Warning: Spoilers Ahead • Screened at The Frida Cinema • 3rd Viewing
One of my favorite scenes in the history of cinema and, a little ironically, maybe the best moment in a horror movie EVER for me resides in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas; it’s during Barbara’s death, where our main character Jess on the other hand not only gets to temporarily take time away from the onslaught of harassment from the mysterious “Billy” slasher killer, and of course the pressure of being a police department’s bait, but moreover the ruminations of the possible impending consequences her manipulative partner could have in store for her future. Barbara is stabbed to death with a glass unicorn and the sounds of outsiders draw too much attention for her to be saved, and in our own reality thousands of others are also slaughtered day after day in the backdrop of our lives as is how we the people function. Murder is happening all around us, and the mercy of our mentality is that we can let go of that knowledge from time to time. In Black Christmas, that horror is very real, and yet during its existing simultaneity, the choir of children continue to sing and troubled people like Jess continue to smile. Modestly juxtaposing these two very contrasting emotions of peace and devastation for the audience to experience lets them sit with a feeling that really makes us comprehend that conflicting beauty yet tragedy for which distraction offers: how we can consciously let one dose of bliss take us shortly away from the control of fear that frequently leads our way of life everyday. Sure, holidays like Christmas are culturalized to celebrate the importance of family but it’s just as much a tradition as well that forces us to oversee the terror of society to concentrate on our blessid privilege of intimate seclusion, yet a kind of seclusion that can be humbly recognized and experienced universally by billions every year. This speaks for the human race, and it is what it is; it is the epitome of how we most frequently handle “horror”.
A noticeable amount of Black Christmas is like this: kills and threats are followed sometimes immediately by spirited comedy and relatable folktown gags that let us closely observe that realistic switch we tend to make minute by minute as our mind wanders from worries and duties to sass and blabber. Isn’t it obvious why we do it? Why we choose to ignore it sometimes? Why we choose to submit to fear but also not to its fullest authority? Why a force like “Billy” is never revealed in entirety to the spotlight? Maybe it’s because there’s never a big enough spotlight to cover it all. Maybe, there’s never a big enough spotlight to emit complete justice for our moral compass or complete sincerity and recognition towards our reality as we continue to pick and choose what to block out for the sake of our own protection, our own sanity. That’s why there’s something so forbidding and even double-crossing to me about seeing the remake of Black Christmas. No, not the 2019 one, the one just before it from 2006. Who’s to say, for all I know, that movie could be pretty good on its own rights, but word of mouth has informed me that it does disclose the full backstory to our murderous culprit.
Yet, the reason why I find myself so drawn to this Billy killer in Black Christmas is because I can’t quite comprehend him like we can’t comprehend every act of sin that’s hit upon humanity. Is he a brother? Is he a son? Who is Agnes? Is that his sister? Is that his mom? What is his vendetta or relationship towards her — was there incest involved? Molestation? What does projected lust have to do with her and his victims? Is a deranged family life really the explanation for his psychosis? Is Peter really the killer or does he just happen to be someone consumed by a woman planning on getting an abortion during all this murder? Theories like the ending is the mom’s voice haunting what she started are usually good ones, but always a stretch, yet also fitting enough given the amount of holes this Billy character leaves open. Maybe, the killer is just simply born a victim to genetic malfunction, able to kill at one second and cry of reminiscing his unconventional life during another? I’m sure someone as sick yet brilliant as Sigmund Freud would’ve loved a man such as this on his couch to study and understand. But, that’s exactly the scary part about the killer in Black Christmas: his motives feel genuine and full of personal ambiguity compared to the average slasher movie sociopath, almost as if something that occurred or was witnessed in writer Roy Moore’s own lifetime directly inspired the grounded yet incomplete story we have here. Contextually, we may never know what specifically happened to make said slasher killer a “slasher killer” in Black Christmas, but we sure as hell have a vague idea of who he is as a character born of trauma; this is why I find Clark’s masterpiece to be so down-to-earth in its horror elements rather than bent on uncanny fantasy to frighten; the only fantasy here is in its symbolic and poetic misfortunes in which Billy’s coincidental crimes become almost Shakespearian.
Thus, this antagonist mends seamlessly into many themes of Black Christmas, connecting this male rage to our possible suspect here, and therefore aiding in the film’s conquest to symbolize the emotional journey of abortion and the proceeding guilt of peer pressure that lives and breathes in this film so sympathetically through Jess and her encounters with a deranged murderer that is likely symbolic of either her on-and-off perspective of her unborn baby’s deceived perspective of being killed – it’s a mouthful, I know – or, more likely, Peter’s perception of what an abortion would do to someone hypothetically alive to see the day. There could also be a conversation in Black Christmas on how Jess’s experience of being tormented by this killer is an allegory for domestic violence. It’s very much implied that even if Peter wasn’t the killer, the thought of Jess being murdered by her boyfriend seems upsettingly plausible, given her apparent will to abort her baby and Peter’s personal repulse towards that being the case; it’d make sense too considering the implied past of the killer’s twisted and possibly uncaring and abusive family life.
Anyhow, it’s not whether or not Peter is the slasher killer that truly matters at the end of the day, it’s the idea that partners can have that universal paranoia of a life-threatening, almost romanticized sense of danger when relationships seem so disconnected or one-sided between an assertive, aggressive partner and another who experiences conflict from making decisions for themself independently in the face of their lover’s menace. Like how John Carpenter exuded psychological distrust between those around us in his masterpiece The Thing (1982), Bob Clark and Roy Moore do so but with an even more intimate and private topic: the awakening that someone who’s off-puttingly close to you may have been an imitation of security all along. The devious crew behind Black Christmas have inhabited a horror movie output that replicates those unshakable feelings with relative and innovative amplifications that still hold up almost half a century later.
“Black Christmas” is now available to stream on The Criterion Channel.