The Marriage Plot

December 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides, is written in the style that prompts many critics to use the words “dreamy,” “evocative,” “meditative.” In it, a group of boys watch as their neighbors, a quintet of blonde stair-step sisters, kill themselves off. As the dreamy, meditative, depressed 16-year-old I was when I read it, it should have spoken to me . . . but it didn’t. I was frustrated by the presence of the boys, who served to distance the reader from the Lisbon daughters. Who cares about the stupid boys? I kept thinking. I want to know more about the girls! But they remained frustratingly elusive.

Later, in college, I found out that there was a name for this: the male gaze. That distance was a stylistic device that Eugenides had, apparently, employed on purpose. But its purposefulness didn’t make it any less annoying. In fact, the fact that he had intended to discount the more interesting girls’ narrative in favor of giving us the blander boys’ perspective made me even more irritated than when I thought he’d done it by accident. No matter how beautifully the book had been written, I couldn’t get past that, and I’ve avoided Eugenides since then, even after all the praise for his second novel, Middlesex. If he couldn’t get women right, how was he going to handle a character who was intersex?

Reviews of his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, piqued my interest enough to hesitantly come crawling back, though. Starting out on graduation day at Brown University in the early ’80s, the book covers a love triangle between the brilliant-but-bipolar scientist Leonard, the romantic, book-obsessed yuppie Madeleine, and the globe-trotting religious scholar/seeker Mitchell. And I really enjoyed it, despite not wanting to enjoy it. I flew through the book’s 400 pages in three and a half days, a feat that–at least with literary fiction–usually takes me much longer. I liked the books’ parallels between religious ecstasy and madness, the heroine’s preoccupation with Victorian novelists, the voyeuristic travels in the world of 1980s WASPs. But the entire time, I just couldn’t shake the idea that Jeffrey Eugenides was really benefiting from being Jeffrey Eugenides here–had the book been written by a female author, especially an unestablished one, it wouldn’t have gotten a crumb of attention. Women who write love stories–no matter how self-aware, no matter how good–are treated as silly, unambitious, feminine. Eugenides only gets away with it because he’s a Serious Writer and a man. Not his fault, of course, but it still hampered my ability to like the book without reservations.

And the problems I had with The Virgin Suicides still existed here. Even when we were supposed to be in the heroine’s head, his descriptions of her still felt disturbingly male gaze-y. Her character development largely seems to exist in the form of a first-page listing of the contents of her bookcases (a writing device I hate, for the record). Even the two men who want to marry her consider her a bimbo. (In an early scene, Mitchell actually says to her face, “You’re not attracted to me physically. O.K., fine. But who says I was ever attracted to you mentally?”) And the book’s most revelatory scene is one that she’s excluded from entirely–it takes place between the two male leads, who have, up until this point, not been able to stand each other. Leave the serious plot to the menfolks, honey, is the takeaway message here. Madeleine is just a contrivance–one we can use to compare the religious Mitchell with the scientific Leonard, one that can force them to talk to each other and relate to each other when they’d have no reason to otherwise. She’s not an individual, just a plot device.

William Deresiewicz, in his review for the New York Times, articulated a number of the concerns I felt but didn’t put words to while I was reading:

“As for Madeleine, she is given nearly half the novel, including its longest, opening section — not surprisingly, considering her creator’s fascination with female experience — yet she somehow recedes behind the screen of Leonard’s needs. Her character is almost wholly reactive; even the ways she resolves her relationships with Leonard and Mitchell are reactive. To put it in Hollywood terms, she doesn’t have a “journey” as the others do. You could see this as the point — it’s how young women often are [Editorial comment: ew.]— but the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of what it’s doing. In fact, Madeleine is the one character who does discover her vocation and, even more ironically, it’s to be a feminist scholar of the Victorian novel. Yet despite the topic’s supposed thematic centrality, we hear very little about this development. (Among other things, we never do find out what those “thoughts on the marriage plot” are.) “They didn’t once ask if she had a boyfriend,” Madeleine happily thinks about a couple of fellow aspirants who befriend her at an academic conference — yet it is all the novel asks. “

The treatment of manic-depression is equally shallow. The character of Leonard–who many view as a thinly veiled ode to David Foster Wallace, although Eugenides swears this was not his intention–displays basically every textbook symptom of bipolar disorder, each in the most textbook way possible. Yes, I know this was the early ’80s. I know treatment of bipolar disorder was not what it is today. I know plenty of people with bipolar disorder do display similar symptoms to Leonard’s. And yet it seemed that Eugenides had done most of his research by reading an article in a ladies’ magazine about how horrible it was to be married to someone with the disorder, because Leonard displays every horrifying manic symptom that could possibly exist, often simultaneously: binge-drinking, gambling away huge sums of money (and giving away the rest), molesting teenage girls, proposing marriage, jumping off balconies. It all just devolves into one long bipolar caricature with no nuance.

