How Black Christmas Changed Slasher Movies Forever

Bob Clark's "Black Christmas” is a seminal slasher film that never reached the gigantic franchise levels of its contemporaries. But after two remakes and a pretty rabid fanbase screaming its praises, the general public has finally been recognizing what a brilliant work the film has been. To reference my description when I featured the film as part of our Daily Stream series around the holiday season, "Black Christmas" is, and has always been, a radical examination of the way society devalues the safety of young women, and one of the most prominent examples of showcasing women who refuse to conform to the standards of polite, conservative society. I'm not saying the film's revolutionary feminism is what prevented the film from becoming a major slasher franchise, but I'm also not not saying it.

Bob Clark has a vice grip on groundbreaking Christmas cinema, having also directed "A Christmas Story" in 1983, but "Black Christmas" changed the slasher genre as we know and love it. The film follows a group of sorority sisters including Jess (Olivia Hussey) and the mouthy and frequently inebriated Barb (Margot Kidder) as they begin winter break on campus. Out of nowhere, the women begin to receive anonymous, harassing phone calls. They don't think much of it at first but after their sorority sister Claire (Lynne Griffin) goes missing and a local girl is murdered, the girls realize their lives are in danger. The film was shocking, innovative, and set the standard for just about every slasher film that followed.

Every Day Can Be A Slasher Day

Following "Black Christmas," Bob Clark was set to work with John Carpenter on his first film for Warner Bros. Carpenter asked Clark if he wanted to do a sequel, and he declined, but noted that if he ever did do a sequel, it would be set at Halloween. When you think about a slasher movie, there's a good chance your brain defaults to one of two settings: the summer or Halloween. The boom of summer camp slashers in the wake of "Friday the 13th" and the unparalleled success of John Carpenter's "Halloween" inspired not just knock-offs, but filmmakers using those films as the blueprint for everything else moving forward. Knowing how heavily "Halloween" was inspired by "Black Christmas," it's undeniable that holiday slashers owe everything to Bob Clark's masterpiece. 

Here's just a tiny sample of the number of slasher films set around holidays.

  • Halloween
  • April Fool's Day
  • My Bloody Valentine
  • Silent Night, Deadly Night
  • Night of the Demons
  • New Year's Evil
  • ThanksKilling
  • Santa's Slay
  • Leprechaun
  • Uncle Sam
  • Mother's Day
  • Father's Day
  • Easter Casket
  • Valentine
  • Blood Rage

And this is barely a fraction of the holiday slashers that exist, and doesn't even include slashers set around large life events like "Prom Night" or "My Super Psycho Sweet 16." The holiday association is easy, though, and "Black Christmas" deserves credit for so much more than just proving a gimmick could be a success.

Establishing Tropes We Still Use Today

From a stylistic perspective, "Black Christmas" also included a new horror movie technique that would be used in countless slasher films that followed. Throughout the course of the film, we frequently see the events of "Black Christmas" through the eyes of the killer, Billy, by switching the camera to Billy's POV. We see what he sees, we creep as he creeps, and the stakes feel so much higher when we can clearly see what he's plotting but are unable to do anything more than scream "NO! BARB! LOOK OUT!" Carpenter loved Clark's POV usage so much that he utilized the technique in the opening of "Halloween" while little Michael Myers crept through the house and killed his sister.

The film also established another amazing horror trope, often misattributed to the Carol Kane film, "When A Stranger Calls." When the police finally take the girls seriously and tap their phone lines, they are horrified to discover that the threatening phone calls they've been receiving are coming from inside the house, revealing to them what the audience has already known — that Billy has been hiding inside the attic. The trope had long existed in urban legends, but "Black Christmas" is the first film to ever put the story to screen. The phrase has even crossed over from being horror specific, and used frequently in social justice circles to describe internalized oppression.

On January 14, 2022, the fifth "Scream" movie will debut, a meta-slasher franchise that prominently features threatening phone calls coming from inside the house, one of the most pro-woman legacies in horror, and stories typically set on or around anniversaries. "Black Christmas" is a timeless triumph, proven by its relevance after almost 50 years, and its continued impact on slashers even today.