Black Christmas: The Godfather of Slasher Genre

|Finn Odum|

Artwork by Thom Robertson

John Carpenter’s Halloween is a cornerstone of the slasher genre. It’s one of the most influential and well known horror franchises, inspiring countless sequels and knock-offs. It’s everywhere in horror culture: The hockey-mask wearing Jason of Friday the 13th is based on Michael Meyers. Halloween appears in Wes Craven’s meta-slasher Scream, when Randy Meeks (Jaime Kennedy) uses it to illustrate the “rules” of slasher movies. Then there’s Trick ‘r Treat, a Halloween-themed anthology featuring a masked killer and plenty of gory imagery. Halloween is an important film in the history of slashers. But it wasn’t the first. We only have Halloween because of a little Canadian movie called Black Christmas, starring a faceless killer stalking sorority sisters just days before they leave for winter break.

Black Christmas helped construct the slasher formula in a manner that hadn’t been seen in the early 1970s. Back then, the only other film close to its format was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was released earlier that year. Though Tobe Hooper’s seminal cannibal flick contributed to what we now know as the slasher genre, Black Christmas was the inception of the serial killer’s home invasion on film. Drawing from “the babysitter” urban legend, Black Christmas’s killer is hidden within the house from the start of the film. He terrorizes the sisters in their place of comfort. There’s something different and terrifying about being stalked in your own home as opposed to outside in the elements. If you can’t feel safe in your house, how can you ever hope to stand your ground against a murderous psychopath out in the world?

Yet, there’s more to the slasher formula than just the home invasion. Similar to the many movies that came after it, Black Christmas’s killer remained unseen for most of the film. Point of view shots establish his gaze and force the audience to watch as he kills his victims in increasingly gruesome ways. This pattern repeats in subsequent slasher films, where the audience becomes a witness to the violence through the eyes of the perpetrator. Black Christmas also includes the prototype for the “final girl” in the character of Jess (Olivia Hussey), whose fate is left up to the audience at the end of the film. The last of her sorority sisters to survive, Jess spends the film running around and beating her ex-boyfriend with a fire poker. Her presence is enough, though, to establish a pattern: the shapeless, faceless killer almost always leaves one victim alive.

Black Christmas was met with mixed reviews upon release, with some criticizing the pointless violence and others lauding the “killer inside the house” twist. Despite its relative cult status, director Bob Clark never went through with making a sequel, despite having an idea or two on how to develop it. In a conversation with John Carpenter, Clark said the sequel would follow the killer as he escaped from an insane asylum and stalked the residents of his former town. Like the original, this movie would take place on another beloved holiday: Halloween.

Even though we’ve circled back to Halloween, that’s not where the Black Christmas influence ends. Point-of-view shots are now a slasher staple; the opening shots of Friday the 13th and Halloween are filmed from the killer’s perspective. The murderers are given little backstory, if any at all, a slasher trope that is often ruined by unneeded sequels or remakes. And who could forget the long string of final girls left behind by faceless killers in countless films. We can thank Bob Clark for Halloween’s Laurie Strode, who inspired the likes of Nancy Thompson (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Sidney Prescott (Scream), and Valerie Bates (Slumber Party Massacre).

Taking a step away from the vaguely Halloween related influences, Black Christmas started another slasher trend: holiday killers. The genre began with movies like Christmas Evil, To All a Goodnight, and Silent Night, Deadly NightTo All a Goodnight is the closest to the Black Christmas format, while the other two follow killers obsessed with becoming Santa Claus avengers. Branching even further away from Christmas was the Canadian film My Bloody Valentine, a personal favorite that tells the story of a psychotic miner who terrorizes a small town on Valentine’s Day, as the title suggests.

You can trace the influence of Black Christmas beyond early ’80s slasher movies and holiday horrors. Friday the 13th took influence from Halloween while also inspiring the killer campground trend, leading to Sleepaway Camp and, to a larger extent, Evil Dead. Without Evil Dead we wouldn’t have the 2012 meta-horror Cabin in the Woods, one of the best horror movies of the last ten years. For a visual representation, check out the map below.

