2017 has been a shitty year — a heartbreaking, hard-fought, barely bearable year. You’ve made it this far, and now it might be tempting, as you search for the perfect holiday film with which to round out the year, to kick back and let Bruce Willis carry you, barefoot, over crunching glass, amid the wailing of a bunch of hapless ’80s yuppies, into 2018.
But you’re not going to do that, because you’re a socially engaged human being and it’s time to accept that we need a subversive, angry, bleak, and cynical film to match our subversive, angry, bleak, and cynical hearts this Christmas. And for that, Die Hard just won’t do. But there’s one movie that will.
Put away your Die Hard DVD this season
Let’s start with the myriad reasons to just say no to Die Hard this year. For one thing, we’re still mourning Hans Gruber. Don’t drag Alan Rickman back into this hellhole of a cultural cesspool; let him move on to an astral plane full of puppies and cute Galaxy Quest aliens.
For another thing, while John McClane’s heroism is classic, he also represents a kind of renegade DIY democracy that’s empowered a certain breed of white man to think that he and he alone has a pass to make America great. Die Hard presents the law as incompetent and useless, Reginald VelJohnson as a thwarted policeman who can only do his best work by enabling the renegade white guy, and the media as vacuous, deceptive, and insatiable. Not to mention Nakatomi Plaza is the sleek embodiment of steadily encroaching foreign interests on good old red-blooded American soil.
Yeah, let’s issue a giant “no” to that moral this year. You can trot out Bruce next year, maybe. If you’re like me and have spent most of the year wanting to tear everything down with a wrecking ball, Ed Exley style (and that includes L.A. Confidential — thanks, Kevin Spacey), then you’re probably in the mood for a holiday movie that reflects your disenchantment, your cynicism, your deep fear at the current state of American politics, your rage-fueled feminism, and your need for some sort of cultural bloodletting.
Well, you’re in luck.
Behold the eerie, subversive, scary wonder of Black Christmas
What you need this Christmas is a horror movie, a slasher film that starts out with a series of creepy-as-hell phone calls, ratchets up the tension, never reveals who the killer is, and includes an in-your-face pro-choice subplot.
You need Black Christmas, a Canadian horror film made by director Bob Clark in 1974 on a shoestring budget (about $700,000), four whole years before Halloween supposedly kicked off the slasher genre. Set in a sorority house just before the students’ year-end departure for the Christmas holidays, the film concerns the escalating terror visited upon the sorority sisters by an unknown assailant who hides in their attic. Over the course of a few nights, his terrifying anonymous phone calls grow more violent, girls start disappearing, and the police force, as well as parents and local community members, all get involved in trying to find the killer.
On the surface, a dark and brooding, slow-paced horror film like Black Christmas might not seem like the perfect holiday entertainment. But there are a few reasons it’s actually the perfect Christmas movie for this particular cultural moment.
The villain in Black Christmas is basically a living Twitter egg
In many ways, Black Christmas is a departure from the villain-centered slasher franchises that would come to define this subgenre of horror. Perhaps the strangest and weirdest departure is that the killer — if indeed there’s only one — is never really identified. The camera often places us directly in his point of view, showing us events from his perspective, and only lets us see one part of his face — his eye, shown in this iconic shot:
The villain, who calls himself “Billy,” shows up without any motive or explanation and starts killing the women of the sorority house one by one. Before he arrives, he prank calls the girls for weeks. In the opening scene, Barb (a fabulous Margot Kidder) describes him jokingly as “the Moaner,” and the girls gather around to listen to him spew his usual litany of perversions. But the call immediately turns frightening and sinister: The caller degrades and insults the women and then starts threatening, amid a lot of incoherent garbling, to straight up kill them.
It all makes the killer seem literally troll-like — an inhuman beast barely capable of human language, hiding not below them, as trolls traditionally do, but over them, as they go about their business. His relationship to the women is also troll-like; from the brief hints we get of his psyche, he can’t seem to decide whether he views them as dehumanized sexual objects or matronly figures who’ve failed in their motherly duties toward him. He’s pretty much the standard internet misogynist brought to life.
Black Christmas is a movie that makes clear there’s real malice behind the threat of this particular brand of trolling. Modern trolls have morphed into terrifying political machines who dox, harass, threaten, and bully their targets while using racist, sexist memes to spread a toxic and immoral ideology of hate. Their anonymity, once the crucial factor that allowed internet culture to proliferate freely and unashamedly, has become a weaponized feature that allows trolls to multiply and harass their targets more effectively. We can no longer treat trolling as harmless behavior — even if it shows up disguised as ineffective ranting.
But even though the phone call is terrifying, the women don’t seem half as shaken by the call as we are watching it unfold. For one thing, they’re clearly used to the calls by now; for another, their prevailing attitude seems to be that everyone knows that trolls will be trolls. Right?
