Black Christmas and the Influence of Bob Clarke
“If this doesn’t make your skin crawl, then it’s on too tight”
With this tagline sets off a chain of events in movie history that would change the face of horror films forever.
Bob Clark’s Horror Career
After his first two feature length movies, the long lost The Emperors New Clothes which starred B-movie icon John Carradine and his follow up She-Man: A Story of Fixation did relatively slow business at the box office, Bob Clark thought he should try and make something with more mass appeal. As he studied in Miami University he met fellow up and comer Alan Ormsby where they put thier heads together to make a low budget Zombie movie. Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things came along in 1972 and it really shows some tremendous talent at work.
“Children” is a very creepy little film with some of the most atmospheric scenes found in low budget films at the time. Shot on a shoestring the film really does crank up the tension the longer the running time goes with a great last 30 minutes which sees our group of amateur actors (both in real life and their characters in the movie who are also headed by Ormsby himself) being terrorised by a gang of the undead who have taken offence to the groups robbing of graves and incantations of black magic spells (why won’t people learn to leave the dead well alone?)
After the small success of “Children”, Ormsby and Clark went to work on their next collaboration. Deathdream a.k.a. Dead of Night was a zombie film with a difference. This sees the death of a young soldier only to turn up at his parents house that night. Seemingly strange and distant, the soldier plods along in life with his parents fearing that he has been traumatised by the war. Little do they know that thier son is undead and he has been murdering people sporadically throughout the film. Again the tension mounts towards the finale where events come to a head.
There is some great shots in the film, one of which being the POV shots of the soldier as he is hitch hiking his way home at the beginning of the film which Clark would use to better effect later in Black Christmas. The film is also notable as one of the first films to utilise the special effects techniques of a young Tom Savini. Deathdream has the ability to tell an entertaining horror story along with social commentary to make a comment about the Vietnam war. Again Clark was showing himself to be a name to keep an eye out for.
Ormsby and Clark would collaborate once more with 1974’s Deranged which was based on the exploits of serial killer and necrophile Ed Gein. Clark was originally supposed to direct however he was concerned at the graphic nature of the film and he was also scared that he would be pidgeon holing himself as “that horror guy” so he declined to direct with Ormsby taking over the reigns and Clarke taking on production duties under an assumed name. Deranged is one of my favourite horror films from the 70s and it tells a very close rendition of Gein’s crimes. This one also has early effects work from Savini, much of which was originally cut out for the films various theatrical and home video releases.
At this point Clark had fallen in love with Canada and he became an official Canadian citizen. There was also a tax relief system in effect in Canada which saw a thriving movie industry, most of which were horror films. Roy Moore’s script for Black Christmas was based on a true murder case which had happened in Montreal over the Christmas period. Clark would make suggestions to improve the script, many of which Moore fought at the time however after seeing the finished film he realised that he was wrong. One of these changes was the killer’s identity. Clark wanted to keep this ambiguous with no revelation whereas Moore was unconvinced. The fact that we don’t find out the killer’s identity is one of the things people remember most.
Black Christmas sees a girls sorority house being terrorised by an unseen killer. The start of the film shows a party happening in the house while the stalkers point of view looks for a way into the house. Once the killer has found a way in the girls receive a disturbing phone call. Supposedly they have been receiving obscene phone-calls over the past few days. The call that the girls received were censored in some prints with the removal of some certain “C” words but most DVDs now contain the uncensored version.
After the call one of the girls, who is leaving to spend Christmas with her family, goes upstairs and is attacked while the party continues on downstairs. She is suffocated with a plastic bag and she is dragged up to the attic of the house. Unbenownst to the rest of the girls they continue on with thier lives and the rest of the film sees the girls being picked off variously until the end “final girl” is the one who has to survive the killer.
The duration of the film offers a few lines of possible explanation that a deranged person has escaped from an asylum called Billy so we assume this is the killer however we are never told explicitly. There are also some hints along the way that the killer may be someone closer to home.
During the final reel the tension is cranked masterfully and especially for the time it shows just how far ahead of the game Clark was. Black Christmas really is the main film that laid the groundwork for all others to come. This film sets out the formula of the different types of character that would be rehashed in future slasher movies. The Quiet and likeable “final girl” played by Olivia Hussey, the wise ass slutty one played by Margot Kidder and all of the different shades in between those characters that would make up the majority of the bodycount.
Also watch out for John Saxon who plays a character not too unfamiliar to horror fans as you will see similarities here with his part as Sheriff Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm St.
The Impact of Black Christmas
Black Christmas was released to theatres in October 1975 and it failed to light the cinematic world on fire. Instead this would be a slow burn. Critically the film was met with generally positive reviews and a good reception with horror fans. Over the course of the next few years a cult following would ensure the film would live on in infamy.
During one of Clark’s many visits to film schools to pass his experiences and knowledge on to the newer generation of film makers he was asked about a possible sequel. The film fan stated that Black Christmas was one of his favourite films. Clarke revealed that he wanted to make a sequel based around another season of the year where the killer would be once again tormenting the survivor from the first movie. This film fan was a young John Carpenter and that answer would resonate deeply in his subconscious. Carpenter studied every aspect of what made Black Christmas successful and he would develop his own seasonally based horror film that did light the movie world on fire in the form of “Halloween”. Carpenter himself has stated that he was heavily influenced by Clarks film which brought more people to rediscover it.
With the release of Halloween, a huge influx of copycats would jump on the bandwagon to make other seasonally based serial killer films. It was only a matter of time (actually less than a year) for the cycle to come back to Christmas once again and true to the form of the slasher bandwagon we were treated to not one, not two but a whole barrage of yuletide bodycount movies. The term “slasher film” was coined as a negative reference to the films that were coming out in the wake if Halloween. These films would be gorier and would focus more on the terrorisation aspect which the critics despised. “Slasher films” almost became a dirty word in movie terminology and the critics were quick to demonise this genre of film for the breakdown of society. Many feminist groups and critics (one of whom was respected film critic Roger Ebert) would cite these films as misogynist and would petition for these films to be banned or taken out of theatres.
One of these was Silent Night, Deadly Night (ironically a title that Black Christmas was filmed under) where the killer dresses up as Santa and goes on a killing spree. Parents groups were enraged that the killer donned the red and white suit and they protested outside cinemas showing the film. Another of these films is Christmas Evil which is decidedly more Tongue in cheek but was no less controversial. This movie has a character who genuinely believes he is Santa Claus (much like Miracle on 34th Street without the bodycount).
This “Santa” rather than befriending children and making people feel good about christmas takes the Judge Dredd route of Christmas and takes it upon himself to punish bad people.Then we have Don’t open till christmas which is a British slasher movie that takes the formula and somewhat turns it on it’s head. Now someone is killing people who dress up as Santa in ever gory fashion with one in particular being castrated. This one is memorable in that the “final girl” isn’t the prissy moral one but the stripper.
There has also since been more modern films with a christmas setting including the Black Xmas remake, Santa’s Sleigh starring professional Wrestler Bill Goldberg as a killer Santa and the more recent Krampus. The difference between these other festive frighteners is that with Black Christmas the Christmas setting is relatively unnecessary for the telling of the story. You could take the same story and transplant it to any other time of the year and it would still work.
The influence of Black Christmas can be seen in practically every slasher movie, even modern takes on the genre which still use the basics that Clark laid down in his Blueprint from the POV shots to hide the killers identity, to the obscene phone-calls which indicate more threat to come and the red herrings that have come to epitomise the slasher movie. It is undoubted that without Bob Clark and Black Christmas the horror genre may look completely different than it is today.