But like I said, I finished the book in three days. So I guess that, despite what I think, I just really like sexist books about love triangles.

How to Be Very, Very Popular

December 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

How to Be Very, Very Popular is a bizarre little comedy from 1955. When I say bizarre, I mean bizarre. The premise isn’t too off-the-wall for a mid-century comedy: two strippers witness a murder, and in order to keep from getting killed themselves, they go undercover, hiding out in the fraternity hall at Bristol College. (Substitute “convent” for “college,” and now you know where Sister Act got its plot.) Apparently the novel this film was based on involved the two of them dressing up as men as part of their disguise, but why pay all that money for Betty Grable and Sheree North if you’re not going to keep them on permanent display? Thus they wear their spangled leotards throughout the entire movie, hiding them under jackets and graduation gowns when the plot calls for it.

So yes, the premise seems similar to a number of other college-based 1950s films. The execution, however, is just . . . strange. I can’t pinpoint exactly what was off about it. Sometimes, watching old movies like this, I wonder if the weirdness is due to the age gap–sometimes I just don’t get the jokes or the slang or the name-dropping or the references to then-current events. Especially with comedies, I always have to wonder if the style of humor just hasn’t aged well or whether or not it was just as unfunny then as it is now. With this movie, I’m going with the latter. For example: One of the strippers, Curly, spends the vast majority of the film in a hypnotic trance, a gag that might have been funny for about ten minutes in a better film, but isn’t even funny for five minutes here. And most of the minor characters exist solely to incite bafflement. Why does the fraternity house mother have such a salami fixation (not a euphemism) and speak only in poetry fragments? Why is a litter of kittens living in the fraternity house basement? Why does one of the policemen wear a brown toupee over his gray hair? None of this is ever explained.

But perhaps the greatest mystery of all is why Fox thought we’d buy a bunch of 30-something-year-old actors as college students. Heroine Stormy, who’s supposed to be roughly the same age in the film as 23-year-old Sheree North, was actually played by a 39-year-old Betty Grable. Neither do any of the middle-aged male leads look like college students. By the time we get to the movie’s climactic commencement scene, where a hypnotized Curly whips off her graduation gown and performs a frenetic striptease to “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”–a scene that’s energetic enough, it would have charmed me in a film that had done more to earn it–I’m ready to quit.

This film was originally designed to reunite Grable with Marilyn Monroe after the success of 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire. But Monroe, who was in the prime of her career and hungry for better parts, steered clear. Fox, who had been grooming Sheree North as Marilyn doppelganger that they could pay less and boss around more easily, stuck North in the role instead. Perhaps Monroe could have introduced a little more charm into the lightweight role of Curly than North did. But then again, probably not. She is hypnotized for most of the movie’s running time, after all.

The Rise and Fall of the College Widow

May 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

While watching A Yank at Oxford, I spotted a real, live endangered species of the film world: the college widow. TV Tropes refers to the college widow as a “forgotten trope,” in that it was once a commonly accepted cinematic shorthand but has fallen out of favor. Originally “college widow” referred to a single woman–not necessarily a widow–who hung out with the college men year after year, sometimes hoping to find an educated husband after she had graduated without snagging an engagement ring, sometimes just looking for a good time. On film, directors sometimes made her into an actual widow in order to make her promiscuity slightly more palatable to the audience. Thus the Hollywood college widow is usually a woman whose husband (often a member of the university faculty) died young, leaving her all alone in the full flower of her beauty and sexual experience–which, of course, attracts the attention of the young college men that surround her. This being the first half of the twentieth century, though, the college widow is usually painted as predatory rather than preyed upon, with the men who get involved with her treated as innocent victims.

