Have a Very Gory Christmas

Forget about Love Actually. This holiday season, take a trip back to Black Christmas, 1974's secretly feminist horror film that spawned a generation of slashers after it.

A festive still from Black Christmas. YouTube

For some, Christmas is the happiest time of the year, filled with festive sweaters, wholesome carols, and the mirth that comes from throwing balls of snow at cats. But, in recent years, it has also become deeply partisan.

In the minds of the Freedom Warriors over at Fox, it’s the hallowed ground to be defended at all costs against the monsters trying to force everyone to make gender-neutral gingerbread cookies. And for the dewy-eyed liberal commentariat it’s a time to wax nostalgic about the halcyon days when Bono and his friends used the power of a terrible (and terribly patronizing) Christmas song to end world hunger.

These culture wars have left the earth surrounding the holiday so salted, the fields so blasted and riven with craters, that there isn’t much ground for radicals to stake out — though some have mustered a valiant effort. The yuletide familial hearth certainly isn’t the most fertile terrain for left politics, but for those unwilling to go quietly into that apolitical night when someone suggests watching Love, Actually for the tenth year in a row, there is a more subtle response than demanding that everyone present read Lindy West’s classic take down (though, to be clear, that is also a perfectly acceptable response).

This year the whole family can rejoice in a Christmas miracle of the deepest red by settling down to watch the genre-defining, though all too often neglected, Black Christmas. Which, of course, is a spine-chilling, tinsel-lined holiday horror movie.

Serial Killer Material

Directed by Bob Clark in 1974, Black Christmas is a technical masterpiece whose influence is hard to underestimate. It essentially birthed the slasher genre, and spawned a legion of (admittedly less-than-inspired) Christmas-horror imitators, including a soulless remake in 2006. Yet unlike the knock-offs and homages that followed in its wake, or even Clark’s  later work — which includes the loathsome and utterly backwards Porkys and the unforgivably sentimental nostalgia piece A Christmas Story — Black Christmas is sure to trigger your libertarian uncle with its unabashed feminism.

This may seem an absurd claim. How exactly could a film set at a sorority house that features multiple scenes of young women being brutally murdered possibly challenge the patriarchy? Hark!, skeptical reader, for there is much more in Black Christmas than meets the eye; though sifting it out through the blood and gore means discussing some key plot points, so reveals lie ahead.

Building upon both the cinematic and thematic grammar of giallo aficionados Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Black Christmas established many of the tropes and formulas that have come to define modern American horror movies. Except, despite the sorority setting, much of the sexist exploitation of its successors.

There is a final girl, though she very much does not fit the virginal mold; there is a sexually explicit older side-kick, though she’s the last to meet her doom; there are lewd anonymous phone calls that come from within the house, though they are genuinely terror inducing; and the killer is finally revealed in the end, though neither the characters nor the viewers learn anything about the man behind the mask.

Add to these small distinctions the fact that all of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority sisters—and their house mom—are shown to swear, drink, smoke, and talk openly about sex and it starts to become clear that Black Christmas lacks the hectoring moralistic tone that would come to be synonymous with the genre. But where it really begins to earn its political bona fides is through its portrayal of the female protagonist (and aforementioned final girl), Jess.

The viewer is introduced to Jess, played by Olivia Hussey, in the opening scene through the eyes of the killer, who stalks around outside the Pi Kappa Sigma house and eventually climbs into an attic window. Our heavy-breathing-would-be-murderer alights to the second-floor balcony and watches the comings and goings of a Christmas party, eavesdropping in the shadows as Jess takes a phone call.

Tall, adorned with a noticeable but modest crucifix, and conservatively dressed, Hussey’s Jess looks the part of the prototypical scream queen as she anxiously tells her boyfriend Peter that she needs to talk to him about something important. With that thread left hanging, the killer recedes into the shadows while Jess goes back to the party.

When she eventually meets Peter, played by Keir Dullea, for said conversation, he leaves the viewer with the immediate impression that he’s a pompous, self-involved artist, with a hair-cut that screams “I abuse women.” As Jess tries to get him to pay attention to her, he drones on about all the stress he’s under, and about how hard it is to live for his art (or some similar drivel), forcing her to blurt out in exasperation, “Peter, I’m pregnant!”.

Jess interrupts flatly explains that she’s going to get an abortion. This launches him into a men’s rights style rage in which he insists that she can’t go through with it until he approves. Jess walks out, leaving him to sulk in his turtleneck.

After miserably botching his recital (presumably because of his anguish about Jess’s decision) and subsequently using a mic stand to smash his piano (presumably because of the damage to his fragile ego) Peter decides it’s a good idea to go over to the sorority house and confront his girlfriend. Finding it empty, he creeps around for a bit, rustling through some bushes, and then climbs into an open window. In the background, the music score ramps up the tension, periodically repeating the booming, screeching sound made by the piano during Peter’s tantrum. Unconsciously, the viewer increasingly associates Peter and the killer.

When Jess finally returns, he leaps out of the shadows and asks her to marry him and raise their child together. She looks at him pityingly, asking “Peter, you know how you have all of these dreams of becoming a famous concert pianist? Well, I have dreams too.” Those dreams, she explains, don’t include getting married or having a child in her twenties. This provokes another tantrum during which the incensed Mr. Music threatens her for talking about “killing our baby like it’s getting a wart removed.” Which, despite Hollywood’s latter day avoidance of the fact, is exactly what it’s like.

To drive the point home, when the police later become involved in trying to sleuth out the killer, the lead detective, becomes immediately suspicious of Peter upon learning that he had raised his voice and threatened his girlfriend in an attempt to intimidate her out of having an abortion. Peter’s response to Jess making her own decisions, in their eyes, is real serial killer behavior.

The clear suggestion of this plot line is that Jess’s casual insistence on her own right to decide whether to carry the pregnancy to term should be seen as a the cultural default. Coming just a year after the Roe V. Wade decision, it’s not a stretch to assume that this normalized portrayal of abortion was just as shocking—and for many, refreshing—in 1974 as it is today.

Get Into the Spirit

Black Christmas is stunningly unique among its Slasher cohort in making its politics so explicit. But it’s far from alone in using horror conventions to explore left-wing themes. Though few else have so much holiday cheer, many of the most iconic early Slashers—from Last House on the Left and Nightmare on Elm St. to Halloween and Friday the 13th—are much more similar to Black Christmas in their world view than to their torture-porn inflected reboots from the early-naughts. Misogyny and exploitation of women haven’t always and everywhere been the norm. They ebb and flow thanks to social struggle from below; and where they were pushed back before they can be pushed back again.

With the sudden turn toward visually stunning, blood curdlingly terrifying, anti-moralist horror cinema in the past few years there has never been a better time to be a fan of the genre. So, this X-mas, rather than getting mired down in tired arguments about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, why not take the opportunity afforded by the holiday season to expose the whole family to the cathartic release that comes from watching a stealth-feminist-christmas-horror-movie-classic?