Black Christmas not so subtly points the finger at the community for harboring the violent troll in its midst
The cultural norms that teach us to ignore the trolls and they’ll go away are the ones that prevail throughout Black Christmas. Despite the calls and threats, the women continually leave their doors and windows unlocked (hey, it’s Canada). And even with the murderer on the loose, it takes our Final Girl, Jess (Olivia Hussey), multiple calls to the police station and the insistence of the missing girl’s father before the police start taking the harassment seriously.
The movie’s famous final conclusion — that the calls are coming from inside the house — has been passed down through pop culture as a cheesy shocking twist, but it’s actually not a twist at all: The audience has known since the first shot of the film that the killer is in the house. In Black Christmas, “the calls are coming from inside the house” is basically a giant cultural indictment. The killer, armed purely with anonymity and the prevailing culture of “ignore him and he’ll go away,” is able to outsmart and outwit an entire community of local law enforcement and neighbors looking everywhere for a killer to whom they can put a name and a face.
In Black Christmas, the killer is deliberately faceless, almost spectral — and there may even be more than one. If we consider that the house at the center of every horror movie is almost always a metaphor, then Black Christmas argues that if we want to know how hate and violence spread, we need to stop looking for a generic evil outsider and search for the source in our own homes instead. In a year where hate, misogyny, and xenophobic fear of the Other reigned over the political climate, the implications of Black Christmas couldn’t feel more timely.
Black Christmas validates women’s fears and their sexual behavior
Black Christmas is set in a sorority, and its female college students, including Kidder and Hussey, make Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie in Halloween look like a prudish waif left over from an entirely different era. Not only are the sorority sisters allowed to have sex, joke about sex, and talk about sex — along with drinking and smoking, gasp — but all this is portrayed as a natural and expected way for young adults to behave. Black Christmas is one of the very few examples of the slasher genre where teens having sex isn’t a template for bloody punishment. Jess is a fully independent woman who rejects her violent boyfriend’s offer of marriage and declares her intent to abort his child after she accidentally becomes pregnant. “I’ve thought this out very carefully, and I know what I’m going to do,” she tells him at first. Later, she points out that she still has dreams of her own that have nothing to do with his sudden desire for a nuclear family.
Jess is portrayed as being eminently practical and always right: Out of all the sorority sisters, she’s the only one to notice that all their doors and windows are habitually unlocked. Her decision to abort her baby is portrayed as part of this character trait. Over the course of the film, her instincts about Peter’s instability and dangerous possessiveness are proven absolutely correct: He immediately turns violent, coldly destroying the grand piano we see him playing early on and smashing one of the Christmas tree ornaments on the sorority house’s grand tree. He threatens her, and while the film plays up the possibility that he could be the killer, really we know all along that Peter’s brand of evil is Generic Douchebag — the variety that makes it all too clear why women need quick and easy access to abortions.
Black Christmas really is devoted to its Christmas theme
Keep in mind that Black Christmas director Bob Clark would go on to direct one of the most famous Christmas films of all time, 1983’s A Christmas Story. It’s easy to see how much Clark has thought about the holiday in Black Christmas, and the way it has an impact on both the story and the atmosphere. As a result, there are all kinds of nods to the dismantling of your childhood belief in a perfect and happy Christmastime.
The sorority house in Black Christmas is decked out in Christmas kitsch. Throughout the film, the trappings of Christmas are played up to hilarious effect, like when we get a brief glimpse of a sorority member’s Jewish boyfriend clad in a Santa suit, or when one of the sorority girls serves alcohol to one of the local children who’ve come to the house for a Christmas party. The notion of a wholesome Christmas gets as thoroughly smashed as the ornaments Peter breaks.
Even the killer, who seems to be in a perpetually infantilized state, can be viewed as a kind of anti-Santa: He starts by scaling the roof, and hides out in an attic that seems to be full of old and discarded gifts — including that classic childhood Christmas gift the rocking horse. (If you’re wondering why there’s a rocking horse in a sorority house, you’re not alone; the 2006 reboot runs with this weirdness by making the house the site of the killer’s childhood.)
The sorority house at Christmastime is portrayed as being so full of holiday-related business that relatively little communication happens between the girls. No one realizes their sister is missing at first because it’s assumed she went home for the holidays; the same fate befalls the housekeeper. And all attempts to keep doors locked seemed doomed to failure because of the constant coming and going of residents, visitors, police, neighborhood search parties, and, of course, Christmas carolers. This classic Christmas carol rendition of “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful” gives our killer the perfect moment to do his bloody work.
Black Christmas has had a lasting legacy partly because of the influence it had on John Carpenter in making Halloween, and partly because it’s just a really good film — one whose strident feminism and refusal to shame its sorority girls for their behavior is still rare onscreen and off.
(And, hey, if you’re still really married to a holiday Die Hard connection, in the 2006 Black Christmas remake, the lead, Heather, is played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who also plays John McClane’s daughter Lucy in the underrated Live Free or Die Hard.)
So why not make Black Christmas your required holiday viewing this year? After all, if there’s anything 2017 has taught us, it’s the lessons of this movie: Fear can’t be externalized. Extremism and hatred are homegrown in the recesses of our own communities. The horror is coming from inside the house.