Critique, Feminism, Gender, Movies

[TW] Merry Scary Christmas: Black Christmas

Black Christmas posterBlack Christmas (aka Silent Night, Evil Night, aka Stranger in the House)

Directed by Bob Clark
Starring Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, Marian Waldman and John Saxon
R, 98
1974

Someone watches a sorority house Christmas party from outside. The party is muted through the glass, but still lively. The girls lovely and energetic. The house, decorated for the holidays, looks warm and inviting. The voyeur decides to sneak in by climbing up to the attic and the camera goes with him. Once inside, he makes himself at home. We see all of this through his eyes in an early use of camera-pov in horror.

Downstairs, the camera takes on a third person role, and instead of spying on the girls and their guests, we are getting to know them at a friendly distance. There’s Barb the drunk, Phyll the genial nice girl, Jess the serious one, and Claire the good-ish girl who isn’t here for Barb’s shenanigans. They’re types, but not the to-type wraiths of some later slasher flicks (inspired, by the way, by Black Christmas and Halloween — more on this later). They’re sorority girls who enjoy a good time. They’re smart, ambitious, and going places. They’re people. The film takes just enough time to establish their characters in the broadest of strokes before launching its first salvo: a post party lewd phone call.

Black Christmas phone call

The girls gather around the phone at the base of the stairs. The caller, who they’ve named The Moaner, mumbles, shrieks, and growls. His words veer between disturbed and disturbing; nonsense and misogynistic terrorism. It’s a peculiar kind of entertainment for the girls — disturbing and amusing. Barb, who we’re already finding out is the fun one, tears the phone out of Jess’s hand and tells The Moaner off. He doesn’t like that, naturally, but the girls laugh. What else are they supposed to do?

It’s like Margaret Atwood said: men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.

The calls keep coming, the stalker sets up shop in the attic, girls begin to die and disappear, and the men around them are ineffectual or abusive. Black Christmas is a slow-moving thriller fuelled by mystery and gender-based violence. The kills are shocking set pieces but not viscerally satisfying or triumphant as in later films like Friday the 13th, and they lack any suggestion of blame or fault. In Black Christmas, we are always firmly on the side of the girls — the killer is so mysterious, his motivations and character so untenable, that we cannot identify with him even as we see through his eyes. We try though, to figure him out, and the film is happy to lead us down this path and that.

Black Christmas Barb and Claire

Barb and Jess

There are boyfriends to consider, one of whom is facing down failure and a threat to his masculinity in the form of a girlfriend who’s a little too independent. There are cops, some so incompetent they’re a joke to their coworkers and the audience alike, others who are at least trying to get things right. There’s a phone company worker who keeps on trying to trace those dirty, threatening calls, but can’t seem to manage it until the third act. There’s a drunk search party, sent out when a young girl from the town goes missing, who tries to talk their way into the sorority house. There are plenty of men in Black Christmas, but none of them are much help. And not just no help, they’re also potential threats. If they aren’t trying to break into the all-girl world of the sorority house, they’re trying to get the girls to conform their expectations. The cops are confused by Barb’s wildness. Peter, Jess’s boyfriend, is infuriated by her decisions to get an abortion, not marry him, and move on from him. Claire’s father is equally frustrated by her determination to date whoever she likes, whenever she likes.

Could one of them be the killer? There’s a sense of that possibility in Black Christmas, a film that makes the feminist subtext of so much horror firmly surtext. The caller, the killer, and nearly every man in the film is mad at women and their growing freedom. The killer, who we later learn is also the caller and our attic voyeur, seeks to punish these girls for being sexually and socially assertive. And while he does kill them, brutally and meanly, he can’t punish them — they know, we know, and Black Christmas knows that they don’t deserve it. The Moaner’s calls, at first lewd and vaguely threatening, escalate with his violence and disintegrate insofar as sense goes. He begins by threatening to lick their “piggy pussys,” but by the third act is shrieking in multiple voices about “the baby” — not Jess’s — and mothers and other characters not seen in the film.  It’s not about the girls specifically, but rather the man seeking to harm them; it’s about men, and the threat they pose to women.

Black Christmas Claire with baby

The Moaner, who we learn goes by Billy (please note: typically a nickname for children), kills them one by one in their home, a place they should be safe, and he does it using objects found around the house. There’s no signature weapon here. He kills Claire by suffocating her with dry cleaner’s plastic. He kills Barb by stabbing her with one of her crystal, unicorn tchotchkes. He displays their bodies, players in his own internal drama, now, again using no more than he can find around the sorority house. Claire is trussed up in a rocking chair with a baby doll in her arms: silenced, smothered, and forced to perform femininity and motherhood in perpetuity.

A historical detail I think is significant:

Black Christmas is often said to be based on a series of Christmas murders that took place in Quebec, the year before. From what I’ve been able to find, there were no such murders. This is an urban legend that has grown up around the film. Rather, the film is in part inspired by the urban legend of the babysitter and the man upstairs. This was a sleepover/campfire tail about a babysitter who receives a series of threatening or lewd phone calls that are revealed, as in Black Christmas, to be coming from a second line within the house. The killer then descends. Sometimes he kills her. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he’s killed the children. Sometimes the children live.

In Black Christmas all the girls die. Not just the sorority girls, but their house mother and that young teen who went missing back in the first act. They die, at first because their safety is not taken seriously, next because it takes so long to identify the killer, then because Jess misidentifies the killer as her boyfriend Peter, and lastly, because the cops pat themselves on the back for a job well done and leave Jess to the house. The killer descends.

It’s easy to believe that Black Christmas was based on a true story: this movie, along with Halloween, helped to launch a now forty-year-old genre for a reason. How many on screen babysitters have been killed by the man upstairs, now? How many actual young women have been killed by the man they least suspected? Why are we so attracted to stories of women under siege by men? Because there’s something very real in them.

Black Christmas leaves Billy largely a mystery. He gets away with the murders and he gets to keep his anonymity. This is partly strategic — it’s a rare ending in a genre that spells so much out — but it’s also thematically appropriate. There’s no winning, here, even for the girls who went home for the holidays and missed the excitement. There’s no end to the threat. The holiday setting is what tips this over into dark, dark territory: not only are the calls coming from inside the house, the threat is ever-present within the home, the holidays, and all of our traditions. Faceless, many-voiced Billy is always here.

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