The reason this trope was invented seems obvious, the reasons it disappeared even more so. Filmmakers had to assure us that our heroes were healthy, red-blooded American men, who would never resort to all that Brideshead Revisited stuff that was rumored to go on at many an all-male campus. Obviously in the 1910s-1940s (the heyday of this trope), prostitution couldn’t be depicted on screen, so our protagonists couldn’t get their kicks that way. Once the Hays Code came into effect, adulterers must be punished. And for a hero to seduce an unmarried young woman would be caddish. So the college widow served as an effective outlet for all of our heroes’ wants and needs (and those of the writer): it proved the protagonist was straight, sexually desirous and desirable, and yet still a gentleman. Of course, the trope began to be played for laughs even more often than it was played straight, in movies like Horse Feathers. With the rise of co-education and the fall of the production code, the college widow found herself expelled from campus in favor of flirtatious co-eds.

One Yalie described the college widow thusly:

“For the college widow had a depth and richness of emotional experience never developed in American life of that day outside of a few metropolises, and seldom there. She began at sixteen or eighteen, as a ravishing beauty, the darling of freshmen; she passed on in the years of her first blooming from class to class of ardent youngsters, until, as her experience ripened, she acquired a taste, never to be satisfied by matrimony, for male admiration, abstracted from its consequences; and more subtly, for the heady stimulant of intimacy with men in their fresh and vigorous youth. By her thirties she had learned the art of eternal spring, and had become a connoisseur in the dangerous excitement of passion controlled at the breaking point, a mistress of every emotion, and an adept in the difficult task of sublimating love into friendship. The students lived out their brief college life and went on; she endured, and tradition with her, an enchantress in illusion and a specialist in the heart. Twenty, even thirty years might be her tether; when suddenly on a midnight, a shock of reality, or perhaps only boredom, ended it all; she was old — but still charming and infinitely wise. To smoke a cigarette with her when cigarettes were still taboo for women, and drink her coffee and liqueur, was a lesson in civilization.”

She’s Working Her Way Through College

April 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

Angela: “Ivy looked through my trunk and found out all about me–including the fact that I was featured in a burlesque show.”

Don: “I wouldn’t care if you pitched for a softball team.”

She’s Working Her Way Through College is–wait for it–my first Reagan! I know, I’m surprised it took me this long, too. It’s is one of those mid-century musicals that, while based on an earlier straight play or film, has excised all philosophy, symbolism, or anything else that might hint at–god forbid–depth . . . only to replace all that depth with mediocre musical numbers that are usually irrelevant to what little plot remains. In other words, it was a pretty awful film that I enjoyed an awful lot.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Angela is dancing at a burlesque club, and just happens to run into her old high school teacher, John Palmer. They have a quick chat and discover that he’s now Professor Palmer at Midwest State University, and she decides to attend college there. This is all played totally straight-up, by the way–there’s absolutely no discussion or even an oblique joke of how awkward it is for him to run into a former student while she’s shimmying around the stage in a sparkly bikini and he’s there to gawk at half-naked ladies. The movie initially hints that she’s attracted to him–enough to go to a hotel room that she believes is his– but after that, it’s never alluded to again . . . even though she follows him off to his college, takes his theater class, and lives in the upstairs bedroom that he and his wife rent out to students. I’m sorry, but that’s some bunny-boiling behavior going on right there. And nobody mentions it! Ah, the ’50s.

Angela takes to college life like an alcoholic takes to cheap booze. Professor Palmer decides to stage a musical that she’s written, and after having a veritable male harem following her around for the first half of the movie, she settles down with the football star. This, of course, upsets “Poison” Ivy Williams, who’s had her eye on him for years, and despite Angela’s best attempts to get chummy, Ivy manages to find out that she used to be a burlesque performer and blabs it to the entire school. This puts Angela at risk for expulsion, which in turn allows Professor Palmer to give us his best not-quite-Clarence Darrow-worthy speech on the importance of education for everyone, no matter their history.

The depiction of Angela is very much that of The Girl who Has It All, in that she has a pretty face, but she’s not just a pretty face. She gives up her looks-based career to educate herself, and is smart and ambitious enough to write a play. As a result, she’s popular, at least where it counts: with the men. (Ah, the 1950s.) But what I found interesting was her lack of female friendships. This isn’t true at the burlesque club, where on her last night, all the other girls chip in to shower her with presents and flowers, a bit of initial character development that we’re supposed to read as “Angela is well-liked.” But out in “the real world,” this doesn’t seem to be the case. The girls who wear sweaters and penny loafers don’t want to be her friends the way the girls in feather boas and cone bras did. The crowd that trails her around campus is, in almost every scene, exclusively male. (The only time this changes is when they need to switch it up for a musical number.) While Angela is kind to Ivy, Ivy is often openly hostile back–and this continues so far into the movie that it pushes the boundaries of ludicrousness. The audience is supposed to read that Angela’s continued overtures towards friendship are a sign that she’s magnanimous and forgiving, but it really just comes off like she’s too dumb to see Ivy’s ulterior motives. In short: while Angela is the Girl Who Has It All, having it all 1950s-style doesn’t require female friendships.