Created by Finn Odum

Compared to Halloween, Black Christmas doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The genre’s formal techniques and conventions owe a lot to this movie’s silent slasher narrative and its point-of -view shots. And let’s not forget that Black Christmas is the movie that reminded audiences that even their homes aren’t safe. There’s always some place you haven’t looked: an attic, a basement, or a closet. When’s the last time you checked your crawl space?

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Black Christmas screens at the Trylon from Friday, December 13 to Sunday, December 15. Purchase advance tickets and learn more about this film and our “Yuletide Horror” series here.

He Sees You When You’re Sleeping

Artwork by Dan Murphy

|Finn Odum|

Santa Claus is an American Christmas staple. As soon as Halloween passes, department stores pull out red and green decorations and radio stations start playing Christmas carols. TV networks air every Christmas movie imaginable, including a wide variety of Santa Claus origin stories and adventures. To the dismay of many parent-teacher associations, some of these movies are Santa Claus slashers, including 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night.

Normally, I would understand not wanting children to see one of their favorite holiday heroes as evil. That said, can we all just stop for a moment and agree that the concept of Santa Claus is terrifying? Santa’s reclusive. He lives up in the North Pole with only his wife, eight reindeer, and an army of elves who exist to do his bidding. Santa works the elves year round, forcing them to make toys that he’ll eventually deliver to children worldwide, who he has allegedly been watching all year. Then there’s the matter of Santa literally breaking into homes to drop off gifts (provided the ritualistic milk and cookies are set out). In any other scenario, this would be a crime, but we give Santa a pass in the name of Christmas magic.

There are a number of killer Santa movies that identify the bizarre nature of his backstory. They accomplish this partly by removing Santa from the suit. By making the killer some guy in a Santa costume, these films corrupt the image of Jolly Saint Nick, but they also insert a distance between the villain and the actual Santa. For example, Christmas Evil, a 1980 post-Halloween slasher, follows a man obsessed with Santa Claus as he enacts revenge on those who hate the Christmas spirit. And the atrocious 2017 film Once Upon a Time at Christmas, depicts a Santa Claus killer murdering residents in a small town according to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” 

Then, there’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, where the “Santa” kills anyone he deems naughty. Billy Chapman, the film’s protagonist, is traumatized as a child after his parents were murdered by a man dressed as Santa Claus. His grandfather tells him to be afraid of Santa, who will punish the naughty no matter how small their offense. Billy internalizes this and eventually takes on the killer Santa mantle when he grows up. If you put aside all the murder, the most terrifying part of the movie is when Billy asks a little girl if she’s been naughty or nice just after he’s murdered a couple in the next room. She tells him she’s been nice and he gifts her a utility knife (the murder weapon). 

Because of its vicious portrayal of a killer Saint Nick, initial reactions to Silent Night, Deadly Night were so potent that the movie was removed from theaters. As one reviewer put it, public fury stemmed from the “blasphemy of turning America’s best loved institution into a slasher.” Mickey Rooney said, “I’m all for the First Amendment, but … don’t give me Santa Claus with a gun going to kill someone. The scum who made that movie should be run out of town.” 

Billy Chapman’s cinematic legacy lived on in four sequels, all of which departed from Santa Claus imagery. The second and third movies followed his younger brother Ricky and are noteworthy only because of Eric Freeman’s off-the-wall performance as Ricky. The fourth and fifth movies departed from the Chapman saga in favor of other Christmas-themed stories. In a humorous turn of events, former Silent Night, Deadly Night naysayer Mickey Rooney starred in the final movie. Apparently, as long as Santa was out of the picture, Rooney was at peace with corrupting Christmas. 

Silent Night, Deadly Night wasn’t the first movie to feature a killer Santa Claus. Christmas Evil and To All a Goodnight both predate Silent Night, Deadly Night and feature killer Kris Kringles. Both flew under the radar of angry parents due to limited release or lackluster promotion. In the case of Silent Night, Deadly Night, the short clips used in the TV ads did not indicate the killer wasn’t actually Santa. Traumatized children asked their parents why Santa was taking lives instead of leaving toys. Film studios learned that you needed to outline explicitly that the killer wasn’t actually Santa to appease paranoid parents. 

