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Tuesday, December 20, 2022

From 1974 to 2019: Three Generations of Sisters in the ‘Black Christmas’ Sorority

Black Christmas is an inherently feminist franchise. Released in 1974, Bob Clark’s original film follows a group of sorority sisters who are stalked and dispatched by a mysterious killer over the holiday break between semesters. During a busy Christmas party in the full sorority house, the girls receive a call from someone they refer to as the Moaner. They gather around the receiver and listen to a tirade of obscene gibberish that culminates in the deadpan threat, “I’m going to kill you.” True to his promise, the caller who will come to be known as Billy (Albert J. Dunk in an uncredited role) murders the sisters one by one while calling to harrass them from a phone line in their own attic. Clark’s film is a masterclass in atmospheric dread, perfectly blending the trimings of the holiday season with the terror of an unknown killer hiding in the shadows. 

Aside from its place in film history, Black Christmas is also known for its strong female characters with two subsequent remakes creating three generations of sorority sisters.

Glen Morgan’s 2006 remake rehashes the original film’s skeleton while fleshing out Billy’s horrific family history in ways that feel both misogynist and transphobic. The 2019 remake from Sophia Takal follows a group of sorority sisters harassed and stalked by a toxic fraternity, reimagining the narrative to confront campus rape culture. Though ambitious in its scope and message, the film gets off to a promising start, but suffers from a rushed production schedule causing major third act problems.

Neither film succeeds in coming close to the near-perfection of Clark’s original film and the watchability of each depends largely on the strength of the sisters’ relationships with each other. 

The Pi Kappa Sigma Sisters of Black Christmas (1974)

The first kill of Black Christmas is both heartbreaking and shocking. Clare (Lynne Griffin) is packing to go home for the holidays when she’s lured into her closet by Billy pretending to be the house cat. He lunges at her and wraps her head in a plastic cleaning bag until she suffocates. Even worse, he positions her body in a rocking chair by the attic window. Still wrapped in the plastic that killed her, Clare is plainly visible to passersby though her body is never discovered. We don’t learn much about Clare only that she is nervous about the Moaner due to a nearby rape that has yet to be solved. Clare is loved by many and the investigation into her disappearance is the backdrop for the rest of the film.

Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) describes Clare as a “good girl” but the same could hardly be said for the boozy house mother. Well-liked by the girls she’s responsible for, Mrs. Mac is kind and courteous in public, but lets her true feelings flow in private. She complains behind the backs of nearly everyone she meets while swigging from numerous bottles of alcohol hidden all over the house (though she does have a point about that hideous nightgown). Despite her rough edges, Mrs. Mac is a warm presence in the house and seems to genuinely care for the girls in her care. 

The more nurturing figure can be found in Phyl (Andrea Martin), a sister who feels more like the house’s true mother. She is quick to offer emotional support to the other girls though she is also distraught over Clare’s disappearance. As Billy’s final victim she guides her sisters through each terrifying event and shoulders the weight of this trauma along with final girl Jess (Olivia Hussey). The core of Clark’s film is the affection the girls have for one another and no one embodies this spirit of sisterly love like the compassionate Phyl. 

One of the film’s most beloved characters is the snarky socialite Barb (Margot Kidder), whose nickname could easily serve as a description of her personality. The foul-mouthed sister seems to always have a clever comeback at her fingertips and uses her quick wit as a defense against those who would dismiss her. She delivers one of the most upsetting lines in the film when she insists that, “you can’t rape a townie” and her unapologetic quips frequently ruffle feathers. But another phone call early in the film may offer a clue to Barb’s petulance. Moments after Billy enters the house, Barb gets a long distance call from her mother with news that she’s blowing off their holiday plans. Barb seems to take it in stride, insulting her mother and quickly making plans with Jess and Phyl, but it’s possible all of her gloom stems from this disappointment. She also bitterly regrets snapping at Clare before her disappearance revealing a sensitive young woman within her hardened outer shell.

Jess Bradford is the star of Bob Clark’s film and one of the most impressive female characters in the history of horror. In addition to receiving the majority of Billy’s upsetting calls Jess has recently learned that she’s pregnant by her boyfriend, a classical piano student named Peter (Keir Dullea). She does not wish to start a family and tells Peter in no uncertain terms that she plans to have an abortion. She refuses to marry him and will not abandon her hopes and dreams just because he wants her to have the baby. Jess’s legacy cannot be understated and she has gone on to inspire generations of women to fight for the futures they want for themselves. 

The Delta Alpha Kappa Sisters of Black Christmas (2006)

Thirty two years after the original classic, Black Christmas was back on the big screen with Glen Morgan’s garish remake. Falling in the early years of the “torture porn” era of horror, the film tries to ride the line between subgenres, incorporating the slasher roots of Clark’s original story with the gruesome violence indicative of the era. Rather than the upsetting simplicity of killing Clare with a plastic bag at his fingertips, Morgan’s Billy (Robert Mann) uses a plastic bag as his MO with the added detail of stabbing his victims in the eyes before ripping them out of their sockets. True to the time period, the film is mean spirited and offers few characters to root for. The feminist message of the original is wholy undercut by an origin story that manages to blame Billy’s horrific murders on his mother and sister. Agnes (Dean Friss), a name mentioned but never explained in the original (we never find out who Billy is either) becomes a character in the film, killing alongside her father/brother whom she still lives with in the attic.

In fact the movie makes much of this familial relationship, comparing the sorority sisters with Billy’s own dysfunctional family. But viewers would be hard pressed to willingly spend time with either group. The sisters of Delta Alpha Kappa constantly bicker and backstab, making us wonder if they like each other at all. During a Greek family gift exchange, Dana (Lacey Chabert) makes a comment about wishing to bury the hatchet in her sister’s head. She’s talking about her biological sister, but this attitude could easily be extended to the girls who live with her in the house. 

