Lined Lips and Spiked Bats is a monthly column devoted to women in genre cinema.
When Bob Clark’s Black Christmas was released in 1974 it was coming right off the victory of Roe v. Wade, which gave women legal access to abortion in the United States. It was a major win for the women’s liberation movement, and the question of abortion slowly started to seep into movies of the period. Black Christmas is about Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey) receiving obscene telephone calls at her sorority house while her friends disappear one by one, but in between the verbal and physical violence, she and her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) fight over her desire to have an abortion. Black Christmas was always political, but its specific history of a proto-slasher made when Roe v. Wadewas finalized means that it has a unique placement in the genre.
The slasher genre didn’t explode in popularity until John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s Halloween came out in 1978, but it was beginning to form as early as 1960 with Peeping Tom and Psycho. When Halloween was released it created a template for the genre to exploit again and again with slight alterations, as well as helping cement horror films as a genre of utmost prominence in the 1980s. During that decade the slasher found its footing as a genre of impulses, both sexual and violent. It was perfect fodder for teenagers to flock to in droves, because these movies offered something very straight-forward if the audience was looking at it from a surface level. They knew what to expect: a killer would pick teenagers off one by one until a final girl (usually a virgin) took down the monster. Before the DNA of the genre became commonplace and cheap to reproduce, the proto-slasher offered something more complicated. Black Christmas is one of the best of these films, because it fully embraces the national conversation over abortion. In an interview recorded for the initial Black Christmas DVD release, Olivia Hussey stated that it was this aspect that initially drew her interest to the film.
Clark’s Black Christmas suggests a world of quotidian mistrust of the voices of women while also centering the relationships that women have with one another. The film is endowed with a sense of timelessness by accomplishing both of these goals with a script that doesn’t flinch at violence, and allowing women to have a college life beyond flirtatious beach adventures. Scenes between sorority girls are treated like a hangout, and even with the telephone calls and the disappearance of their friends they treat the company of one another as their own safe space. Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder are both really remarkable and have a wattage about them that’s easy to gravitate towards. Kidder plays her character Barb like she’s out to a live a life occupied only by substances and sex, and even when she’s a little more provocative than the other girls she’s still treated like a sister: like their fuck-up. But the film revolves around Jess’s realization that her boyfriend might be the one making the obscene phone calls when the pervert over the phone starts bringing up her pregnancy and the guilt she might have in terminating the fetus. The horror revolves around a woman’s right to choose and the frustration that comes from men who are hellbent on making that decision for women. All of the violence in Black Christmas unravels from that central point of conflict. It is all tinged with the degradation of men losing control and trying to take back what they assume is their decision to make.
Much of Black Christmas is shot like Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971). The shadows are ominous, the light sources are usually extensions of the bedrooms that the sorority girls have decorated themselves, and the hovering threat of the telephone interrupting a girl’s sense of safety is tangible. Much of the violence in the film is also shot with its ear bent toward phallic symbolism and male frustration: an agonizingly long death scene of a plastic bag pulled over sorority sister Clare Harrison’s (Lynne Griffin) head, the horn of a unicorn plunged into Barb’s chest. All of these violent scenes are given substantial weight, because every aspect of societal protection feels unsafe for women. When the girls go to the police to make a missing person’s report for Clare they don’t believe the girls and suggest that she’s probably off somewhere with her boyfriend. They tell the girls to calm down. They only begin to investigate when a male friend of Clare’s also expresses worry. Clark navigates all of these various difficulties that women face systemically with a deft touch that never emphasizes the importance of making a point. It feels lived in and natural, and it’s easy to feel almost cozy in the unsafeness of the original Black Christmas, because the tone of how women are treated begins to feel normal, like day to day life, something we’ve all had to put up with. The only difference being that sometimes we aren’t killed. Sometimes.
The original Black Christmas remains one of the finest horror films of the 1970s because it is expressly in conversation with the advancements made by the activism of the women’s liberation movement. It is unique among slashers because the genre tropes are not set in stone, and the distrust in societal figures, and the escalating violence of North American cinema brought about by the New Hollywood movement all collide in a perfect expression of women’s anxieties. There’s a new remake of Black Christmas (now in cinemas directed by Sophia Takal and co-written by April Wolfe, that throws all subtlety out the window in favor of a blunt anger with the state of how women are treated in 2019. Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas suggests that the only way to rid the world of monsters who call themselves men is to burn everything down, because nothing else is working these days.
