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The Legacy of "Black Christmas": Women in Horror, Feminism, and the Blumhouse Remake of the Cult Classic

The Legacy of "Black Christmas": Women in Horror, Feminism, and the Blumhouse Remake of the Cult Classic

Coronavirus has turned 2021 into an excuse for all of us to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane. We want comfy clothes, comfort movies and comfort food. There have been many great films released this year, but I don’t seem to have the concentration for them.

I don’t want the new, I want the old and familiar, and Christmas is a time when nostalgia is encouraged and required in order to have a proper Christmas; Die Hard, Home Alone, ugly holiday sweaters and Granny’s inedible mince pies etc.

For me, director Bob Clark is a big part of Christmas. He made A Christmas Story and Black Christmas (1974), both cult classics and both favorites of mine, for entirely different reasons of course. Side note – I just found out Black Christmas was Elvis’ favorite horror film. So we’re in good company it seems.

I wrote about the legacy of Black Christmas for Women in Horror Month three years ago, but a lot has happened since then. Since horror is a big part of my comfort buffet and it’s Christmas, what better time to talk about Black Christmas (1974)… again?

The Power of Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas is one of my all-time favorite horror films and features one of the best feminist Final Girls, Jess Bradford, played to perfection by Olivia Hussey. Jess is a character that I feel doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. So, let’s change that!

Black Christmas is set at Pi Kappa Sig, a sorority house that’s being targeted by an insane killer called Billy. We don’t know who Billy is or why he’s targeting this house. At first, we’re introduced to him only through POV camera shots and then through a series of obscene phone calls. Billy’s dialogue and the strange sounds he makes turns these phone calls from an irritation to something deeply unnerving. 

Meanwhile, we meet the various characters who live in the house, including our lead Jess, whose story we follow more than any of the other girls’. When Jess discovers she’s pregnant, she decides to have an abortion—something her boyfriend Peter, played by Keir Dullea, is horrified to learn. He starts to exhibit some worrying behaviour and Jess becomes suspicious of him when things at the sorority house get progressively creepier and girls start to go missing. 

It’s worth pointing out something that may be obvious but the fact that Jess is pregnant is something of a subversion of your typical Final Girl, which is interesting in itself because Jess was one of the first of the trope. Jess is not a virgin, one of the main things often used in the trope as a signifier of pureness and goodness. Bad girls drink and have sex and often so drugs and they die as a consequence, not so for Jess. 

Her boyfriend fully expects Jess to have the baby, not because he feels they’d be great parents but just because. Jess is very aware of the unfairness involved with her boyfriend’s expectations. He thinks she should want to sacrifice her goals and dreams to have a baby, while he continues to flourish in his musical career. But she’s an intelligent young woman with a mind of her own, and she believes she’s got lots to do before settling down with children.

For 1974, Black Christmas is really quite progressive. This was a time when topics like abortion were considered so taboo they were rarely discussed. And even today, not many films feature abortion in the storylines and the ones that do are rarely seen to have their characters go through with it. 

 The thing is, Black Christmas is still progressive. It could open tomorrow and be just as relevant today. The sexual politics and feminism is something that is a crucial part of the film and was progressive for it’s time but in some parts of the world it is still progressive. Women’s reproductive health is seeming always under threat and abusive and controlling boyfriends are sadly still common. 

Jess is such an important character to be considered when talking about feminism and horror. Her character is independent, driven, loyal and has firm ideas about what she wants from life. She is calm in the face of a potentially unbalanced boyfriend and is the antithesis of the girl who cries and screams throughout the whole film. Olivia Hussey gives Jess an air of gravitas, of self-assured quiet confidence and grace.

Now, a shout-out to the late Margot Kidder as the magnificent Barb, a gleefully promiscuous sorority sister who has one of the most problematic lines in the film, “You can’t rape a townie.” The other girls are unimpressed with Barb’s candid and bitchy comments; none of them think her vulgar humor is funny and it’s not.

However, this sentiment is reminiscent of the sorts of comments that are seen in comment sections around the internet. Victim blaming and rape culture and said by a woman too. There’s something a lot darker behind her comment, internalised misogyny and maybe it’s something that’s been said about her.

Barb’s death scene is by far the most cinematic, metaphorical and problematic. It’s largely criticized as misogynistic, as the parallels between sex and the penetration of the murder weapon, a glass unicorn repeatedly stabbed into her sleeping body, are obvious.