Her relationship with Professor Palmer’s wife, whom she lives with, is even odder: they have a rapport, but nothing resembling a friendship. (Maybe this isn’t so weird, given the fact that Professor Palmer is lying to his wife about the fact that he originally got reacquainted with Angela at a burlesque show!) The professor’s wife is an strange character to begin with, seemingly inserted into the script only to give the audience a reason why Angela and the professor don’t get together. Her sole purpose is to be pinballed back and forth between her husband and a former love interest–and the choice of who she ends up with isn’t even really hers in the end.

Ah, the 1950s.

It’s a middlebrow musical of its time; you can’t expect miracles. But the depiction of women’s relationships with each other seems lackluster when compared to other movies of the period. Just a year later, in 1953, we get the glorious female friendships of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire: a bevy of beautiful broads who support each other and help each other achieve their goals (even though their sole goal is to marry rich). In this case, it would have been easy enough to show Angela’s popularity with both men and women–and the fact that they didn’t makes it feel kind of like a conscious choice. Or, maybe more realistically, just a lazy one.

The Student Prince

March 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Back in the first half of the twentieth century, when most people didn’t go to college, it held a certain mystique that it’s since lost. College, to outsiders, wasn’t about academics. It was about fraternity rituals and goldfish-swallowing, phone booth-stuffing and raccoon coats–with a side of copious drinking. Most people saw college as a bourgeios waste of time, a glorified finishing school for rich kids. But for those who had the money to attend, it had an entirely different appeal: college was where you went to become a man. (See: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.)

The Student Prince makes it clear that this is not just an American thing. The film, based on an operetta taking place in 19th-century Germany, follows the prince of a small German kingdom as he’s forced to attend one of Europe’s oldest universities in Heidelberg against his will. In the silent film adaptation that preceded this, he’s sent by his family to finish his education before he can take over the country, but in this film–playing up its more romantic recital of the story–he’s sent to develop his charm because his princess fiancee finds him stilted and contentious, trained for war rather than wooing. Unfortunately for her, at the university he finds himself developing a little bit more charm than she probably had in mind, ifyouknowwhatImean and I think you do.

At the inn where he’s spending the semester, Karl falls immediately for the sweet barmaid Kathie, who serves as his guide to student life at Heidelberg, which he initially finds baffling and raucous. The fact that nobody there gives him the full respect that his title commands is another wound. But with Kathie beside him, he quickly adapts–eating knockwurst like the other students, slamming his mugs of beer like a champ, following her advice on which student “corporations” (the German equivalent of fraternities) to join. In fact, he soon realizes that he’d rather hide his royal identity altogether.

Some things about college haven’t changed.

The Student Prince goes surprisingly deep into the traditional trappings of German student life. (This is all in the source material. What, you thought 1950s MGM would do historical research?) While the silent film largely had glossed over the depictions of college life in order to focus on the romance, The Student Prince goes so far as to integrate the German university traditions into the plot of the film. Two rival student corps fight over him–the snobbier of the two only once they learn that he’s a prince, the down-to-earth one from the very beginning. When the leader of the snobby Saxo-Borussians is offended that a prince would rather join the less prestigious Westphalians, they even settle the matter the same way turn-of-the-century corps members would–in a fencing duel. The winner is the one who manages to leave a permanent scar slashed across the loser’s cheek! Kathie’s fear over the result of Karl’s duel with the leader of the Saxo-Borussians is what forces her to acknowledge her heretofore hidden love for him.

One can’t talk about this film without talking about Mario Lanza’s beautiful voice, which–due to a casting dispute–handles the singing while Edmund Purdom appears on-screen. Purdom actually does a phenomenal job of the lip-syncing–I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t him had MGM not plastered Lanza’s name all over the bill. Ann Blyth is often underused, and this film doesn’t give her a whole lot to do besides look pretty and sing pretty, but she brings a sense of warmth and intelligence to Kathie’s character that I didn’t find in Norma Shearer’s silent version.