While watching Takal’s new movie I was left thinking about the little ways women go through day to day life without letting anger at being treated like second class citizens worthy of distrust boil over into outright violence. There’s one scene early on where Riley Stone (Imogen Poots) is working her day job as a barista. Everything is normal until a man walks in she immediately recognizes. He’s the best friend of the man who raped her. He’s there for no reason other than to exert his power over her, but because Riley is working her day job she can’t say or do anything, except serve him. The new Black Christmas is filled to the brim with examples like these and goes about delivering them in frank, to the point, fashion that feels more appropriate for the times we now live in. Instead of dirty phone calls, the new edition of this story includes suggestive threatening text messages, and the anxieties around abortion and a woman’s right to choose are updated to that of rape culture. But more than anything else, Takal’s film feels like a genuine response to the agony of women that came in the wake of President Trump, an accused rapist, endorsing fellow abuser Brett Kavanaugh to become a Supreme Court Justice and the dismissal of Christine Blasey Ford’s heroic testimony.
The horror of the new Black Christmas comes from the danger of the fraternity houses. There’s an easy good versus evil dynamic at play which heightens the danger experienced by the sorority sisters. Takal’s direction is at its most comfortable when suggesting the horror around the edges of the actual violence, like the scene involving the coffee shop, but this isn’t to say that there are not moments of genuine terror. There’s a strangulation scene which plays out like the classic jump scare from The Exorcist III (1990) that horror fans far and wide adore, and the opening killing is among the best the slasher genre has seen in some time. Takal is always interested in asserting her form in ways women find familiar and scary, and in the case of the opening murder, that comes when a man is following Lindsay (Lucy Currey) home. She keeps getting weird texts, and when she sees the man behind her using his phone she gets scared. He steps stride for stride with her, but we never see his face because Lindsay doesn’t turn around until she can get her keys placed between her knuckles for protection (something I’ve done myself on multiple occasions). When she does finally turn and confront him he runs away, only for a hooded figure to jump out of the bushes and chase her up the street before killing her: her flailing limbs make a snow angel on the lawn. When her friends realize that Lindsay has disappeared they report it to the cops, but Riley struggles going back to them, because they didn’t believe her when she reported her rape earlier that year. They don’t believe her again when she insists something is happening to her friends.
When the girls start to suspect it is the frat house that is hunting, abducting, and killing their friends they have no support from the college institution, because the staff thinks it’s all in good fun that the boys get the razzing of girls out of their system before they move on to things like political positions. Again, this is all very blunt—boys will be boys, coded for our times, language that could very easily become nothing more than t-shirt feminism—but for the most part Takal and the crew do a good job of suggesting a righteous anger with a lived-in quality among girls who are just trying to survive. The best moments in Black Christmas are the smaller ones that ache with the frustration of institutions and political organizations failing us again and again. In that way, the movie was cleansing to watch at times, even if I think the go for broke finale of wielding bats and turning an otherwise lovely bit of dialogue about the solidarity of ants, as a metaphor for women needing to stick together, into the literal text of a girl gang, lands with a thud.
The 2019 Black Christmas is a genuine #MeToo film. The movement gets thrown around in just about every movie written or directed by a woman these days, to the point where it can sometimes feel like those words no longer have meaning, but it’s appropriate here. When the #MeToo hashtag was surfacing on Twitter and becoming commonplace on other social media outlets and within the entertainment industry at large, it had nothing to do with branding. It was political because being a woman is a political act in and of itself. The #MeToo movement was our bodies crying out that enough was enough. It was meant to be healing, to bring light to just how widespread women had been assaulted, abused and raped with the hope that we would be heard and believed. Black Christmas is sometimes too neat to fully express that feeling , but it tries to get there, with an active acknowledgement that women bottle up more than men will ever know. The #MeToo movement was a primal scream that rose up from the throats of women. Black Christmas is an echo of that initial feeling.
The horror genre has always been political, because a large portion of the storytelling has centred the death of women as a spectacle. When you’re the one being killed it’s always political. If women find comfort or relatability in these stories it is due to the fact that we are familiar with the vulnerability and the inherent danger that comes with that violence. The Black Christmas films were always political, because they were fundamentally interested in the problems that women were facing at different points in history, even if the past hardly feels like it’s in the rear view mirror these days.