Once Silent Night, Deadly Night was pulled from theaters, concerned adults lost interest. Studios continued to make Santa slashers, though none attracted the same level of attention as Silent Night, Deadly Night. These films’ central characters were advertised as impostors who’d gone mad and taken the name Santa Claus as their own. None of these films are particularly good, though that’s not saying much when compared to Silent Night, Deadly Night. Today, slayer Santas are nothing more than a gimmick. There are other things in media that parents worry about, leaving studios to crank out B-grade Santa horror flicks every year. Some, like 2005’s Santa’s Slay, play up the inherently weird nature of Santa Claus. Others are merely generic slashers set in the snow. Saint Nick has lost his shock value in horror media. 

Personally, I’m not sure I’ll ever get over my Santa suspicions and my discomfort with Santa’s role in popular Christmas culture. But as long as I can settle down in December for a cheesy yuletide horror, I think I’ll be fine.

Catch a rare 35mm screening of Silent Night, Deadly Night at the Trylon from Friday, December 6 to Sunday, December 8. Learn more and purchase tickets here.

Edited by Shivaun Watchhorn

BUFFALO ‘66: Desperate times call for magical style

|Ann Romine|

Five minutes into Buffalo ‘66, Billy Brown needs to find a bathroom. To remedy this situation, he decides to return to the prison from which he was just released, a move that immediately characterizes the film’s protagonist as a lost soul. 

On a winter day in Buffalo, New York, a misty glow emanates from the overcast sky while high contrast reveals saturated colors. This scene provides the setting for Buffalo ‘66. Shot on reversal 35mm film, the effect in Vincent Gallo’s 1998 movie––both vintage and other-wordly––blurs the line between Billy’s internal struggle and his external reality. Although we can deduce the story takes place during the mid to late 1990s, the film’s sets and costumes obscure the time period in Buffalo ‘66; for example, a 1960s radio and dial phone sit on a motel nightstand, lending a dreamlike atmosphere to this darkly comic melodrama. 

The film’s narrative poses a central question: why does Billy Brown bet on the Buffalo Bills to win Super Bowl XXV, knowing the consequences of losing? Resigning himself to the reality of his situation, Billy admits, “I’m fucked. And I’m dead.”  The bet is an act of desperation rivalled only by his attempt to reconnect with his emotionally unavailable parents.

His desperation is revealed in a tableau-style dinner scene, where the recently kidnapped Layla (Christina Ricci) shines with sharp wit as Billy’s new “wife,”  inventing the tale of Billy’s success in the CIA and the story of how the young couple fell in love. Magically lit in a shimmering blue dress, Layla is a light that illuminates the dark oblivion of Billy’s home. Jan Brown’s (Angelica Huston) hilarious fanaticism for the Buffalo Bills (their home is a virtual shrine) raises  the tension of the homecoming scene while Jimmy Brown’s (Ben Gazarra) torch-light-song sung in spotlight adds an element of surrealism.

Almost an exaggeration of bully, Billy’s behavior toward both Layla and his friend Rocky (aka Goon) is cruel and abusive, but not surprising. What really stands out is how they respond to him. Layla observes Billy’s behavior and reacts to his controlling anger, but never with fear or feelings of subjugation. Staying true to herself, Layla seems to function as a mirror for Billy; her character allows the protagonist to see himself and his value.

Resisting Billy’s aggressive demands, Rocky protests when Billy calls him Goon: “I don’t want people to call me that no more, even you,” he asserts, as he refuses to help Billy locate the Bills’ kicker who missed the winning field goal, Scott Wood. “You shouldn’t go down there,” Rocky advises, “don’t go down there. Don’t do bad things.” 

In contrast, the bowling alley scene provides slow motion close ups of Billy and Layla as they settle in, creating a meditative feel and depicting a shift in the film’s mood. The feel-good scene shows Billy and Layla performing in turns––Billy, “The King,” bowls strike after strike, and Layla performs an iconic tap dance to the sad sexy song “Moonchild” by King Crimson. 

