The Rewatch

The Low-Budget Canadian Film That Inspired 'Halloween' and Launched an Entire Horror Genre

black christmas
Olivia Hussey in 'Black Christmas.' | Warner Bros./Ambassador Film Distributors
Olivia Hussey in 'Black Christmas.' | Warner Bros./Ambassador Film Distributors

Stop me if you've heard this slasher setup before: There's a large, creepy house with many dark shadows, perfect for jump scares and surprise attacks. The cast is mainly young, attractive women who are hunted by a crazed killer during the holiday season. And the killer himself is more metaphor than man, an unstoppable, unexplainable personification of masculine id with a singular purpose: to kill all the pretty women.

You could describe any number of horror films with these characteristics, but if you were trying to remember which film had them first, Halloween might come to mind. That would be wrong. Released four years before the more widely known John Carpenter classic, the 1974 low-budget Canadian horror film Black Christmas directed by Bob Clark -- who would go on to make A Christmas Story and Porky's -- was actually the first slasher that originated many of the elements we've come to associate with the genre.

black christmas
Warner Bros./Ambassador Film Distributors

The story details of Black Christmas are deceptively basic, with a psychosexual struggle bubbling just below the surface. A sorority house is being watched, with innovative POV shots of the killer, listed in the credits as 'The Prowler,' casing the house, taking advantage of the open front door and lax security to get a full view of the women. He eventually climbs into the attic, where he begins his killing spree while taunting the women with menacing phone calls.

Jess (Olivia Hussey) bears the worst of them, the killer taunting her for choosing to get an abortion. Hussey plays Jess with fascinating dignity. She chooses not to let an accidental pregnancy disrupt her ambitions, and in the process, angers her much more traditional boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea). The narrative sides with Jess, though, and she quickly becomes the film's heroine.

Black Christmas creates a primer for many of the slasher victim archetypes -- the virgin, the bitch, the final girl -- but it maintains a sense of genuine empathy for its female characters, despite their flaws. A clear standout in the cast is Barb, played by a pre-fame Margot Kidder, the Lois Lane of the '70s and '80s. Barb's acidic tongue is only enhanced by her constant drinking. While den mother Mrs. MacHenry's (Marian Waldman) drinking is played for pity laughs, Barb's drinking seems to mask a deep-seated self-loathing that she deals with by lashing out. But her sorority sisters, especially the elegantly maternal Phyl (Andrea Martin), are emotionally intelligent enough to know it's a front. That is, except Clare (Lynne Griffin) -- the sorority's resident good-girl virgin and the first to die onscreen. After being taunted by Barb, Clare goes up the stairs, never to come down again.

black christmas
Warner Bros./Ambassador Film Distributors

The film seems to have much less empathy for its male characters. In a way, the unseen killer in Black Christmas, and Peter, the male villain we do see, are a biting critique of the more toxic forms of masculinity. The killer alternates between childish tantrums and extreme brutality, as if just being in the presence of women throws him into a mental frenzy. Once he kills Clare by suffocating her with plastic wrap, he puts her in a rocking chair, and later we see he's placed a baby doll in her lap. He hides from women until he kills them, and upon their death enjoys having full control of their bodies.

Similarly, Peter becomes increasingly possessive of Jess upon finding out she's pregnant, even calling her to cry and guilt her into marrying him. When Jess explains her boyfriend's behavior to the investigating detective of the murders (John Saxon), he doesn't hesitate naming Peter as a suspect. Within the eternal logic of Black Christmas, the desire to control women is readily seen as villainous.

Halloween, the spiritual successor to Black Christmas, has echoes of these same themes. Young Michael Myers picks up a kitchen knife in 1963 after watching his teenage sister Judith fool around with her boyfriend. When he sees her later, this time alone and topless, he stabs her to death. The camera lingers on her nearly nude body, blood spreading over her chest. At the end of the flashback, it's a shock for the killer to be revealed as a young boy in a clown costume. But it's even more shocking to arrive in 1978 to find that Michael Myers still acts upon his instincts with a child's impulsiveness. He returns to Haddonfield to hunt Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. Like the killer in Black Christmas, Myers is clearly acting on a base desire to punish and control the bodies of women. He kills men as well, but they are treated as less valuable casualties in his single-minded pursuit.

black christmas
Warner Bros./Ambassador Film Distributors

While Black Christmas plays more like a gruesome fable about the ominous ugliness of male entitlement, Halloween leans more into the darkness haunting suburbia. In the town of Haddonfield, where there are pretty white houses all in a row and no one locks their doors, evil can still be born. But the film makes pains to cement Myers as an otherworldly evil. Much like the killer in Black Christmas, Myers remains obscured. We can see his body, but we don't get a clear view of his adult face. He's constantly referred to as "the boogeyman" and the films the characters are seen watching, such as The Thing and Forbidden Planet, seem to be reinforcing the notion that Myers is an alien, an intruder, an anomaly.

This fact weakens David Gordon Green's recent Halloween, which grapples exclusively with the events of the 1978 film. The 2018 reboot attempts to explore Laurie's trauma while simultaneously doubling down on Myers being an inhuman monster with no understandable motives. There is no recognition of the misogyny and psychosexual implications of his killings -- there is only the resolution that he is "not like us" and therefore, must die. It feels like an inadequate bookend to a saga inspired by a film that was unafraid to suggest any man is capable of monstrous gendered violence (though we suspect this isn't the last we'll see of Michael Myers on the big screen). And despite its haunting ending line ("Agnes, it's me, Billy…"), Black Christmas never tells us who the killer is. He's hardly anything more than a silhouette, a pair of eyes, and a voice on the other end of a telephone line, his virtual anonymity implicating the humanity and real-world possibility of his actions.

There's no doubting that Black Christmas had all the advantages of being first of its kind. The film stands as the mother of the modern slasher. It was able to make its own rules, and subsequently created a template for the films that came after, including the deliciously satirical Slumber Party Massacre films. Nowadays, we approach slasher films with full knowledge of their formulas, getting our thrills from imaginative kills and watching people fight for their lives. But when Black Christmas was released in 1974, these conventions were still new and fresh. Even now, the film endures -- with a legacy that includes a 1976 novelization, a predictable 2006 remake that misunderstands the original, and a strong cult following -- thanks to its fascinating character work, timeless scares, and chilling plausibility.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Jourdain Searles is a writer and podcaster whose work has appeared in Bitch Media, Paste Magazine, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @jourdayen.