Monday, January 2, 2017

Movie Buff: A Spoileriffic Review of Black Christmas

With a lot of older entertainment, or technology, or what have you, after a certain period time, you stop appreciating them in and of themselves and appreciate them more for their historical association and context. For example, I absolutely don't have the patience for using a typewriter, but I can appreciate its significance to the 20th century, and to artistic movements like block poetry or the avant garde, ala Johanna Drucker's work.

 This shift can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy--you encounter something in the mindset that it's more valuable as an artifact than an experience, and that colours the experience you actually do have. For me, the biggest blindspot that creates is with film. I have this mental stumbling block where I know intellectually that pre-1980s film is full of works just as popular and entertaining as a lot of current stuff, but I almost always go into an older film assuming its greatest value for me will be its historical significance. As such, I start off thinking that it'll be the cinematic equivalent of brussel sprouts--I know it'll be good for me, but I certainly don't expect to like it.

And that's largely been the mindset under which I've undertaken my great Tour of Horror. For almost a year now, I've been surveying horror films and horror film theory, allegedly in the name of research for One Particular Game (see the other blog). But the earliest I was willing to go was the 1978 Halloween. I just couldn't convince myself that anything earlier would be relevant, especially with my subfocus on the slasher film genre. I was wrong. And it took the 1974 Black Christmas to show me the light.

The plot is certainly slasher at its core. A sorority has emptied out for Christmas Vacation, reducing its members to those about to depart--the alcoholic housemother Mrs Mac, and the puritanical Clare--and those with nowhere else to go--the Jewish student Phyllis "Phyl" Carlson, the British exchange student Jess, and Barb Coard, the verbally explicit sorority sister whose mother has unexpectedly cancelled her trip home. Throughout the film, they are tormented by prank calls that escalate into misogyny and death threats, but unbeknownst to them, the call is--famously--coming from inside the house.

That's a probably a good moment to return to my original point, by way of a videogame analogy. For the longest time, I thought of the 1998 game Baldur's Gate as the starting point for the modern Western RPG. It spawned a number of very successful sequels and spin-offs (a list potentially including one of my favourite games and dissertation topics, Planescape: Torment), it's clearly present in the DNA of BioWare, one of the most successful RPG developers still in existence, and its overall emphasis on choice and good/evil alignment has been majorly influential on videogames at large.  It wasn't until I sat down last year and actually played a few hours of the game for the first time that I appreciated how meta it was, how thoroughly self-referential the game was in its use of genre tropes that were already well trod. Thus, the potential problem with viewing it as a point of origin, that such a perspective obscures BG's own predecessors.

You can probably see where I'm going with this, or you will by the end of the next sentence. Before I started this Horror project, my earliest film foray into horror (discounting a probably-too-young viewing of Macaulay Culkin in the Good Son) was the 1996 Scream. Again, we have a major milestone for a genre--Scream set the tone for the postmodern horror film, and spawned imitators and influenced films from I Know What You Did Last Summer to the diminishing returns of  Scary Movie to full tilt postmodern horror like Cabin in the Woods or Last Girls. And again, perhaps even more obviously, it's not the origin at all, as its infamous starting phone scene clearly echoes Black Christmas, with a tech upgrade from multiple phone lines to the cell phone. (And yes--there's a good chance the urban legend of the caller in the house predates Black Christmas as well.) My watching of Black Christmas was a very vivid reminder that my preconceptions hold me back.

This post is veering into essay length, and I've barely scratched the film itself. So let's switch to bullet point.

  • The whole reason I watched Black Christmas now is that I wanted to start the horror film podcast Faculty of Horror, and their first episode is Halloween vs Black Christmas. I still haven't listened to the podcast, but I have at least now seen both films. I'll say, then, that I think Black Christmas wins out. Jamie Lee Curtis is excellent in Halloween, of course, and there's some fun with the supporting cast, but overall, Black Christmas uses its cast to better effect. It also helps that there's less pontificating about people "born evil" and fewer "ugh why are you doing that it is the stupidest thing" moments.
  • The Internet has decided that Lethal Weapon and Die Hard are Christmas movies. In that case, Black Christmas should totally get counted before them, right? I mean, Christmas is in the name. The plot is centered around the holiday (ie, as an explanation of why there's so few people in the house). And, via the carollers scene, I think it does a much better job juxtaposing the supposed innocence of the season with the violence of its events.
  • Deviation from Slasher tropes #1: the "innocent" girl is the first one killed. (Hey, the word "spoiler" is in the post title for a reason.)
  • And what they replace her with is so much more interesting in terms of what the film does with gender. Instead, our final girl is not just sexually active, but pregnant, and steadfast on getting an abortion.  I appreciate that the film doesn't vilify her for this stance, and instead presents her boyfriend's insistent claim on her body as extreme. (Granted, it needs to do this, for the ending to work and to make plausible the idea that the boyfriend is the killer, but it's still appreciated.)
  • Deviation from Slasher tropes #2: Mrs. Mac. Ever notice how slasher killers are weirdly fixated on teens and 20-somethings? Mrs. Mac, the veneer of respectability for the sorority house, is a wonderful character who you'd never find in a later slash flick. Her alcoholism and general resignation mixed with pride over her station at life is simultaneously tragic, comic, and awesome. She loves her sorority and acting as mother to the group, but is also aware that she's a farcical character and somewhat a pitied one, for her failure to create a "real" family and move beyond the sorority. Gender again--the way we undervalue and mock the spinster figure.
  • Watching a horror movie about a familiar place made monstrous through a stranger's presence takes on a different resonance when you do it in a building where the pipes bang randomly.
  • I think it was Friedrich Kittler who discussed how uncanny the gramophone was before people became familiar with it. If there's one thing horror film has shown us, it's that any piece of technology, especially communicative technology, can be rendered uncanny if it's pushed in a way we don't expect. Modern cinema has thoroughly--oh so thoroughly--explored this unfamiliarity with the camera, from the Blair Witch Project to the Paranormal series, but I love how the "call from inside the house" does it the household phone. We've come to expect some degree of distance that the telephone (or smart phone) provides; when that distance is eroded, when a female space like a sorority house is violated, the result is horrific.
  • Deviation from Slasher tropes #3: No gratuitous sexuality. It's a film set in a sorority house, but there's no bikini pool scene, no panties shots, no pointless nudity. There's two nighties: one appears during an asthma attack, and the other is wrapped around a fully clothed Mrs. Mac. Honestly, if anything disqualifies it from slasher status, it might be this one.
  • It's kind of surprising how little information we get about the killer and his motives. Again, that's partly necessary to make the ending work. And again, I prefer it to Halloween's approach, which was to give a potential origin AND the explanation of the killer being "born evil." I wouldn't say it's a deviation from slasher tropes, but it's certainly different. It keeps the focus on the cast, which I appreciate.
  • It bears remembering that this entire film is premised around an explicitly gendered threat--the danger posed by sexually threatening phone calls. (And that's a big a problem now as ever. Maybe even worse, given the options open to internet trolls. They don't need to be physically present in your house to ruin your life.) As such, if there's a theme here, it's the mistreatment of women. I like how that's present in everything--not just in our lead and her boyfriend and implicit in Mrs. Mac, but also in details like the police not taking the matter seriously until an assertive male comes and insists on their action. The ending is possible only because all the men around feel it's ultimately okay to leave alone the one woman left standing. If anything qualifies it for ur-slasher status, it's the attention it pays to gender, which is a major part of the subgenre.
So, thanks to Black Christmas, I've gained a new respect for all older movies (mutters under breath: "That were released after 1973.")

Later Days.

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