Toward the end of the film, the slow-motion and freeze-frame shots (which precede similar techniques used in The Matrix) at Scott Wood’s strip club build stylized suspense, intensified by the driving sounds of “Heart of the Sunrise” by Yes. Confronted with his ultimate dilemma, Billy’s vision of his potential future is imagined in a Dickensesque way, and he  virtually explodes with emotion in the final throes.
In the end, Billy seems to take to heart the message from the billboard towering over the bowling alley parking lot, and it’s hard not to be happy for him.

Buffalo ’66 screens at Trylon on Thursday, November 7 as part of the Volunteer Programmer’s series. The film was programmed by Ann Romine, Trylon volunteer since 2009. Find details and more info about the screening on our website.

Why Charles Burnett Turned His Back On Blaxploitation: An Interview with the Filmmaker

|Todd Melby|

Working freelance doesn’t pay much, but it does afford one time. A couple of years ago, I used my ample time to create a film podcast. I titled it The Drunk Projectionist. The name sounds cool, but when it comes to movies, I’m quite sober. My movie pod hustle resulted in seven episodes, including an in-depth interview with Charles Burnett, the African-American director of Killer of Sheep, screening on 35mm to open the Trylon’s CHARLES BURNETT’S WATTS series on Nov. 3.

I saw Killer of Sheep during its commercial, art house release. Its images of children playing underneath railroad cars, jumping between buildings, riding bicycles and hanging around adults fixing sinks took my breath away. Everything felt so real. That’s because it was a reflection of Burnett’s life. Unlike his white University of Southern California classmates, Burnett grew up in Watts. While they fretted about labor unions and sexual revolution, Burnett turned his camera on his neighborhood, spending weekends filming the story of Stan, a slaughterhouse worker struggling with depression, his children and his wife.

Frustrated by money problems, Stan finds respite in moments of simple beauty: the warmth of a teacup against his cheek, slow dancing with his wife, holding his daughter. The film offers no solutions; it merely presents life — sometimes hauntingly bleak, sometimes filled with transcendent joy and gentle humor.

Critic Terrence Rafferty of GQ called Killer of Sheep “one of the most striking debuts in movie history.” The film was shot in roughly a year of weekends on a budget of less than $10,000, paid for partially by a $3,000 grant, and also out of the pocket of Burnett himself. Shot on location, the film offers an episodic narrative with gritty documentary-style cinematography. Killer of Sheep won the critic’s prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival and was named to the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990.

According to Sally Hubbard, who wrote the program notes to the film at the 10th Festival of Preservation, “Killer of Sheep was almost impossible to see for many years, and was available only on poor quality 16mm prints. This 35mm restoration was made from the deteriorated original 16mm negative, and 16mm and 35mm soundtracks.”

— Todd Melby is a Trylon volunteer. He’s writing a book about Fargo, the 1996 Coen Brothers movie. Learn more about his interpretation of Fargo here.

See the entire schedule for the Trylon’s CHARLES BURNETT’S WATTS series here.

“It’s Lonely Being a Cannibal” – RAVENOUS is a Forgotten Gem

Artwork by Betsy Midnight and Justin Midnight

|Betsy Midnight|

Flash yourself back to 1999: the shiny Clinton years had fully dissolved into scandal, boy bands couldn’t be stopped, The Matrix came out, and everyone started wearing pleather trench coats with their platform flip-flops. Into this kooky transitional period in American culture, Ravenous––a surprisingly artsy, horror Western––poofed into theaters with a smirk. Sadly, no one noticed. Looking back, it was really the wrong time for this movie to come out. But in the 20 years since its release, the film’s unique combination of gore, suspense, and humor––with an eyebrow raised to the macabre underbelly of the human condition and a decisively stylistic flourish––has established a cult following that has grown slowly but with real commitment.

