Last Christmas, I received a copy of the ghost story The One Who Saw by A.M. Burrage as a gift. It’s an edition by The Haunted Bookshelf and in the opening pages, the publishers write about how telling ghost stories was a yuletide tradition in the Victorian era, but has since petered out.
What a disappointment. Of all the Christmas traditions, this has to be the one to die out? I love spooky Christmas stories and movies. And to be honest, the only legitimately scary Christmas movie I can think of is Black Christmas.
Lucky for me, The Royal Cinema screened it on Christmas Eve Eve. It’s always been one of my favourite horror and Christmas movies. I watched it for the first time when I was about 12 or 13. My mom recommended it to me and I’m not sure she remembered it too well because I was way too young to watch that movie (I’m glad I did though). At that age, I was immediately shocked and scared from the very first crude phone call. Of course after repeated viewings, the shock and surprise has worn off. Instead, what surprises me is how progressive Black Christmas is for a horror movie and for a movie that was shot in 1973.
Horror films get a bad rap, whether it’s because of the gore and violence or the language or the sexism or, frankly, because of the low quality. I love horror, but I’m very, very aware of the failings within the genre especially when it comes to the treatment of women. For me, Black Christmas is a standout because of how realistic the women are, how relatable they are and how the themes and dynamic between the men and women are still so relevant.
You can watch a movie a million times on DVD, but it’s another experience to see it on the big screen. I had never seen Black Christmas in a theatre until this year, obviously, and seeing in projected at The Royal made it feel like I was watching it for the first time again. I don’t know if it was large screen, the amplified sound, the energy from the crowd or the big glass of wine I had before the screening, but I was able to take in so much more that I didn’t notice during previous viewings. Watching it yesterday in a theatre was the first time I really noticed how totally ineffective the men are in this film and how much they fail the female characters over and over and over again. And this is why I think Black Christmas still resonates with me, especially this year. Not only are these women being harassed with sick, vile phone calls (and being murdered), they also have to deal with a bunch of bullshit from the other men in their lives.
The cop at the station is totally useless and dismissive when they’re trying to report Claire missing until her boyfriend comes in and makes a scene. Even when Lieutenant Fuller, a seasoned detective, is on the case, his questions to Jess and Phyl about Claire are somewhat dismissive and imply that she or them are hiding something. At the end of the film, he isn’t even able to solve the case – the killer is never caught and we don’t know what happens to Jess. Or how about those weird men that come to the sorority house during a search party to talk to Jess and Phyl and it takes repeated attempts to get them to leave?
Let’s move on to Peter, Jess’s boyfriend. Not only does he assume that she’ll just give up her dreams and marry him because she’s pregnant, he threatens and tries to intimidate her into not having an abortion – even though she’s made it very clear, repeatedly, that this is her preferred option.
The only men in the movie that seem to be decent are Claire’s father and her boyfriend, Chris. But at the end of the day, they’re ineffective too. Chris doesn’t even know that Claire is missing until Jess tracks him down. And Mr. Harrison can’t help his daughter – he’s too late. In this case it’s less to do with inherent misogyny in these characters, but it does highlight the overall theme that men in this film – and, I would argue, in general – are unable or unwilling to understand the women in their lives and the female psyche in general. I’m not going to shit all over Mr. Harrison because he truly is a tragic character who does try to help. But take a look at the scene when he’s in Claire’s room at the sorority house. He disapprovingly looks through her things – her free love poster and the poster she has of an old woman dropping her knitting to give the camera the finger. He doesn’t understand his daughter. He has no idea where she is or where she’s coming from. I suspect Claire knows this too, which is why she wanted to meet him on campus and not at her residence.
To me, Jess speaks for all these women. She’s the one who, most obviously and effectively, pushes back. She’s confident, capable, intelligent, generous and very much her own person. She doesn’t back down and takes care of the situation – she looks for Chris to help figure out where Claire is; she assists in the search party for the teenage girl that’s gone missing; she doesn’t even leave the house when she finds out the killer is there because she can’t leave her friends behind. She also doesn’t take any shit from Peter. She makes up her mind about the abortion and that’s that – as it should be. When he tries to sweet-talk her into marrying him and keeping the baby, she tells him, calmly but firmly, that she has dreams too. Dreams that she told him about that he doesn’t remember or care about. She has a life she wants to live that doesn’t involve him.
Whether it’s 1973 or 2017, this is an incredibly feminist statement to make. Jess and the other girls in the house are in charge of their own sexuality. And they don’t hide it, apologize for it or have any qualms about it. Unfortunately for them, no one understands it. And no one can help them. All the male and authority figures in the movie are varying levels of useless, dismissive, unsupportive, sexist and aggressive or violent.
The final scene nails this theme to the wall. Jess is given a sedative to help her rest as the police officers pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves on a job well done. Even Lt. Fuller brags that he knew it was the boyfriend all along. Meanwhile, Claire’s body hasn’t been found and no one has any idea that the girls’ housemother is missing. Mr. Harrison goes into shock and the police officers are beside themselves, getting him out of the house and into an ambulance. They leave Jess, who’s just killed her boyfriend, alone and under heavy sedation. Sorry, did none of these idiots think that maybe the girl who’s just dealt with having her friends murdered by (supposedly) her boyfriend would need to see a doctor?! Typical males.
Black Christmas is a great, progressive horror film, but the true sense of pride I feel about it comes from the fact that it was shot in Toronto. I love being able to recognize High Park, the University of Toronto and Yonge Street. Seeing Olivia Hussey shiver in every outdoor scene is so truly, deeply relatable for me. Feminism and my hometown – what more could I ask for when it comes to a good, spooky Christmas story?