The film’s ending is surprisingly touching. The silent film gives the romance a different treatment: while watching the romance unfold is fun, you’re always aware that it’s a diversion, that at the end of the day he’ll have to go home and own up to his duties. But–unsurprisingly for a 1950s MGM musical–The Student Prince puts Karl and Kathie’s romance on display. You understand why they fall for each other, even after his nastiness at the beginning, and it’s genuinely crushing when you realize, right along with them, that they have no chance.

But despite the focus on the romance, that was never the point of the story in the first place. The point was that Karl had to leave home to become a man–to shift from his rigid, immature views on war being the focus of life. Through Kathie and his time at the university, he didn’t just learn about love. He learned about people. And when he returns home, ready to marry the princess and run the country after his grandfather’s death, we know he’ll be a success. (At least until World War I rolls in and kills off half his subjects.)

Where the Boys Are (1960)

December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Mild spoilers.

Few movies manage to visually capture a Midwest winter quite like the opening moments of Where the Boys Are. Our heroines converge outside of their college lecture hall, sneezing and sniffling, slipping on the ice. Snow piles up around them; snowflakes the size of quarters whip around their hooded heads. Merritt isn’t sure that she’ll be able to go on their spring break trip–she has too much schoolwork and is on the verge of failing out of school, despite an IQ of 138–but finally takes a look around her and declares, “If I see one more inch of snow, just one more flake, I’m going to absolutely barf!” And thus our group is on the road to Fort Lauderdale.

Storytelling wisdom holds that if you have a quartet of girls or women as your main characters, they must fall into the following stereotypes:

  • the naive sweetheart (or, taking this to its extreme, the bimbo/goofball)
  • the sexpot/the flirt
  • the ball-buster/the tomboy
  • the smart, normal one that we’re supposed to relate to

See: Little Women, Sex and the City, Golden Girls, the original Baby-Sitters Club, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Living Single, Now and Then. Where the Boys Are is no exception to this four-woman pack of stereotypes, and here we get:

  • Paula Prentiss as the goofy Tuggle, who wants nothing more than to become “a walking, talking baby factory”
  • Yvette Mimieux as beautiful Melanie, who’s desperate to hook up with an Ivy Leaguer
  • Connie Francis as “captain of the girls’ hockey team” Angie, who has no luck with men
  • Dorores Hart as Merritt, our practical narrator, who’s trying to find a balance between love and sex

The four of them descend upon Florida with one collective goal: to be where the boys are. Tuggle immediately meets a goofy Michigan State student who introduces himself as T.V., and the two of them spend most of the film tug-of-warring over their conflicting desires: sex (his) versus marriage (hers). Angie struggles to attract any boys whatsoever, eventually settling for a bespectacled jazz musician who’s the only one to express interest. Melanie finds the Ivy Leaguer of her heart, but quickly gets in over her head with him. And Merritt, least interested in sex of them all, stumbles upon her dream date without even trying.

To modern eyes, Where the Boys Are can’t seem to make up its mind: it comes in as a sex comedy, flounders in the middle, and goes out like a sexual morality tale. This film was actually a forerunner to the entire genre of teen sex comedies–the parallels to later films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or American Pie are obvious in the way the girls joke about sex in jaded tones. But as Merritt points out later, it’s “all talk.” All of the girls are virgins going in, and the only one who no longer is at the film’s close ends up regretting it. For all its debate about sex in its opening scenes, where Merritt argues with her professor that telling girls to stay virgins until marriage is unrealistic, Where the Boys Are serves up a moral that’s ultimately sexually conservative. Melanie is severely punished for losing her virginity: a rumor goes around that she’s easy, and she is subsequently raped, the trauma from which leaves her mentally disturbed, wandering through traffic in a daze. After not sleeping with the men they’re dating, the other girls are rewarded with boyfriends (albeit some of questionable merit), and Merritt, in particular, wins out: her man, Ryder, turns out to be an unbelievably wealthy, intelligent Ivy Leaguer who wants to continue dating her after they leave Florida.

Although it reflects the values of the early ’60s–its depiction of the Fort Lauderdale spring break culture of that era is practically an anthropological study–the film has aged remarkably well. Its debates about “hook-up culture,” when to sleep together, and whether abstinence-only education is realistic seem surprisingly modern, and help to raise it above the average ’60s beach party flick. Still, a more nuanced ending might have helped. Instead, we get this takeaway: put out and you will get raped and go insane, stay pure and you’ll be rewarded with all your wildest dreams come true.

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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