Friday, November 9, 2012

Murderous musing - Black Christmas

Black Christmas is my go-to movie for the holiday feel good hibbidy jibbidies and holy jollies.  I love Black Christmas, from the set design to the characters, to the 70’s fashion, to Barb talking about turtles screwing; it never fails to capture my attention and imagination.  It’s a shame that so many people forget about Bob Clark’s black holiday flick in favor of Christmas Story, but if I had my way it’d play 24 hours a day like how they play Christmas Story on cable around that most wonderful time of the year.  Black Christmas is up there in the higher echelons of slasherdom with the likes of Psycho and Halloween….trooth!  So pull up a warm seat next to the funeral pyre as we talk about Black Christmas for a bit.

Black Christmas is the anti-Christmas flick.  At its core it’s a film about communication deteriorating and relationships breaking down to the point of being irreparable.  Right from the beginning we get Barb talking to her mother on the phone and having a difficult time with it.  She asks the operator to clear up the signal, then when she can hear clearly she’s shocked and disappointed to learn her mother has canceled Christmas plans with her to spend it with her boyfriend.  Already we get the sense that this is not going to be a warm and cuddly family Christmas flick; immediately after we get the first phone call from “Billy”, the film’s main antagonist, who screams obscenities and gibberish at the woman of the sorority house, again calling attention to the idea of communication breaking down.  Throughout the movie the motif of mixed communication and unraveling relationships is revisited time and time again, most notably with the main protagonist Jess and her boyfriend Peter.  During the film they quibble back and forth about Jess’s decision to abort their unplanned pregnancy.  As they argue they drive each other further away from one another, to the point where Jess no longer trusts Peter and suspects him as the murderer of her sorority sisters late in the film.       

The crux of their argument, about whether or not Jess should get an abortion, represents a different and rather ironic motif to a film about Christmas.  If Christmas is the celebration of the birth of baby Jesus, then Black Christmas is an examination of the emotional and psychological fallout from the death of a child on Christmas.  Jess’s assertive decision to abort the baby without consulting her boyfriend Peter is something that unhinges him and deeply distresses him throughout the movie, leading him to act in a suspicious manner.  If the birth of Jesus brings families together, then the death of a baby during the Christmas holiday does the exact opposite, and pushes families apart to the point of not trusting each other, and even suspecting each other of murder.  Outside of the sorority house a little girl is found murdered in the snow, launching a massive man hunt for the killer.  We have another example of how a child’s death during the Christmas season disrupts the entire community, causing them to look into their own homes or neighbor’s homes for the killer.  The ironic bit here is that while the manhunt proceeds outside of the sorority, the real danger lurks inside with the girls. 

All of these aspects of the film, the deteriorating relationships, abortion during the holiday season, the death of a child, mass miscommunication; all stand in profane juxtaposition to the sanctity of Christmas.  After the first kill of the film there is a shot of the victim’s plastic smothered face that slowly dissolves to reveal a giant church, the background music is a choir singing Christmas tunes.  Later Christmas carolers sing to a house while a woman inside is stabbed to death with an ornament, setting graphic violence along the back drop of Christmas cheer.  Clearly underlining the movie is an attack on Christian iconography and the sanctity of the holiday of Christmas.

And we can’t get through any honest evaluation of Black Christmas without identifying the fact that most; if not all the victims in the film are sexually active, independent, assertive women who do things that displease their male counterparts.  The first victim’s father seems disappointed in her and how she has been spending her time in college, Barb earns his displeasure by being intoxicated, and Jess is the focus of Peter’s rage over the abortion issue.  Even the nerdy girl gets on her boyfriend’s bad side by agreeing to go on a ski trip with her friends instead of spending the winter break with him.  Based on these facts it could be surmised that one motif of Black Christmas is really male aggression towards female liberation.

In the end Black Christmas boils down to a claustrophobic tale of sorority sisters being stalked and taunted by an unseen killer.  Even without considering everything else in the story, the film works as a taut thriller and template maker for stalk and slash films for years to come.  “Billy” may not be as enigmatic of a slasher as Freddy or Jason, but for my dough the idea of Billy is much more terrifying than what Jason and Freddy have been lampooned to be through the years.  Billy still remains the seminal unknown killer, the crazy at the other end of the phone, the home intruder that is never discovered, the unseen horror in the attic, and that idea fills me with oodles of Black Christmas cheer.