Murders on a holiday. A mystery man stalking women. Teenage girls trapped in a house. Sound familiar?
The 1974 Canadian cult classic Black Christmas never reached the same level of recognition as the 1978 film that drew heavy inspiration from it – aka, John Carpenter’s legendary Halloween. Both films eschew gore for suspense and utilize their low budget to maximum efficiency, not to mention feature POV shots of the murderer (Killer Cam!), the disruption of small town mundanity/the safety of the home, and women being picked off one by one by a misogynist. And as Black Christmas influenced Halloween, so did Halloween‘s success help launch the slasher genre into massive popularity.
As a case study it’s fun to trace back the stylistic tropes, but on its own Black Christmas remains a smart, restrained film that centers the desires of women and approaches its topics with frankness.
You probably guessed the plot, but here are some specifics: our setting is a sorority house during a Christmas party. Our main players are Jess (Olivia Hussey), Barb (Margot Kidder), Phyl (Andrea Martin), and Clare (Lynne Griffin). The girls receive an obscene phone call from a man they know only as “The Moaner,” and it’s clear this isn’t the first time he’s harassed them. As they listen, the camera pans across each of their expressions in agonizing detail. His threats are explicit, and the women are worn, unsettled, sick. Before he hangs up the Moaner promises to kill them all, and (spoiler) soon each girl save Jess is brutally murdered.
What another subsequent movie saved for its twist (When A Stranger Calls, 1979) Black Christmas establishes from the opening: the killer’s hiding in the attic. The calls are coming literally from inside the house. Not only are the leisurely holidays interrupted by sudden bursts of extreme violence (especially Christmas, a time of purported warmth and light), the home itself has been invaded. The place we feel most comfortable, most secure, becomes the girls’ worst threat. They are eternally watched and eternally threatened with a skin-crawling inevitability few other films capture. Friendships, privacy, sanctity, a closet full of clothes; nowhere are women safe from physical violence.
Neither are they safe from male apathy. Most of the police disdainfully brush the Moaner’s death threats off as “just your boyfriend playing a bad joke.” Laugh and get over it, right? It’s just a harmless joke? No harassment is harmless, or humorous. It always grows. The Moaner begins with obscene calls and evolves into murder, because his psychology is simple. He loathes women.
He especially despises women who assert their sexualities. The girls are active and confident, making fellatio jokes to ignorant men and discussing reproductive rights with impressive practicality. There’s no shaming, punishment, or piss-poor redemptive arcs for “bad/dumb” girls who like sex; their deaths are inexplicably tied to their womanhood, but it springs from the Moaner’s disgust for women in general rather than a moral condemnation. Even the delightfully crass Housemother (Marian Waldman) scoffs at a father protesting that he didn’t send his daughter to the sorority so she could party and sleep with guys. In fact, assumed virgin Clare is the first to die, an irony in trope-y retrospect.
The movie’s one red herring and its strongest thematic subplot is the killer’s identity. We’re led to assume Jess’s boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) is responsible due to his rage over Jess wanting an abortion. The pregnancy was unplanned, and Jess remains adamant in her refusal to keep the baby despite Peter’s pleas – which instantly become threats. “You selfish bitch,” he seethes. “What the hell are you trying to do to me?” Jess’s desires and Jess’s right to her body are completely negligible to him, as is her refusal to marry him when he proposes. She won’t give up her ambitions or become subsidiary to her boyfriend, and Peter falls apart in fits of destructive screaming.
At the film’s conclusion, Peter breaks into the house and Jess kills him in terrified self-defense. As the police leave the scene and Jess lies sedated and helpless on a bed, we hear the Moaner’s voice from the attic. His identity is unknown, Jess’s life is still in danger, and although Peter is innocent of the killings, he’s an instantly recognizable and despicably truthful representation of white male privilege.
Its dangers are innumerable. Its consequences real. Its reach, often inescapable. Even in your home.
Women In Horror is a series examining the roles of female characters in the genre. You can read all entries here.