On Horror, Halloween, and Black Christmas

November 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Spoilers for Black Christmas (1974) ahead.

Halloween is not my favorite holiday. I work at a bar, so most years, my Halloween consists of corralling, baby-sitting, and cleaning up after drunks in unimaginative costumes. This year, I worked both on Halloween night and the Saturday before it–which is when my city holds its big Halloween festival–but I wanted to do something to celebrate . . . so on the Friday before, my friend C. came over with a bottle of pinot noir. We cooked goat cheese and butternut squash ravioli in brown butter sauce with hazelnuts, made pumpkin brownies, and got sufficiently toasted on both wine and whiskey-apple cider before settling in to watch the original Black Christmas. (Side note: my kitchen is a horrifying, flour-encrusted mess right now.)

Horror and I don’t always get along. I’m prejudiced because it’s the most popular genre that Pretentious Male Film Buffs and Critics watch to relax. That’s fine, obviously–I have musicals and screwball comedies; there’s no reason they shouldn’t have something, too–but it also means that horror gets a lot of essays and blog entries defending and legitimizing its creepy sexual politics by people that filmmakers actually take seriously.

That’s a turn-off. But that’s not horror’s fault, really, so I feel a little bad about avoiding the entire genre. Then again, there are some things that are its fault. Too much old horror comes off as more corny than creepy, and too much new horror relies too heavily on gross-out gags and doesn’t pay enough attention to the suspense and psychological mindfucks. I don’t mind blood, but if a film employs increasing amounts of gore as their chief scare tactic, I start to lose interest. And I’m especially judgmental about the use of rape as a plot device in many horror movies (which is a blog entry in and of itself). The horror movies I like are ones like The Strangers, which, although it had its faults, had enough rare virtues that I was still able to like it: a focus on the fear of the unknown; long, drawn-out, suspenseful shots; unanswered questions and things left implied rather than spelled out; minimal but effective use of blood and gore.

Despite the fact that I don’t watch much of it, I’ve seen just enough horror to recognize the tropes that appear over and over again. (It might have helped that I came of age during–and thus watched the bulk of my horror movies during– the genre-deconstructing Scream era.) During the opening scenes of a horror film, I can usually predict who will be the Final Girl. Not only did my friend and I predict the “Final Girl” at the beginning of Black Christmas, but we managed to predict most of the plot twists and the ending long before they happened. The problem is that I don’t understand enough about horror to know if, at the time this movie was made, those twists were new and different. Give me, say, a musical and I’ll tell you exactly when certain tropes were invented and when they transformed from “trope” to “cliche” and then into “archetype.” But horror? Don’t ask me. During the film, I kept turning to C. and saying “The calls are coming from inside the house!” in a creepy voice . . . but it wasn’t until I checked IMDB this morning that I found out that this was actually the first horror film to use that device (along with originating or popularizing plenty of others, like the killer’s point-of-view camera shot or the high contrast of holiday joy with a murder spree).

That said, I like horror when it’s well-done–most especially when it avoids the sticky complications of the sexual morality plays that many of the worst films devolve into. From a female perspective, horror is a dual genre: when it’s good, it’s the film genre that explores the complexity of female roles the most; when it’s bad, it goes beyond misogyny. Because the hero of a horror film must be reduced to screaming, shaking, crying, and fleeing in a way that the audience would look down on a man for, it’s nearly inevitable that the slasher-flick hero will be a girl. That makes horror the sole movie genre that is aimed primarily at male viewers but forces the viewer to identify with a female protagonist. And yet the way sexuality is employed by many male directors–killing off the sluts and the girls who’ve had abortions and the girls who are having sex with their boyfriends in their car in the middle of the woods, forcing them to run half-naked through the wilderness before they’re finally hacked down–tends to undermine that. It’s a toss-up.

Black Christmas manages to avoid the sluts-as-cannon-fodder trend, sort of–our protagonist not only has had sex but is contemplating an abortion in the movie’s early scenes. As the film opens, she and her sisters at the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house are being harassed by an obscene phone caller who eventually takes it to the next level and starts killing them off, one by one. Despite the premise, this is probably the least sexy sorority slasher flick ever made, and with nary a single panty raid, scantily clad pillow fight or implied girl-on-girl make-out session, it easily managed not to ping any of my hair-trigger “That’s-sexist!!!” sensors. The film is smart, for a slasher film, and treats its characters as such–the filmmakers have predicted most potential loose ends and explain them away in a way that’s both logical and believable, as when the murdered characters aren’t immediately missed because they’ve already made plans to head out of town for the holiday. There’s one eye roll-inducing “Don’t go upstairs!” moment (I’ll cut a movie slack for exactly one of these before I start deducting points), and the film telegraphs the decoy killer so early that only a complete novice horror-watcher would be surprised when he turns out to be a red herring . . . but on the whole, the film offers satisfying twists and rationales in a genre that too often seems to argue that its audience doesn’t deserve them.

You know what they say about horror movies reflecting the fears of the society they were made in, and this is almost a comically accurate example of that. Upon Black Christmas‘s release, in loco parentis was basically down the drain–and this in the wake of Roe v. Wade, the rise of second-wave feminism, and the Summer of Love. Parents could no longer count on their college-bound daughters to be protected by the school’s curfews and visitation hours, and their anxieties ran wild about what their daughters were up to with no supervision. In Black Christmas, Mr. Harrison–father of the first murder victim–stands in for ’70s-era parents everywhere when he shows up at the sorority house to pick up his daughter and instead finds only her filthy-mouthed, booze-swilling, premarital-sex-having sorority sisters, guarded over solely by an equally hard-drinking, incompetent housemother who doesn’t seem to be doing much in the way of mothering. But Black Christmas refuses to take the easy road and–unlike many of the films that would later rip it off–doesn’t allow its killer to mow down his victims simply based on whether they drink or smoke or what they do in the bedroom. Instead, it offers a much more nuanced take on women who want more than the small lives they’re being offered. And for that reason, Black Christmas was a great way to spend my Halloween.

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