Black Christmas: slashing through the seasonal fluff

The Toronto house at 6 Clarendon Crescent where Black Christmas 1974 was shot.

Black Christmas 2019, now playing in movie houses, may be an antidote to Christmas cinema fluff. But it’s also worth taking a look at the original 1974 Black Christmas, a slasher film about a group of sorority girls who are stalked and killed by a crazed killer on Christmas Eve.

Panned by Canadian critics when it opened, Black Christmas went on to become a domestic box office hit. It is now considered a landmark movie of the horror genre, predating as it does Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and My Bloody Valentine.

And the 1974 film is thoroughly Canadian. The screenplay was based on a script written by Roy Moore, whose storyline was sparked by a series of strangulations in Westmount, Quebec, between 1968 and 1971. The film’s director, the late Bob Clark, an American by birth, was an honorary Canadian best known for his work in Canadian film in the 1970s and ’80s.

Black Christmas was shot in Toronto in the winter of 1973-74, almost entirely inside the stately home at 6 Clarendon Crescent (in the St. Clair Ave. West and Avenue Road area), which was leased for the production. The beautiful old house never feels warm or safe in the movie, despite the raging winter wind outside; it’s a prison, rather than a home for its residents.

And who lives in this house? A young Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin (who went on to SCTV fame), Olivia Hussey and Toronto actress Lynne Griffin. Griffin plays the film’s first victim, whose grisly death by plastic bag became the poster image for the movie and an unforgettable moment in horror-film history.

A young Margot Kidder played one of the victims.

Most of the non-house action was shot on the University of Toronto campus.

Black Christmas holds up because it has character, humor and complexity. The sorority sisters feel like real young women, bright and independent, not the dumb victims of subsequent slasher flicks. And what seem like horror clichés in 2019—a killer on the loose, a first-person camera showing the action though the eyes of the faceless stalker, and the “final girl” convention—are all slasher tropes established by Black Christmas.

There was a loose remake of Black Christmas back in 2006—it borrowed the title, anyway—that was shot in Vancouver. It explained in painstaking detail who the killer was and why he became deranged. Backstory that the 1974 version wisely chose to keep back.

This year’s Black Christmas remake was shot in New Zealand. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes says: “Better than the 2006 remake yet not as sharp as the original, this Black Christmas stabs at timely feminist themes but mostly hits on familiar pulp.”

The Solders’ Tower on the University of Toronto campus was the setting for a scene in Black Christmas.

About rosemarymccracken

Rosemary McCracken is a Toronto-based fiction writer.
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