Two Black Christmases

I had grand plans about doing a spate of Christmas movie reviews this month, but I got derailed by the Japanese Film Festival and now it’s down to those last few days when seeing friends and family (in a conservatively covid-safe manner) begins to displace everything else. But I’ll squeeze in what I can, kicking things off with some female-centred horror with a movie that has been called the prototype of the modern slasher film, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), followed by Sophia Takal’s recent reimagination Black Christmas (2019).

The original movie’s screenplay by A. Roy Moore was loosely inspired by a series of murders in Montreal and linked with the old urban legend about a babysitter receiving disturbing phone calls which turn out to be coming from inside the house. The opening of the film is shot from the killer’s point of view as he approaches a sorority house with a Christmas party in full swing, peering through the front door and windows before retreating, scaling the walls and entering through the attic. After suffocating Clare (Lynne Griffin), the first girl to retire for the evening, he hides her in the attic and (as far as the viewer can tell) spends the rest of the movie hiding up there, popping downstairs every now and then to make weird multiple-voiced phone calls or to kill somebody else. Arguably, though, the killer is the least important part of the film – the inhabitants of the sorority house are very much the primary focus. It’s the intricacies of their lives which are the main source of interest, while barely any attention is paid to the killer – although it’s possible to form a vague idea of him from the semi-incoherent babbling of his phone calls, his motivation remains a complete mystery.

The opening party is the Phi Kappa Sigma sorority’s last bash before most of them head home to their families for Christmas. The house is run by Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), a grumpy old drunk who keeps secret stashes of booze all over the place and keeps sneaking swigs every chance she gets – she even has a bottle stashed in the bathroom for gargling with after brushing her teeth. She finds her charges entertaining but has zero interest in putting herself out or acting as any sort of moral guardian, much to the chagrin of Clare’s father Mr. Harrison (James Edmond) when he comes looking for Clare the next day. Of the featured sorority sisters, it’s Barb (Margot Kidder) who immediately stands out, a hard-drinking, cheerily abusive bad role model who thinks it’s funny to convince dim-witted police Sergeant Nash (Doug McGrath) that “fellatio” is the name of the new telephone exchange hosting the sorority’s telephone number. Phyl (Andrea Martin) is the quiet, bespectacled peacemaker with a good sense of humour. Jess (Olivia Hussey) is the main character, the last person to see Clare before she went to bed and the most serious of the four, probably due in part to her recent discovery that she’s pregnant. It’s been difficult to find time to speak to her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea), who keeps blowing her off to practice for his piano exams. When she’s finally able to grab a precious moment of his time to tell him that she’s pregnant but planning on an abortion, he goes ballistic about her “selfishness” and later that evening tells her they’ll get married, oblivious to her complete lack of interest in perpetuating what is clearly a doomed relationship.

The film is infused with a generally cynical outlook on human nature. There’s Mrs. Mac, who embodies all of the values diametrically opposed to what is generally expected of somebody running a sorority house. When we first meet Mr. Harrison as he waits for his daughter, some random children knock his glasses off into the road with a carefully placed snowball. The desk sergeant at the police station has neither the intelligence nor the work ethic his job requires, dismissing any problem to do with college girls as evidence that they’re either off partying with boys or have had a fight with their boyfriend. Even when multiple complaints are lodged about events at the same address, it takes the direct intervention of Lt. Fuller (John Saxon) to point out to him that this might be significant and to initiate any helpful police involvement. And the sorority house killings (which are not suspected as killings until very late in the film) aren’t even the only murders taking place – there’s a whole different thread involving the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl which doesn’t tie back to the main plot at all.

Given that this film has been retroactively adopted into the slasher movie genre, it’s fascinating to see how differently it reads from most of its successors. For a start, there’s very little visceral violence. Any blood is seen only on the murder weapon or on the bodies of the deceased – the acts of violence themselves are mostly suggested rather than shown. Although most of the sorority are sexually active, there’s no sex on screen and no nudity. There’s also no sexual shaming, which has become notorious as a puritanical undercurrent of the genre. Contrary to the cliché of sexually active women being murdered and the killer being defeated by a lone virginal survivor, in this film the only member of the sorority who’s identified as a virgin is the first person to be killed. In contrast, the audience identification figure is a girl who has had a long term pre-marital sexual relationship and is planning an abortion so her unplanned pregnancy won’t disrupt her life goals – just the sort of person who would normally be high on the victim list. (Interestingly, she also has some religious tendencies – she wears a cross and clutches it while listening to carollers – a level of nuance which is also often lacking in the cardboard cutout slasher-fodder of other films.)

Lead performer Olivia Hussey is a talented actress who made a huge impression with her award-winning performance as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968), but her later career became increasingly patchy and saw her appearing in films of widely divergent quality. She’s pretty good here, but it would be very difficult for her not to be overshadowed by Margot Kidder’s performance. On some level, she will always be Lois Lane to me, thanks to childhood viewings of Superman (1978) and its three sequels (or its first two sequels at least – the last one looked awful and I avoided it). Her highest profile film prior to Black Christmas was Brian de Palma’s Sisters (1973) in which she played the titular lead roles – that one’s still on my to-watch list. Her character here spends most of the movie drunk and being obnoxious, and Kidder is clearly having a whale of a time. It’s a shame that Lynne Griffin has such little screentime as a living person – like Olivia Hussey, she has a background in Shakespearean performance – but she does a good job with what she’s given.

Among the men, John Saxon stands out as the experienced old hand who can make even small parts in terrible films work – here he has the less onerous task of portraying a capable and good-humoured police lieutenant. John Edmonds brings a quiet dignity to his role as an out-of-his-depth doting conservative father, generating audience sympathy as each new trial is laid upon his shoulders. Less impressive is Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) – he does at least display more range to his performance than I’m used to seeing from him, but I struggled to understand what Hussey’s character saw in him – he alternated between being a domineering but dull conservative and a twitching, sweating nervous wreck who sees his plans for life falling apart in front of him and blaming it all on his girlfriend. It’s a weird balancing act which never really felt real.

