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Festive Films Part 2: Black Christmas and the Subversiveness of Festive Horror

Written by Patrick Pilkington.

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Christmas is traditionally a time when our viewing options take a considerable turn towards the cosy and familiar. Families gather around the television set to pore over another festive viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life or their preferred version of A Christmas Carol, films that leave us feeling good and affirm our belief in firstly, the best of people, and secondly, the ability of the most wonderful time of the year to bring out that best. Yet, for a smaller, cultish audience, an alternative Christmas classic has emerged over the years, easily the most unnerving and often outright terrifying film set during the festive period. Why is it that when I think of sitting down to watch a Christmas film, my mind jumps straight to Black Christmas (Dir: Bob Clark, 1974)?

It’s probably the finest example of the Christmas horror subgenre that includes the likes of Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, Gremlins, and last year’s Krampus. The festive season has become a popular backdrop for horror cinema, with the subversive instincts of the genre offered an ideal institution to tear down in the sanctioned jollity and twinkling, family-friendly iconography of Christmas. What easier way to shock than by juxtaposing Christmas and all it suggests - togetherness, joy, family - with the death and destruction of horror? In fact, these juxtapositions are so easy to conjure (consider the sub-sub-genre of the psycho Santa film) that the majority of Christmas horror films remain content to use the festive season as a gimmick, rarely interrogating Christmas’ cultural resonances, but simply presenting it as something pure upon which terror can be unleashed.

Part of the enduring appeal of Black Christmas is that, despite its schlocky, punny title and high-concept premise (killer breaks into a sorority house over the Christmas period and kills off the unwitting students inside), it integrates the festive period more subtly and organically than many of the Christmas horrors that followed. Like so many of the great horror films, Black Christmas immediately undermines any sense of a wholesome ideal of functional normality that could be evoked by a more superficial representation of the Christmas period. Over the opening scenes, as the killer scales the outer wall of the sorority house and slips into the attic (where he will reside, undetected, for the remainder of the film), the camera roams our cast of characters collected downstairs. Their student Christmas party looks familiar, but it’s defiantly not wholesome; these revellers are using Christmas as an excuse to get drunk and have fun. On this level, and with the little matter of the festive intruder, a certain traditional concept of Christmas is already being subverted. But it is the glimpses of individual dissatisfaction during the festive period that first appear in these scenes that get to the heart of what make Black Christmas so uniquely unnerving.

It’s encapsulated by Barb (Margot Kidder), the sorority’s most outrageous sister. Aided by Kidder’s scene-stealing comic timing, the characterisation of the profane, heavy-drinking, generally awesome Barb threatens to single-handedly destroys the sanctity of Christmas even before the slaying begins. When the killer makes the first of many garbled yet highly disturbing phone calls to the girls, the tension is briefly punctured by her sarcastic claim that “it’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir making their annual obscene phone call”, and she’ll proceed to spend the remainder of the film becoming increasingly drunk and disorderly. But the opening scenes give us a motivation for this behaviour, a deeper sadness rooted in the broken promises that the festive season can often bring. The camera catches her in a phone conversation with her mother, as the latter effectively cancels her family Christmas plans for the sake of a festive getaway with her new boyfriend. It’s a strange, sad reminder of how the expectations of togetherness and family created by Christmas often mean that the happiest time of the year can facilitate a more pronounced sadness, for me bringing to mind that other, more traditional Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (Dir: Frank Capra, 1946). It’s another crack in the festive façade, soon to be intensified by the reveal that the film’s final girl Jess (Olivia Hussey) is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Rather than present the killer as a destructive intrusion into an ideal of normality that could be evoked by a more superficial representation of Christmas, Black Christmas interweaves the grisly horrors of the stranger in the attic with the surprisingly (for a slasher film!) complex individual problems and fraught dynamics of the sorority members.

The intruder’s own familial trauma can (perhaps) be pieced together via the jabberings of his phone calls - and formed the basis for an elaborate backstory given the character in the by-all-accounts terrible 2006 remake. Here, our knowledge of “Billy” is kept to a minimum and, in truly horrifying fashion, he is only glimpsed at sparingly - a figure obscured in shadow here, an eye staring through a keyhole there. More than the seminal Christmas horror, Black Christmas is one of the first and finest examples of the slasher film, utilising and in many cases establishing a number of slasher tropes to excellent effect; the subjective camerawork, the unseen killer, the college-age victims, and of course, the use of a holiday as a setting (preceding the run of slashers taking place over everything from Friday the 13th to April Fool’s Day). Black Christmas is set over the course of two days, and excels not only at ratcheting up the tension as the cast dwindles, but in establishing and intensifying a mood that makes the festive period feel innately chilling. Has there always been something inherently creepy about Christmas carollers, or did Black Christmas effectively ruin them for me? In the film’s most overt juxtaposition of festive goodwill with bad deeds, the murder of one of the girls upstairs is cross cut with carollers singing to Jess at the door. But this is only the most direct example of the film’s excellent and unsettling distortion of the iconography and mood of Christmas. Consider the deep red of the wreath adorning the sorority house’s front door, or the strange pattern on Jess’ Christmas sweater that appears to look like outstretched hands grabbing at her. Or Billy’s own Christmas decoration, the body of his first victim, wrapped in the plastic she has been suffocated with and propped in a chair to be displayed in the attic window for the remainder of the film. Black Christmas is full of images that, once seen, do not go forgotten, and leaves a chill in the air that, for some of us who return to the film year after year, can end up becoming as paradoxically cosy and familiar as dry turkey and repeats on T.V. For a little while, Christmas is the perfect time to feel scared.

You can read the first article in our Festive Films series hereand part three here

This article was published on December 19, 2016.