It’s that time again! Halloween is officially over (ugh, my heart!), but now it’s time to bring on the holiday-themed slasher movies! This year, as most years, I started with my favourite, Black Christmas.
Black Christmas is one of my all-time favourite horror movies. A sorority house receives a series of increasingly scary obscene phone calls as a killer lurks in their attic, picking them off one by one. It’s scary as hell, even though you barely see the killer. It invented “The call is coming from inside the house!” for goodness sake! But most importantly, it plays on the fear that women experience when placed in a threatening situation. Whether it be obscene phone calls or unwanted comments on twitter, most of us can relate to being placed in a situation where we felt genuine fear for our safety, and were not taken seriously, or thought that we wouldn’t be. A shot that pans the faces of the girls as they listen to a seriously disturbing phone call shows how as much as we try to shrug these things off when they happen, there is always that little voice that says, “But what if this is actually dangerous this time?”
This film stands out from a feminist perspective in a big way. Considering the time in which it was produced (1974), it has an amazingly progressive view of women. The main character, Jess (Olivia Hussey), is one of the earliest slasher final girls. She is unique in the genre in that she is not a virgin, as early slasher movies often represented the last woman standing. She is pregnant, but is steeling up to tell her boyfriend (Keir Dullea) that she is too young to have a baby and is considering an abortion. She is focused on her wants and needs, and doesn’t want to be married so young. Rather than jump at the chance to be a housewife, she wants to explore her passions and the career that she is working hard to educate herself for.
It also has an unusually strong eye for male allies. Watching this film is infuriating as the girls head to the police station to report that their very responsible friend is missing. With the girl’s father present, they are told that she probably ran off with her boyfriend for the weekend. Not to be deterred, Jess heads over to the boyfriend’s hockey practice, and he has no idea where his girlfriend Clare could be. When Jess tells him that the police assume that she is “shacked up somewhere”, he is furious and heads to the station to give the clerk a piece of his mind. He is immediately seen by the sheriff.
This scene is important because it manages to do two things at once. It manages to make us happy that someone is standing up for Clare, and that she won’t be branded as a promiscuous girl who irresponsibly forgot that her father was visiting. In that moment, the audience gains huge respect for Clare’s boyfriend, Chris. It is also satisfying to see the cop who took the information taken down a notch by Chris, who they could have easily tracked down to ask the question, “Have you seen Clare?” Instead they ignored the problem because she’s a college girl, which must mean she’s off having an orgy somewhere. On the flip side, the audience in some ways becomes even more furious that the only way someone listened is when a man came in and yelled about it. It was already frustrating that the assumption was made at all that Clare’s plans with her father immediately went out the window for a chance at sex, and this just brings the anger to a whole other level.
The movie also plays with the stereotypes of college girl characters that we still see today. Barb (Margot Kidder), is the stereotype of the mean girl. She is rude, loud, obnoxious, and picks on Clare because she is a virgin. She drinks and smokes, and generally doesn’t give a f$%@. What makes the portrayal of Barb so unique is that she could have very easily been turned into the one note caricature that we are used to seeing in these types of movies. Instead, her character has unexpected depth. Barb is shown early on talking to her mother, who is ditching her for the holidays once again. She is clearly used to this behaviour, and it is clear that their relationship is strained. Immediately afterwards, Barb is horrible to Clare. As Barb proceeds to get wasted, and as it becomes clear that something has happened to Clare, her guilt becomes clear.
There is one more character in the house, who is actually one of the most interesting. Phyl (Andrea Martin) is interesting in that she seems to represent a normal, everyday girl that we can all relate to. The acting that we get from Martin here is actually a little more grounded. The performances from Margot Kidder and Olivia Hussey are great, but they are based on being over the top. As the film builds to a climax, Jess is terrified, making her performance more dramatic and panicked. Barb, being drunk through most of the film, is determined to get reactions out of people. Phyl, on the other hand, reacts as most would. She is the “every girl” of the movie, remaining calm until there is reason to panic. She seems like a neutral character to the audience, but if you watch, she is the most observant. She is the peacemaker of the group, and you can see her taking everything in, from Jess’ boyfriend troubles to Barb’s drunken cry for attention.
The fact that the female leads in this movie were given dimension instead of remaining flat stereotypes was a smart decision. It was not something that a lot of early slashers did, but by the time these girls start getting killed, you are invested in what happens to them. Watching this movie, you really do realize that if you didn’t care about what happens to the girls, it would be boring and leaving you craving more information about the killer and his motives. Because you do care, it turns what could have been a pretty standard fare killer-stalks-college-girls slasher into a classic, disturbing nail biter.