CW: sexual assault
Director Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher Black Christmas is notable for many reasons, its horror, humor, eerie mood, memorable characters, and above all these, it’s distinct roots in the early 70s and the mood of the times. Though often described as a Canadian precursor to Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) the influence seems primarily based on sharing a point of view filming technique for the killer (First pioneered in the 1960 British thriller Peeping Tom) as the tone and subject of the two are wildly different aside from their focus on teenagers attempting to survive a mysterious maniac.
Whereas Halloween was a nightmare that mined cultural anxieties from changing liberal values and lax authority just as the religious backlash of the Reagan 80s was set to begin, Black Christmas feels grounded in the forward-thinking possibilities of the experimental 70s. The subject of fear in Black Christmas comes from within the sorority house and the existing community, while the fear in Halloween invades the unsuspecting neighborhood. In comparison to other proto-slasher films from before (1971’s Cold Blooded Beast, 1972’s Torso, and Dario Argento’s earlier work) Black Christmas is unique for its restraint on graphic violence and nudity, as well as the way it’s characters feel more realistic and their demises more bad luck than as a consequence for transgression.
Glen Morgan’s 2006 reboot/sequel Black X-Mas is likewise a product of its own time period. Gone are Jess’ conflict with her boyfriend over getting an abortion, and the sobering reality of a little girl dead in the park and her weeping mother. In its place is a sex tape that seems to hurt a woman”s pride more than her boundaries, and a grotesque backstory of incest, flesh-eating, and the meta-textual worship for the original film. It’s infamous for having been advertised with a variety of scenes filmed exclusively for the trailer, which the director asserted were added in by, no joke, the WEINSTEIN brothers, to increase the violence and camp and change the ending.
These elements firmly root the sequel in the Bush era cynicism of corporate marketed nostalgia, but also the fixation on the “gritty” surface image and the misguided belief that to “push the boundaries” was the same as bringing a fresh perspectives to the material. As such many of new characters were named in reference to Christmas song singers, and their conflicts were rewritten to fit into slasher character molds. In this reboot/sequel, the killer couldn’t just suffocate the women with a clear clothing bag like the original, he had to drag them down the festively adorned hallways by their eye socket while the camera tracked their twitches. The fact that footage was shot only for the trailer to market it is the best example of the 31-year gap between the films, where three decades of progress had produced an All-American status quo that could only feebly fixate on transgressing and referencing other films.
Sophia Takal and April Wolfe’s version brings a fresh perspective that hews closer to the naturalistic feeling of the 1974 original in the college campus setting, but opts to approach the story from the perspective the school itself as an institution. This gives it a passing resemblance to Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s 2016 series Sweet/Vicious, which explored the subject of sexual assault on campus and the culture enabling it using a superhero narrative. Where their Black Christmas goes further, and mines the cultural anxieties of classic horror, is how it manifests a more traditional fear that then expands to show the threat in a more harrowing fashion. While the 1974 version offered tantalizing suggestions of the phantom caller’s origins contrasting with the mundane horrors outside the house, and the 2006 sequel gave an explicit backstory for the house itself, Takal’s re-frames the killer’s presence not due to psychosis, but as an ideology represented both actively and passively throughout the film.
What’s notable is how the 1974 original contains many of the same story beats that gesture at these ideas, but it’s only in Takal’s version that we see them from the women’s perspective where they are more than symbolic. From the indifference of the police, to the way Marty’s boyfriend goes from helping the sisters to acting sullen, there’s a feeling of the characters being boxed in that was absent the original. The dynamic that’s really changed is that Riley and her sisters’ fears are now ever present outside the house, from the frat house they go to, or how a male professors brings up his irritation at being criticized for only teaching a limited curriculum. By putting the focus on the women’s day-to-day experience instead of the worried fathers or sympathetic police officers, Takal’s story let’s us see the frustration of the women who are constantly running up against unhelpful men who view them with irritation rather than offering assistance.
There was something reassuring in the 1974 version about the officer in charge, who was willing to devote resources and painstakingly track the phone calls (after getting a written consent form) disturbing the sorority house. Watching it in 2019 it’s amazing to see the authorities represented by individuals who were “public servants,” where one out of touch officer’s less than helpful remarks were openly mocked by the younger one’s willingness to go above and beyond to assist the women.
While Takal’s version features a campus security officer just as out of touch as the 1974 version, there is no appealing to a more reasonable authority, because the same prejudices he displays are viewed as part of the culture on campus. The crusading boyfriends of the 1974 version who could walk in demand to get the investigation going are replaced by apathetic white frat boys, indignant male professors, and the enthusiastic but disconnected Landon. The major takeaway is that the systems of authority that the 1974 version saw as sluggish and but well-intentioned are now acknowledged to be aspects of the gendered world that are demoralizing to encounter.
