“The Calls Are Coming From The House!”: A ‘Black Christmas Retrospective’

by Jamie Tram | October 29, 2020

Having been subject to decades of moralistic panic — some of it justified, much of it veiled snobbery — it can be easy to forget that the teen slasher began as an abortion drama.

Typically billed as a Christmas-time slasher, the original Black Christmas (1974) follows a group of sorority sisters who receive unnerving phone calls which precipitate their own deaths. Much of the film’s tension, however, is amplified by the rift between lead character Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her musician boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea, of 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] fame), when Jess finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Jess immediately has no qualms about terminating her pregnancy and is firm in her decision. Peter, on the other hand, is obsessed with keeping it and starting a family with her; when she rebuffs him, he descends into a volatile spiral.

The film comes a year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision Roe v. Wade and reflects that hard-won freedom, while also identifying a persistent, systemic rot. Monsters, real and fictional, often function to absolve terrible real-world violence by representing it as an entirely external force — but director Bob Clark cleverly obfuscates the boundaries between Jess’ harassment at the hands of both Peter and the murderer in order to locate the latter’s transgressions in everyday, patriarchal violence. This is, after all, the film which first coined the iconic line: “the calls are coming from the house!”

Black Christmas doesn’t quite enjoy the widespread recognition that Halloween (1978) or Friday the 13th (1980) enjoys, but it’s arguably the first film to establish the conventions of the teen slasher. By 1974, early slashers in the form of foreign imports and splatter flicks had already taken hold of grindhouse audiences, but Black Christmas carved out its own niche by grounding the subgenre in the lives of young women beset by emerging adulthood. As Richard Nowell points out, its producers hoped to capture the recently-discovered youth audience who flocked to see The Graduate (1967) and American Graffiti (1972), while also appealing to the politically engaged women who had popularised films like Love Story (1970) and The Way We Were (1973).

The attempt at appealing to these specific demographics ultimately failed. Black Christmas was a non-starter at the North American box office, but it paved the way for Halloween to catapult the teen slasher into the mainstream four years later by similarly focusing on younger characters and audiences.

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Black Christmas (2006) dir. Glen Morgan. MGM.

In the years to come, the teen slasher would be steamrolled within an inch of its life, defibrillated, then driven off a cliff — yet, in 2006, Black Christmas returned.

The central problem with Glen Morgan’s Black Christmas reimagining (or spiritual sequel, depending on who you ask) is that it’s considerably more interested in its murderer, rather than its protagonists. One of the core strengths of the original was its distinct cast of characters, where an actor like Margot Kidder (most famously known as Lois Lane in the early Superman films) could eat up the part of a sassy, but self-pitying drunkard. The characters in the 2006 remake, however, are entirely too expendable, deflated by dialogue which replicates the rhythms of snappy teenage repartee but none of the wit.

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Robert Mann as Billy Lenz in Black Christmas (2006).

In the original, the killer (identified as Billy Lenz) was presented as nothing but a spectre of unbridled id, his physical body almost entirely shrouded in darkness. Here, he’s equipped with a backstory, a retelling of real life serial killer Edmund Kemper’s upbringing conveyed in the style of a Jeunet-esque fairytale. The shock factor on display occasionally breathes life into the picture, particularly when we see a younger Billy make Christmas cookies out of his parents. I almost want to recommend the film to fans of Ryan Murphy’s work, but its excesses are rarely inspired, and its provocations (such as an incest plotline) prove tiresome.

In the film’s best moments, the spirit of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava creeps into the picture; certain scenes are soaked in a decadent cascade of Christmas lights, making for some beautifully nonsensical images. It’s a fitting tribute, intended or not, considering a segment (titled ‘The Telephone’) from Bava’s anthology Black Sabbath (1963) shares a similar conceit with the original Black Christmas.

The latest iteration of Black Christmas (2019), directed by Sophia Takal, more radically departed from the source material while attempting to hold onto certain key strengths — namely its memorable female characters, and a defiantly feminist subtext. Which meant, of course, it became a target of our dipshit culture wars online.

This time round, Takal’s film redirects the original’s preoccupation with female autonomy and male rage into an examination of rape culture itself, with mixed results. Neither the choice of target nor its blunt political messaging is the problem here — in the words of co-writer April Wolfe, “fuck subtlety.” Unfortunately, the observation that college fraternities resemble cults isn’t remotely incendiary in 2019. More crucially, however, the film fails to provide insight into how rape culture is perpetuated, or how some men compromise themselves in order to belong to malignant male communities. Rather, we discover that the frat boys killing off all the sorority sisters are merely under the influence of mind-controlling goo. As a visual metaphor for the all-consuming opioid of ideology, you could do worse — but it’s a stunning cop-out.

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Black Christmas (2019) dir. Sophia Takal. Universal Pictures.

Fundamentally, the film feels conflicted about being a teen slasher, and whether you can create a feminist film reliant on images of terrorised and/or brutalised women. Takal demonstrates a command over negative space and pacing when staging earlier kills, even throwing in a cheeky quotation of The Exorcist III (1990) (itself a cheeky quotation of Psycho [1960]). But after only a handful of these traditional slasher kills, the focus shifts onto a cat-and-mouse game at the midpoint, before transitioning into a slow-mo action climax.

Turning the film into a rape-revenge tale of sorts is a genuinely inspired idea, but its execution is kneecapped by the fact that it is, at the end of the day, a Black Christmas movie — and therefore a film built on a foundation of compelling, flawed, but ultimately dead girls. The ending angles for a cathartic fight scene between sorority sisters and cultists — but it tries to do so after killing off nearly every named female character in the film.

I’ve always found it odd how horror remakes are so often treated with contempt, considering they’ve existed for about as long as horror movies have been around. Most of them are outright bad, yes, but there’s still something worthwhile about watching ideas get translated across different cultures and time periods (however lazily). Sadly, neither of the Black Christmas remakes challenge the trend, as close as last year’s update gets — but I still think these movies reveal a lot about the evolution of the genre, and are worth watching on that basis. 

While they may not be outright remakes, we’ve seen countless films from Scream (1996) to Better Watch Out (2016) reinterpret Black Christmas (1974) in fresh and exciting ways, and Bob Clark’s original film will doubtlessly continue to inspire generations of horror directors by being the first, and one of the best, teen slashers ever made.

Jamie Tram is a Melbourne-based critic and screenwriter. His interests include Katharine Hepburn, desktop horror, and UFO sightings in Jia Zhangke’s filmography. Follow him on Twitter @sameytram.

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