The film centers on the mythological Wendigo, a cannibalistic monster of insatiable hunger, and it is wrapped in the grimy filth and fear of the isolated fringes of the American West in the 1840s. This setting, right in the middle of the bloody Manifest Destiny massacre century, yet still a full 20 years before the Civil War, calls to mind Heart of Darkness as it plunges deep into a moment in American history that was already soaked in wildness and violence, a time that was getting darker and more gruesome by the day. It’s a perfect moment in history for a cannibal tale, laced with both the desperation of The Donner Party and the grotesque giddiness of Delicatessen. 

Far from the standard hero of the American Western, all guts and adventure and justice, our protagonist in Ravenous is a coward. We know little about Lieutenant Boyd (Guy Pearce) other than that he earned his exile because he decided to lay down in the dirt and pretend to be dead rather than fight alongside his dying comrades in the Mexican-American war. This isn’t a one-time thing with Boyd either. This isn’t a story about a coward who goes through a bunch of challenges and discovers his courage. Boyd is a scared guy, through and through, who is backed into a corner with a bunch of superhuman cannibals at the edge of the wilderness, trying to figure out how to survive. He is a man of few words who spends much of the film mumbling, staring into space, or cowering; at one point, he even gets so scared he jumps off a cliff! By contrast, Robert Carlyle’s Colqhoun is spritely and spirited, with a steady gaze, polished demeanor, and predatorial physicality. He clearly has every advantage in this showdown, and when his appetites flicker like candle-lit shadows over his features from time to time, it is genuinely frightening.

Though the conflict between the two main characters is strong, the fascinating strangeness of the filmis so much bigger than strong performances from its lead actors. As a whole, the movie feels like an accidental combination of very distinct but unrelated choices, likely thanks to studio mismanagement and creative team drama going on behind the scenes. The result should be disastrous or sloppy or incoherent––but miraculously, it works. The whole that these disparate parts create is cohesive and tight. For example, the film’s prologue––which quotes Nietzsche and “Eat me,” or the memorable first scene in which dozens of soldiers chow down on bloody steaks––blends the production value of a Hollywood historical drama with a dissociative mix of sound and visuals, similar to what you might find in an experimental or avant-garde film.

Perhaps the best example of this mash-up magic, however, is the film’s remarkable score, which combines the talents of two accomplished composers: Michael Nyman, famous for the emotionally sweeping orchestrals for films such as The Piano and Gattaca, and Damon Albarn, front-man of the Brit-pop band, Blur and principal songwriter for electronic/hip-hop animated band, Gorillaz.Throughout the film, a mystical motif of twangy, sparse sparks of plucked strings twinkles over layers of melodically dissonant flutes and compressed rhythms that pulse like a squeezebox filtered through a paper towel tube. This starting point flows just as easily into a goofy, Southern-style jig reminiscent of Yakety Sax as it does into the strained, tense strings of a traditional horror-suspense climax. Ravenous does both of these moves, and then it re-centers itself with a pulsing, methodical drone punctuated by twangy sparks to keep it grounded in the film’s 19th century setting. Albarn’s pop music acuity mixes with Nyman’s grandly sweeping cinematic instincts to produce an effect that is firmly planted in both Hollywood big-budget filmmaking trends and weirdo arthouse experimentation at the same time.

Thanks to a playful script and decisive direction, Ravenous skillfully nudges us to consider the allegorical implications of the hungry monster at its center without doing too much of the thinking on our behalf. Interestingly, Wendigo Psychosis is a real modern medical term grown from the myth, used to describe a condition in which a person has (and in some cases, acts on) an intense desire to murder people and eat them. Records of confirmed cases go back hundreds of years. Anthropologists and psychologists argued about whether this condition was a factual, historical phenomenon or a fabrication as recently as the 1980s. Hopefully they’ve put that argument to bed by now: whether or not you have human meat between your teeth, our species’ inclination to destroy others to feed individual appetites is definitely real. Heck, America was practically built on the idea.

Ravenous is in the same movie family as:

  • Dead Man
  • Anthropophagous
  • Deliverance
  • The Road
  • Delicatessen

… and is playing at the Trylon from October 25 to October 27. Tickets and more information are available at trylon.org.

Edited by Michelle Baroody