Megan (Jessica Harmon) has been secretly sleeping with Kelli (Katie Cassidy)’s boyfriend. Lauren (Yan-Kay Crystal Lowe) walks through the house banging on doors and screaming at the sisters to come open presents. Heather (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is extremely religious and judgemental with no clue how to scrape ice off of a car, though her complaints about buying a secret santa gift for Billy are valid. We don’t know much about Clair (Leela Savasta) as she’s also the first to die in Morgan’s version of the story. We do know that she barely knows her half sister Leigh (Kristen Cloke), a legacy sister from an older generation who has begrudgingly agreed to spend the holiday with her. Snarky sister Dana interrupts Leigh’s rant about having to spend Christmas with Clare to tell her she likes her expensive coat. And they all ostracize the quirky Eve (Kathleen Kole), who seems to have been admitted solely because she is the daughter of a former member. 

The only two halfway decent sorority sisters are Melissa (Michelle Trachtenberg), who helps care for a drunk Lauren, and Kelli who serves as the film’s final girl. Kelli’s white sweater proclaims her doe-eyed innocence, but a nonexistent personality makes her difficult to root for. She does stand up to her cheating boyfriend Kyle (Oliver Hudson), but even he is so one-dimensional that it’s difficult to take their relationship seriously. The other girls in the house may be unpleasant, but at least they are interesting. In fact, the highlight of this dismal film is the sparkling exchanges between this murderer’s row of delightful actresses. These brief moments of acerbic fun are few and far between and even their good-natured house mother can’t help but complain about the unpleasant girls under her roof. Morgan’s version of Ms. Mac is played by Andrea Martin, Phyl in the original film. Still retaining some of the humanity of her previous character, Mrs. Mac is protective of the sisters, but continues the unsavory tradition of including Billy in their gift exchange.

The relationship between this generation of sorority sisters is a microcosm of the film itself: mean and vicious with a few bright spots along the way. 

The Mu Kappa Epsilon Sisters of Black Christmas (2019)

This new Black Christmas update from Sophia Takal bears little resemblance to the original film other than it’s sorority setting and its feminist message. Despite some massive problems with a convoluted third act, the film succeeds in providing a new group of actually likable sisters for us to root for. First to die is Lindsey (Lucy Currey), a member of another sorority boycotting the campus’s annual Greek talent show. We then meet the girls of MKE as they prepare for the winter break between semesters. Fran (Nathalie Morris) is a quirky girl skilled at inserting a Diva cup and vigilant about the care of the house cat, Claudette. She is the first MKE sister to die and her body is left on the house’s balcony throughout the film’s second and third acts.

Our core group of sisters is led by Riley (Imogen Poots), an orphan who suffered a date rape by a prominent member of a smarmy fraternity. No one but her sisters believed her claims and she is emotionally scarred from the attack. Her reassuring sister Marty (Lily Donoghue) encourages Riley in standing up to her attacker, though she is hesitant to rock the boat with bold political statements. She is frequently in the company of her boyfriend Nate (Simon Mead), who seems to support the girls feminist mindset but snaps into his own toxic behavior when he hears the call of the alpha fraternity. Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) is their conflict-averse friend who is kind and supportive though she’s not always sure what’s going on. The girls have no house mother and one of the film’s central themes explores the campus’s refusal to support and protect its students. 

Riley’s best friend is Kris (Aleyse Shannon), an outspoken feminist who demands action from the university. Earlier in the year she succeeded in getting a bust of the school’s racist founder removed from campus and is currently circulating a petition to have a misogynistic teacher fired. Kris supports Riley and challenges her to stand up for herself. She organizes a talent show in which the girls publicly accuse Riley’s attacker of date rape, attempting to claim the only justice available. However, Kris is not always thoughtful in her approach and uploads a video of Riley’s accusation without her consent. She is also hesitant to believe Riley’s claims about the malevolent fraternity, but returns to save the day in a fist-pumping attack that leaves the toxic frat house crumbling in flames. 

Riley’s little sister is Helena (Madeleine Adams), an innocent sophomore whom Riley seems to save from her own attack. Unfortunately, Helena is a covert presence in the sorority house, enabling the fraternity’s sinister plans. Believing that women should be subservient to men, she sells out her gender and ends up paying a steep price for her naivety. Despite this duplicity, the women of Takal’s Black Christmas have believable relationships with each other and the film’s highlights are watching them support each other in the midst of a toxic system. 

The original Black Christmas is a practically flawless film that falls near the top of most Christmas horror watch lists. Its two remakes have more dubious reputations. What makes Clark’s original film so memorable are the depths of its female characters, particularly Jess who has gone down in history as one of the most beloved final girls of all time. The subsequent remakes live and die with the strength of their cinematic sorority sisters. The 2006 film, filled with unlikeable characters constantly at each other’s throats, has a few bright spots, but ultimately feels as cruel to the audience as the girls are to each other. In contrast, the 2019 film, flawed though it may be, succeeds in being watchable based on its endearing MKE sisters. They are not perfect, do not operate in lockstep, and often argue, but they care about each other and their relationships prove strong enough to help gloss over giant holes in the film’s third act.

As Marty tells Kris shortly before her death, “I know I wasn’t always on your side and I know we butt heads sometimes … but I really love it when it’s just the four of us.”

So does the audience.

The post From 1974 to 2019: Three Generations of Sisters in the ‘Black Christmas’ Sorority appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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