Whereas the 1974 version used the invasion via a lewd and disturbing phone call to show the sister’s fear and tenacity, Takal’s begins with the reminder that women’s present world is routinely intruded on in this manner in online as well as physical space. We witness this firsthand when a sister named Lindsay is sent threatening messages from an unknown individual using the University’s bust as their profile. The switch from a dial up phone that draws all the sisters together and creates one of the 1974 version’s most memorable images is now contrasted with walking in the midst of the neighborhood that offers little sense of community. It’s a subtle reminder of how public space has been colonized by technology that is supposedly there to be more social, but has now offered same opportunity the caller uses to virtually anyone.
In Sophia Takal and April Wolfe’s take, the sluggishness of the authorities is represented as the men’s ingrained attitudes towards women, and it’s notable how it repeats the line from the original that “Most of the time they’re somewhere with their boyfriend” that in a new context makes it feel more meaningful than before. This focus on the ways the men who staff these positions differ from the dedication the ones in the 1974 version is contrasted with the sorority and the female solidarity who display empathy and humor to each other instead of divisiveness.
But Takal throws a wrench into this feminine solidarity, and it’s perhaps the most distressing because it comes from the woman who is set up as the heir to it. Helena is a millennial version of Barb, and rather than being killed after her guilt leads her to isolate herself like in the 1974 version, she is revealed to be working with Hawthorne’s Order. That her betrayal involves gathering personal objects like a diva cup and Jess’ hairband would be funny if not for how it suggests both the personal angle of the betrayal, and the gendered role she is playing in it. Her pleas that she viewed her actions as “helping” women because they were riling up the men as opposed to standing next to them as equals is the exact logic of internalized misogyny that we’ve witnessed throughout the past years with devastating consequences.
The climax of Black Christmas and the psychological and moral revelation Riley makes represents a distinct diversion from the Final Girl we’ve grown accustomed to. Our protagonist is no longer a Final Girl searching for inner strength to reclaim her power by “castrating the killer with his own phallic weapon,” but striking a blow at the source of the entitlement with help from and for the sake of her sisters and men who are threatened by it. This represents a shift from an expected psychological one such as in the 2006 version where viewers were meant to sympathize with the protagonist’s triumph as an individual completing their goal through their own will, to one where viewers see the triumph as a community as a commentary on the contradictions of the institution they face.
Because when Gelson states that the men of Hawthorne’s Order will “go out into the world and enter the courtrooms, boardrooms, and the halls of congress” the connection the scene makes is not just symbolic, but a terrifyingly accurate analogy. It brings to mind the grotesque 1989 film Society where the rich were not only shown as a predatory class of monsters who inhabit ever layer of authority from the police to judges, but send off their own to Washington to maintain their control at the expense of the lower class humans. It’s hard not to think of all the young men like the one who assaulted Riley being let out into the world by the permissive attitudes of the people in charge of the systems, then ascending the ranks to become the enforcers of those same systems with no one blinking an eye.
Calvin Hawthorne’s Order diverges from more traditional views of evil because it’s rooted in the institutional rather than Unholy black magic. His does not represent the symbolic chaos of the Anti-christ, but the cold order of bureaucracy that keeps schools and colleges running even after such corruption is unveiled as a fundamental part of their history. Viewed under this light, Hawthorne’s Order comes to stand for the lie of educational institutions that raise select men to feel entitled and other ones to be complacent even while championing freedom to learn for women that can be stolen from them almost at will. As such, they Order are not horrifying because they come from black magic, but because the purpose of that magic is to enforce a monarchic hierarchy that always allows them to preserve an elite order that is complacent in and enables the dehumanization and harassment of the women they claim to view as equals.
It’s fitting that the final words from Professor Gelson, who claimed that women were hypocritical for criticizing patriarchal systems that gave them so much (But are shown to be largely useless to help them throughout the film), is reduced to pleading that women will destroy themselves by waging a battle against this toxic male tradition. Just like the blind art dealer in Get Out, he claims to have no prejudices and even shows some sympathy for the stress and injustice Jess faces. Yet he’s revealed to be complicit with Hawthorne’s Order, explaining that they are “merely men, tired of being reduced to being spectators in our own lives,” and views the sacrifice of survivors like Riley to be a necessary evil. There is no talk of how, if women were to put down arms, these men would fight the abuse and entitlement they claim to disavow, because at the core of his argument is the assumption that men, through either genetics or history, are justified holding that order.
Though the 1974 Black Christmas ended with Jess as a survivor of her enraged boyfriend, the final moments enshrined the caller’s murders of her sisters as ambiguous, almost forgotten to any authority that might be able to codify and punish or reform (and the 2006 version casts doubt likewise on individuals who perpetuate that violence as reform-able). Its ambiguity was much in line with a culture passing from the father knows best era to the experimental. Seen through this light, this fresh vision of horror feels almost like continuation of these ideas, as it actually has eyes on the future rather than on the manufactured expectations of the past. The passing from the symbolic, to the psychological to the institutional in these three films is perhaps the first sign in a long time that our cultural anxieties are no longer represented by individual boogeymen, but the hypocritical and stiffing systems leftover from those days where our parents believed in the active creation of a better world rather than the passive consumption of one.