#3: Are You Still Watching? Holiday Edition ❄️
In the Mood's curated winter playlist, holiday horror faves, not-so-guilty pleasures, and more. 😈
A Playlist For Your Winter Mood
Coming From the House: Watching Black Christmas in a Pandemic
Last November, my housemate found a moth larva in a bowl on her pantry shelf. Our house—ten of us lived there, in total—was a once-stately Victorian-style seven-bedroom a mile north of my college campus. It had been bought and cheaply remodelled by a rental management company catering to (or rather, taking advantage of) students moving into their first non-dorm digs. The wood was termite-hollowed, the bathrooms blooming with mould, and the nooks caked with the kind of impenetrable grime that can only be generated by dozens of careless 20-year-olds over years of unsupervised living. One larva meant more. The exterminators couldn’t come until the end of the week, and before then we’d have to throw out every open dry product in the kitchen. We were in the depths of the pandemic, with no end in sight, looking down the barrel of a bleak, deadly winter. The infestation was, in short, the last thing we needed.
It was during that moth-infested week that I first watched the 1974 cult-classic slasher Black Christmas: as cruel, terrifying, and mesmerizing a work of holiday entertainment as the moment demanded. The film, perhaps the most respected in the Canuxploitation canon, was shot on location in Toronto, and the bitter cold of the Ontario winter cuts like a knife through the screen into whoever’s watching. In my mild Los Angeles November, the chill was bone-deep.
The premise of Black Christmas is simple and, after decades of derivative slashers, trite. Days before the sisters at the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house are supposed to go home for Christmas break, they begin receiving mysterious phone calls—obscene, then threatening, then increasingly bizarre. Unbeknownst to the young women, someone has broken into the house through an attic window in order to kill them off one by one. But the victims and would-be victims differ from the ones who’ve appeared in the many superficially similar movies since. The first, and most unflinchingly portrayed, murder befalls Clare (Lynne Griffin), a sweet, mousy naif venturing timidly but enthusiastically into dating and drinking. Barb (Margot Kidder) torments her for her inexperience but is wracked with a mixture of guilt and righteous anger (at the cops, at Clare’s uptight father) when Clare goes missing.
Meanwhile, protagonist Jess (Olivia Hussey) struggles with a personal dilemma. She is pregnant, and wants an abortion, but is nervous about telling her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), a neurotic piano student at the university’s conservatory. When she does tell him, he lashes out, begging her not to “kill” the baby and insisting that they get married instead. His volatile misogyny, poorly veiled by creative passion, mirrors that of the aggressive caller. Both men play a part in the mounting anxiety that creeps through Jess, her sisters, and the audience.
The other men who appear throughout Black Christmas aren’t much more appealing. Clare’s father (James Edmond) is conservative and judgemental, as aghast by the thought of his daughter “at a cabin somewhere with a boyfriend,” as one particularly inept cop suggests she is, as the more sinister possibilities. While the police lieutenant played by horror cop character actor John Saxon is more competent than his underlings, he’s ultimately powerless to protect the sorority members or catch the killer.
Horror habitually constructs worlds in which the safety supposedly offered by familiar institutions and places—law enforcement, the family, the suburban home—is revealed to be illusory. Herein lies the genre’s radical potential. Black Christmas undermines the promises of mirth and warmth implicit in the setting of a cozy house festooned with Christmas decorations. An implacable dread runs beneath the snowdrifts and creaking floorboards even in the large portions of the film that take place in broad daylight.
That the home at Christmastime can be trusted to be safe has always been a fiction. Families are notoriously adept at harbouring abuse, and the tensions around tight finances and close quarters that run high at the holidays can add to such violence. But the pandemic dealt yet another rupturing blow to this mythic safety. Family gatherings in warm living rooms no longer represented refuge from the cold, but instead prime conditions for the virus to spread and kill, like the lurking caller in Black Christmas.
My house, already teeming with unwelcome insect life, felt particularly inhospitable after watching Jess and her housemates stalked through a dwelling of similar vintage. My feelings ran deeper, however, than the unease that often shakes me after watching a successfully scary movie. I felt for the fictional young women—Jess and her vaguely sapphic, Jewish best friend Phyl (Andrea Martin); Clare and her troubled bully Barb; even the Ruth Gordon-esque lush of a house mother, Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), whose drunken farce bears undertones of tragedy. Strong characters make slasher films, often derided for their flat protagonists’ plot-serving illogic, cut deeper. Their fear became my fear; I felt their dread in the fragile sanctuary of their winter home. In 2020, facing a cruel pandemic winter, we all did.
Lucy Talbot Allen draws comics and writes about movies, mostly.
BATTLE OF THE FAVES: Tales From the Crypt vs. The Holiday
The Editors of In the Mood discuss two of their favourite Christmas films. Both are about breakups, but only one of them involves a killer Santa Claus.
Gabrielle: What do you look for in a Christmas movie, Sennah?
Sennah: I look for low stress, warm and fuzzy, hammy and cheesy. Something you can watch while falling asleep or talking on the couch with your family. I don’t usually watch that kind of thing outside of the holidays, so it’s a comforting indulgence! What about you?
Gabrielle: Christmas movies are all about production design for me. I want the decorations, big snowflakes falling, turtleneck sweaters... I want the whole winter fantasy. I don’t have a lot of patience for schmaltz however, which probably explains my pick for today.
Sennah: Let’s dive in—you chose this holiday-themed Tales From the Crypt episode, “And All Through The House,” and I chose The Holiday.
