallo as well. It puts more effort into building up potential suspects with subplots such as the conflict between Jess (Olivia Hussey, Romeo and Juliet, Turkey Shoot) and her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gatsby In Connecticut: The Untold Story).
There’s also more involvement from those outside the group of sorority sisters such as Lt. Fuller and Claire’s father (James Edmond, Devil Girl from Mars, The Littlest Hobo). Falling somewhere in the middle, part comic relief part suspect is the house mother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman, Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, Phobia). Her entrance looking like a female version of The Penguin complete with a high hat and cigarette holder is one of the film’s memorable lighter touches.
Oddly, Black Christmas lacks two things frequently associated with both the slasher and the giallo, flesh and blood. Despite the fact the film was obviously going to land an “R” rating just for the language used in it, the filmmakers decided to keep the exploitable elements to a minimum. This may have reduced its appeal to fans on the drive-in circuit when it was released, but it gives the production an overall more serious feeling.
Unlike a lot of similar films, Black Christmas benefits from an incredible amount of talent, both established and just starting their careers among the cast and crew. Apart from those already mentioned, Art Hindle (The Brood, The Void) and Andrea Martin (The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius, Cannibal Girls) also have roles. And that talent certainly was put to good use elevating the script and direction, not to mention the cinematography by Reg Morris (Food of the Gods, Murder by Decree), above many low-budget horror films. The quality of the performances similarly gives the film an extra layer of intensity.
While it may not be the first slasher, Black Friday is integral to the genre’s development as well as one of the first Christmas horror films. For both of those reasons as well as the fact that it is one of the best horror films of the 70s, Black Christmas is a film all horror fans should see.