February was Women in Horror Month and March is Women’s History Month. As a lifelong horror fan and feminist, I’d like to use this week bridging the two as an opportunity to celebrate the iconic Jess from the landmark Canadian horror film 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.
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.
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, a lot of films that feature abortion in the storyline are rarely seen to have their characters go through with it.
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.
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.
That said, I don’t think it’s intentionally misogynistic. I’m not sure that director Bob Clark was 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.
Given this, I was always surprised there was no sequel to the film. There was, of course, the inevitable remake in 2006, which is nowhere near as cryptic, atmospheric or as affecting. The original is a masterpiece and still manages to get under my skin.
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.
We will probably never find out what happened after everyone left the house at the end of Black Christmas. Perhaps it’s better than way, the ambiguity leads to the question…is Jess really a Final Girl?
To learn more about Women in Horror Month, visit womeninhorrormonth.com. Women in Horror Month is an international, grassroots initiative that actually celebrates women’s contributions to the horror genre year-round through the blog AxWound and the AxWound Film Festival, with an official event/project database released every February. As the organization’s mission statement reads, womeninhorrormonth.com “encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre.”
Moxie McMurder is a writer, poet, and film critic who regularly contributes to Honeysuckle Magazine. Based in the UK, she is the staff film critic for Garden City Cinema. The founder of Lead Jammer Magazine, Moxie’s work has also been featured frequently on MoviePilot and Medium. She is the author of the novella Blood Sings. Visit her blogs Moxie McMurder and A Shared Madness, and follow her on Twitter to learn more.