Black Christmas, 1974
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974
It’s a quiet winter night. Christmas is approaching, carolers are singing in the distance. A sorority house—decorated with lights and wreaths—is engulfed in darkness. With a heavy breath, two hands grasp a trellis, and an unseen man climbs into the attic. The phone rings—the killer is inside.
Bob Clark’s Black Christmas tells the story of a sorority terrorized by an unknown killer and his perverse, near-unintelligible phone calls. The killer, in between shrieks, growls, and other indiscernible noises, slides in comments like “let me lick it,” or, more directly, “I’m going to kill you.” The phone, and more specifically its ringing, becomes a trigger for the sorority girls and a symbol of impending horror. But the phone calls also offer a solution—a wiretap—through which the authorities may find and stop the killer.
Black Christmas was overlooked by film critics and audiences upon its release—on October 11th, 1974—their attention drawn towards another film that premiered the same day: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And while the latter film is by far more popular and critically acclaimed than the former, both films have much to say concerning their shared release date and the political context out of which these narratives sprung. Aptly, almost exactly a year before the release of these films was the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” of the Watergate scandal on October 20th, 1973. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the next year, as the Watergate roared on and came to a head, two of the most important and groundbreaking slasher films would be produced. And neither film is operating as an island in this regard; both Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre offer us a representation of the unfolding controversy, and more importantly, its consequences for its “audience.”
The ’70s and the Nixon presidency served as a paradigm shift, out of which the political paranoia inherited from the ’60s ceased to only be experienced by racial minorities and counter-cultural figures; it was now felt too by those who the government doesn’t directly persecute. In other words, middle-class white Americans—those who voted for Nixon in his landslide 1972 election against the “socially liberal” candidate George McGovern—were suddenly confronted with conspiracy and corruption on a level they thought impossible. It was a loss of faith, and this loss was horrifying. And while the targets of the conservative government remained the same, suddenly, the curtains were peeled back. Normative Americans were appalled at what was there. And it all began with a break-in.
Black Christmas, similarly, begins with a break-in: where the killer climbs into the attic of the sorority house and kills his first victim. But at first, the girls have no idea where the phone calls are coming from. Then, as characters begin to disappear one by one—with nobody finding the bodies the killer keeps in the attic—the cops get involved and install a wiretap on their phone. Only after it is revealed that the calls are coming from inside the house does one of the living characters, Jess, witness the violence, as she runs upstairs to discover her friends Barb and Phyl massacred by the killer. Like the “average American,” Jess is horrified not only by the violent acts and the disturbing phone calls, but by the fact that it is coming from inside.
To turn back to Watergate, the threat was no longer an outside force—like, say, the Soviet Union, or, on a much smaller level, hippies and their counter-cultural beliefs—but instead came from normative institutions themselves, including the Nixon administration. And this too was revealed via wiretapping, where Nixon’s self-surveillance served him in his own demise. But, like Watergate, the wiretap reveals and conceals, offering necessary evidence (the location of the killer), while obscuring and failing to reveal other things (who the killer is, what the killer is saying, and why the killer is doing this). For Watergate, the wiretap revealed Nixon’s involvement in the scandal, but it also left things unknown, generating not merely a distrust in the government, but a larger paranoia as the scope of the investigation broadened. The Killer’s voice—like Nixon’s—is never fully comprehendible, leaving more in question than answered.
This lasting impression is a horror film’s greatest tool. What goes left unexplained is what haunts an audience. By the end of Black Christmas, the bodies of the killers’ first two victims, Clare and Mrs. MacHenry, are still in the attic, having never been found by the police. And just as we think Jess is safe, the phone starts to ring again—the credits begin to roll.
Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre also explains very little, leaving plenty for the imagination to fill in the gaps. We never learn, for example, why this family is keeping their grandmother’s body in the attic; why they are cannibals; or why Leatherface wears the mask while the other members of the family don’t. Those are just a few of the endless questions an audience might ask. The film is, rather simply, a group of teenagers stumbling upon a horrific scene, where only one of them gets out alive, and that’s it.
But what is strange and sometimes forgotten about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the beauty that prefaces the horror. Before chancing upon Leatherface’s compound, they visit two of the group’s old family home. It’s an old, run-down but formerly gorgeous house, surrounded by overgrown fields of tall grass and flowers. And the film isn’t shy regarding this beauty; we get shots of Kirk and Pam wandering the grounds with lovely yellow flowers in the foreground. Later, after we see Kirk and Pam’s demise, the camera follows Franklin as he walks beneath the tall trees and towards the sunset.
For Kirk, Pam, and Franklin—like the middle-of-the-road American—to find the grotesque underside of the country (i.e. the deep corruption that upholds the country’s normative ideologies), one must first believe in the beauty of it. In other words, one can only have a loss of faith if one ever had faith in the thing to begin with. Suddenly, what one thought was beautiful is utterly despicable, never to be seen in the same light again.
What leads them to the grotesque via this scenic traverse is, again, auditory: the sound of a generator in the distance. Once there, the sounds become more and more peculiar—the roaring of a chainsaw, screams and yells, and most importantly, Leatherface’s concealed and confused squeals. Never once does Leatherface actually articulate anything; he only moans, grunts, and screams, leaving not only his identity but his purpose unknown. And the film ends with him screaming in the middle of the road, swinging his chainsaw, seemingly without resolve. He is inexplicable, grotesque, and horrifying, but blooming just beyond sunset fields of wildflowers. He is just behind the curtain.