Here’s the issue. I’m among the most avid horror fans I know, and the genre’s most classic, scariest features don’t terrify me one bit. In particular, the ’70s can be considered as a sort of fertile breeding ground for new horror ideas. Not all of them were widely adopted into the popular consciousness, but they were certainly creative. Now, many of these films are idolized, not only as the most successful, but as the scariest horror can be.
Whether I’m watching “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Last House on the Left” or even one of my personal favorites, “Halloween,” I am consistently more interested in the craft than I am strictly terrified. The body horror of “The Exorcist” and the ghostly apparitions of “The Amityville Horror” play for laughs, not scares. These films, for all their fearless innovation, have aged far from gracefully.
And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Whenever I suggest watching a horror movie with friends, the titles that come to the top of our list are rarely older than 15 years (with the notable exception of “Silence of the Lambs”). Horror, for all of the wonderful, electric, introspective things it has meant to me, is also ephemeral in its generational impact. Of course, there is an exception to all these generalizations about a decade of horror movies: 1974’s “Black Christmas.” It is a film that not only stays resoundingly unsettling to this day, but is a lost horror gem that institutionalized myriad slasher tropes.
“Black Christmas” follows two nights at a sorority house during the holiday break. We can hear nothing but faint cheerful voices from within the house and unsteady, ragged breathing from a masked lurker right outside. The ground is snowy, the air is frigid and the stalker prowls around without any clear purpose. That’s why he’s so frightening. Whether for personal vendetta or gleeful masochism, he could be stalking the girls inside for any number of reasons or none at all.
Before “Black Christmas,” horror had rarely placed a camera in an attacker’s point of view. Every murder that happens doesn’t feel as detached and punishing as much cinematic violence does. The brutality is kinetic and impossible to look away from because we as viewers seem, on some level, to partake in the stabbing and the strangling. More than this, there is a sense of inevitability to the stalker’s rampage, a feeling that the audience is not only responsible for his aggression but also helpless to resist it. Three features of “Black Christmas” — the panting breathing, POV mask shots and obscene phone calls to foreshadow the killer’s rampage — were borrowed by none other than “Halloween” three years later. From there, they took off to horror and thriller flicks for years afterword.
One of the few elements of “Black Christmas” that did not deeply pervade the parade of serial killer stories of the ’80s is probably one that has aged the best. These slasher films almost always had a “final girl,” which turned into an archetype of sexual punishment that killed off the promiscuous and only allowed the virginal to survive. However, “Black Christmas,” even in 1974, transcended this dry and sanctimonious stereotype. In fact, its protagonist Jess is pregnant during the events of the film. She is an indelible character and among my favorites in horror, not because she follows common horror archetypes, but because she defies them and acts only on her own agency.
Aside from the film’s modest influence on whole horror subgenre, it holds up well today for one reason: It’s terrifying. It’s one of the few older horror movies that provoked me to scream, to jump back in my seat and to peek at the screen only through interlocked fingers. “Black Christmas” is unrelentingly tense, a wound machine that threatens to implode at any given moment. But to label the movie as a slow-burn would be an oversimplification. “Black Christmas” upholds its promise for violence with murder sequences that are breaktaking in their ambition and unforgettable in their gore.
The greatest thing about “Black Christmas?” It is both a Halloween and a Christmas movie. That means it is acceptable to watch from Oct. to Dec. — like right now! If you’re like me, and have never been frightened by older horror movies, I can’t recommend this enough. If you’re also comfortably into the holiday season but can’t resist some decent scares, this is more than ideal.