I agree the metaphor of death through sex cannot be denied. It seems like it’s no accident that the most sexually confident character has the most brutal death in the film. And it’s a scene that has echoed through horror ever since.

Women in Horror: Issues Of Misogyny

That said, I don’t think it’s intentionally misogynistic. The killer is obviously a misogynist but that doesn’t make the film itself a misogynist piece of art. I can’t say for sure that Bob Clark wasn’t thinking in terms of punishing Barb for her liberal lifestyle, although misogyny can often be a subconscious thing. Whatever his intentions were, it’s something worth thinking about next time you watch the film.

Towards the end of the film, our protagonist Jess is told by the police to get out of the house straightaway. But her friends are upstairs, she doesn’t know they’re dead, and in a move that some argue is typical stupidity on her part, she runs upstairs to get them out of the house too. Her loyalty to her friends is what drives this decision; it has nothing to do with the later stereotype of a Final Girl who, in the words of Sidney Prescott in Scream (1996) says:

“They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.”

It’s a fair criticism, but Jess is nothing like this stereotype. (Also worth pointing out that minutes after Sidney says that, she runs up the stairs to avoid Ghostface, but that’s for another time.) Jess is the hero. She wouldn’t turn her back on her friends just to save her own skin. So her decision to try and save her friends proves her dedication and her humanity.

One of the things I love most about Black Christmas is the ending, where we see Jess at her most vulnerable. It’s bleak and creepy, and left mysterious as to whether she will ultimately survive. The idea of not being safe in your own home is left lingering in the shadows of your mind.

Given this, I was always surprised there was no sequel to the film…Until now!

Of course, there was the inevitable remake in 2006, which is nowhere near as cryptic, atmospheric or as affecting. There was talk in the mid-2000s that Olivia Hussey was approached to reprise her role as Jess in a direct sequel to the original film. This was shortly after the release of the 2006 reboot (where Andrea Martin, who played Phyllis in the original, played the remake’s house mother Mrs. Mac). However, the idea of a sequel film was scrapped after Bob Clark’s death in 2007.

The end of Black Christmas is partially what makes this film such an enduring creeper and brings us back again and again. So deliciously ambiguous. Jess has survived the night and has been given a sedative. The doctor and police decide to let her sleep the night away, unaware that Billy is hiding in the attic. 

The credits roll while we hear the sound of a phone ringing.

Does Jess survive the night? Will Billy ever be caught? 

Well, thanks to filmmaker Dave McRae, we find out! 

It’s Me, Billy is a short film made by McRae and is intended as a sequel to the 1974 original film.

“Unaware of the danger that’s hunting her, Sam and her two best friends are spending Christmas Eve at her grandmother’s old country mansion. Stalked by a sinister evil that’s been lurking in the shadows for nearly 50 years, Sam is about to come face to face with her grandmother’s chilling Christmas past, the deranged psychopath known as Billy.”

Funded through Indiegogo earlier this year, it’s slated for release in Spring 2021. You can watch the trailer here – https://youtu.be/nP8lIlRGfis

And Now, The Blumhouse Reboot: Black Christmas (2019)

Since I wrote this piece, the 2019 reboot of Black Christmas was released 

It wasn’t long after I wrote the original piece that, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, the MeToo hashtag took off around the world. 

The seismic shift in our cultural attitudes towards sexual harassment and feminism probably hadn’t been seen since the second wave movement of the 70’s and the Girl Power of the 90’s. Suddenly, awareness of the issues women face were in the spotlight. it’s no wonder then that the reboot was a celebration of feminism.

The reboot wore its heart and agenda on its sleeve, director Sophia Takal and writer April Wolfe set out to make Black Christmas a horror film for girls and young women and I’m all for horror catering to the little girls who love the genre.

Of course, it was criticized by many at the time of release. Many fans of the original couldn’t understand why it was a PG-13, or that it was ‘too woke’ and part of the feminist agenda. It dealt with issues like online staking, sexual assault, consent and of course murder.

It really does have little in common with the original but I’m OK with that, no one likes a cover of a song that just sounds like karaoke. It’s original, it’s fun and SPOILERS – It ends by burning down the patriarchy, literally. 

 I never understood the anti feminism complaints about the remake when the original from 1974 was absolutely a feminist film, though problematic at times. 

The 1974 original will always be the best, it gets under my skin and stays there. The 2015 remake and the 2019 reboot can’t match it for atmosphere, and it’s undeniably Christmassy.

Who doesn’t love a good murder at Christmas?