Gabrielle: Was this your first Tales from the Crypt episode?
Sennah: Yes! I didn’t even know what it was. I mixed it up with both Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?—so I totally thought it was for kids. But it absolutely wasn’t! Did you watch it as a kid?
Gabrielle: I definitely didn’t, we only had three channels growing up so I missed a lot of shows. I started watching them a few years ago and I also assumed Tales was for kids, but in the first episode I watched, someone gets a blowjob!
Sennah: Omg. So, why did you choose this episode?
Gabrielle: I find there’s something very satisfying about a killer psycho Santa Claus. It’s this totally unsubtle, heavy-handed juxtaposition that is really enjoyable and playful. The production is amazing too, the gorgeous snowy set, her red robe, Nat King Cole crooning. It really nails the Christmas fantasy and then immediately derails it.
Sennah: Totally. I also felt very validated by this spooky Santa Claus, because I was so scared of Santa as a kid! I remember crying to my parents because I didn't want this intruder to come down the chimney—I told my parents that I wanted Santa to knock on the door!
Gabrielle: That’s really cute. In Tales, I think the Santa killer takes the suit from one of his victims’ houses, like he saw it and thought, “it would be hilarious if I wore it.”
Gabrielle: I guess Robert Zemeckis has a thing for Christmas: he also did the infamous Polar Express and a CGI version of Christmas Carol. Have you seen Polar Express?
Sennah: Nooo, I haven’t! I always thought it looked so creepy, though.
Gabrielle: I watched it with my family last Christmas and the animation is truly alienating. The characters have these dead eyes, and everything is too smooth and unnatural. I found it uncomfortable to look at, but my family loved it. They were riveted! The kids in the movie eventually get to the North Pole and although it's not intended to be spooky, the city looks like an empty cavernous shopping mall. There’s a room where the elves watch surveillance footage of children on a wall of monitors. The Santa surveillance state!
Sennah: Ha, that’s also what freaked me out about Santa as a kid! I was like excuse me, who’s this guy who knows when I’m sleeping or awake, and if I’ve been bad or good. But I’m intrigued by your parents being hypnotized by Polar Express—especially because its animation is like the textbook example for the uncanny valley!
Gabrielle: They didn't even seem to notice how weird it looked. Maybe we’re overly analytical about images? But it did make me think about Zemeckis’ interest in bodies in his work.
Sennah: Yeah, I was thinking about all the body horror in Death Becomes Her, and then how shockingly violent this episode of Tales from the Crypt was.
Gabrielle: Exactly. The last shot is a zoom into her face, and she just keeps screaming, her face seeming more and more deformed.
Sennah: Totally. It was, I was like, give this lady an Oscar! One thing I was curious about is if each episode is its own little contained story?
Gabrielle: Yeah, it’s like The Twilight Zone. They’re these little Edgar Allan Poe-style morality tales, where the greedy and adulterous always get some kind of ironic punishment at the end. Rewatching this episode, it made me think that it’s often the cynical or sneaky one who gets axed, while the psycho killer is more pure of intention.
Sennah: I love that. It’s like a galaxy brain moment—we have a “bad” murderer on the loose, wearing the costume of Santa, a “good” person, and basically punishing the “bad” greedy housewife. He’s got morals! He chose to kill her over the daughter...
Gabrielle: Yes, they felt the need to mention at the end that the daughter doesn’t get murdered, that’s a step too far, even for them! But the whole thing is very fun, I love the shot where she's in the foreground, and he appears in the window behind her like he’s going to say “peek-a-boo”! And a few moments later he crashes through the window on a tire swing. He’s really hamming it up!
Sennah: And as I said, I love me some hammy performances in my holiday movies!
Gabrielle Marceau is a writer and editor-in-chief of In the Mood Magazine.
Sennah Yee is the author of How Do I Look? (Metatron Press) and My Day With Gong Gong (Annick Press).
Feeling Glamorous? Kate J. Russell recommends Female Trouble
John Waters, 1974
Would you die for fashion? Do you know that crime is beauty? Are you a thief and a shitkicker, and, uh, would you like to be famous? If you’re the sort of person who knows that cha-cha heels are of the utmost importance for a glamorous teen, then this is the film for you. If you’re seeking inspirational couture, look no further: sequin capri pants with fishtail frills; a see-through lace wedding gown; a hip-hugging electric violet bodycon dress; a sparkling leopard print one-shouldered mini dress; and a liberal application of electric blue eyeshadow. Experience your own “eyeliner rush” after mainlining Female Trouble’s fabulous fashion frenzy.
Dawn Davenport is played by Divine, “the most beautiful woman in the world,” so beautiful that she gets fucked by herself after absconding from her parents’ house on Christmas day because they do not understand the dire need for chic footwear. Dawn shakes her luscious curves, peddles her bodily wares and robs the locals until she is discovered at the Lipstick Beauty Salon, a time capsule of fifties-era coiffures and the finest Baltimore fashion where clients have their beehives teased to the heavens. The owners theorize that crime is the key ingredient to beauty and enlist Dawn as their glamour guinea pig after being stunned by her beauty and propensity for shit-disturbing. Her first photoshoot begins with smashing a chair over her rambunctious daughter and ends with an acid attack to the face from her heterophobic aunt-in-law. Dawn’s disfigurement, her rotting face, are greeted with effusive praise—nothing can stop Dawn from becoming the most beautiful, most glamorous woman in the world! Nothing, except her own exploding ego…