Director Bob Clark made a few other interesting horror movies in the early 1970s which I’ve read about but never seen – Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972), Deathdream (1974) – although I did enjoy his Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper movie Murder by Decree (1979). It’s a shame that his best known movie is probably the teen sex comedy Porky’s (1981) – although who knows, on the basis of Black Christmas maybe Porky’s isn’t as bad as I remember. Apparently the two movies share several actors in common, and Black Christmas does have a strong thread of grotesque humour running through it.

It was only in the process of putting this piece together that I discovered the existence of Black X-Mas (2006), a remake of the original by writer/director Glen Morgan (The X-Files, Final Destination) featuring actresses such as Katie Cassidy (Arrow), Michelle Trachtenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), Kristen Cloke (Final Destination) and Jessica Harmon (iZombie), along with a return performance from Andrea Martin in the role of Mrs Mac. The main change in this version was the introduction of a complete back story for the killer, based in part on real life serial killer Edmund Kemper. Although it would be inappropriate for me to judge the film without having seen it, I can’t help but feel this was an unnecessary addition. The absence of this information from the original, when combined with the unrelated murder of a young girl, places the film firmly in a 1970s struggling to come to grips with what was perceived to be an increase in seemingly unmotivated violent crime. Adding in the killer’s backstory makes it more like the rest of the slasher genre, privileging the killer as the character of interest and downgrading the relative importance of the female cast. This could be partially attributable to the producers, the Weinstein brothers – Morgan is on record that they insisted that he pack more violence into the film and change the ending, leaving him unhappy with the final film.

Far more interesting is Sophia Takal’s approach in reinventing the concept for Blumhouse Productions’ Black Christmas (2019). Takal has kept very little from the original movie: both movies are set around a sorority house at the end of the year as the students begin to return home; both films are very much female-centred; both include sequences with a killer concealed within the sorority house; and both include a fluffy white cat (Claude in the original, Claudette in the new version). The incompetent desk sergeant has an equivalent in the campus security guard who is more interested in eating his sandwich than listening to a “hysterical” woman’s concerns, but the new version has no equivalent to the more competent and trustworthy police of the original. The threatening phone calls of the original manifest as unsolicited DMs received by each of the potential victims before they are attacked. But the 1970s concern with random violence (largely directed at emancipated women) has been impeccably updated to take on (mostly white) male privilege as reflected through academic MRAs and #metoo.

Riley (Imogen Poots) is one of the senior girls in Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority, assigned as “big sister” to Helena (Madeleine Adams). Three years ago, Riley was roofied by Delta Kappa Omicron fraternity president Brian (Ryan McIntire), but her reports of sexual assault weren’t believed (which, despite the complete lack of consequences for him, doesn’t stop people from accusing her of ruining his life). Kris (Aleyse Shannon) is the activist of the group, who counts among her successes the removal of the bust celebrating the college’s founder, Calvin Hawthorne, due to his history as an unrepentant slave owner in the North. (There’s also a passing reference to contemporary accusations of meddling with the occult.) Her latest campaign is for the removal of Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes), a teacher of classic literature who is resistant to including any works outside of the white male canon. In the final lecture of the semester, he singles out Riley (who did not put up her hand) to provide her assessment of the piece he’s just read to the class – a piece which characterises women as slaves to instinct who owe all the benefits of society to their intellectual male superiors. Her assumption that the text was by a man, when it was actually by Camille Paglia, is somehow supposed to prove his intellectually dishonest argument that he’s justified in his choices, while also publicly pressuring her to see the petition quashed.

Riley’s friends Kris, Marty (Lily Donoghue) and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) rope her into their musical number at the DKO frat party after Helena becomes unavailable. What looks at first like a giggling cheesecake act in slinky Santa suits about sex with frat boys quickly turns into a brutal satirical attack on the fraternity’s attitude to rape. The next morning, Riley discovers that her friend Lindsey (Lucy Currey) never made it home to her parents after her departure two nights ago. Two more sorority members go missing during the day and at that night’s party the assaults begin in earnest as attacks by a hooded killer occur at multiple sorority houses.

Introducing a supernatural element is a significant shift from the tone of the original, but it’s really just there as a McGuffin to escalate the level of the threat. By shifting away from the lone mad killer to a cult of organised misogyny, Takal is also able to justify a shift in the resolution of the plot, replacing the lone female survivor fighting to defend herself with group action as a sisterhood, a more realistically effective response to fighting institutionalised patriarchy. Takal’s attitude to depicting violence is very much in line with Clark’s original, with very little blood on display and no sexualisation of the deaths (if anything, the death scenes are less disturbing). Imogen Poots (Vivarium) and Aleye Shannon (Charmed) are the most notable, and prominent, members of a generally strong cast – Nathalie Morris (Killer Sofa) also stood out in a relatively small role. Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) is excellent casting for the Professor role, providing an appropriate level of sickly smarm and disingenous statements for a character clearly modelled on Jordan Peterson and his ilk.

My first reaction to hearing about the 2019 remake was indifference mixed with confusion – what was the point in keeping the title of an obscure 45-year-old horror movie and annoying its fans by creating a completely new plot? Now that I’ve seen it, it makes sense – Takal has created a film which retains enough of the spiritual DNA of the first movie to warrant retaining the title, but which is sufficiently its own thing to stand alone as an original work relevant to the times in which it’s made.

(NB: The trailer below for the 2019 version includes some scenes which surprised me, since they appear nowhere in the final film. But I won’t tell you which ones.)

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