Black Christmas (1974) Revisited: Margot Kidder’s Barb torn apart by the world in a time of transition.

 

Rev., May 15, 2018.

Dedicated to Margot Kidder, d. May 13, 2018. Disclaimer: readings of the tea leaves of inferences in the text as they speak to me in a particular viewing are not “views” that are necessarily those that I hold regarding current social issues.

As an observance of her death, I watched Black Christmas (1974) again with attention to the role that Margot Kidder played in it, Barb, the sharp-tongued, heavy-drinking, entirely-messed up, but fun, and very much of the moment sorority girl, who comes to a bad end. It is a small, but fierce performance, and in many ways the movie is not imaginable without it, indeed it won her some awards. But, then, the question is, why? why does her performance capture the nature of the movie better than anything else in it? The main issue is that Black Christmas, like several other movies of the time that I remain intrigued by, is a kind of shambles, and filmed in that shambling, unclear style, full of loose ends, that a lot of 70s directors were toying with at the time (The Exorcist was one of these, but also Midnight Cowboy, The Omen, several others, it was the style of the time, it was gritty, realistic, but upsetting, so many loose ends, such an obtuse way of making a movie). I have not yet been able to put my finger on what exactly accounts for the special character of these movies, except by way of talking about the invasive-contagious associational chain created at the start of The Exorcist, but by focusing on Kidder’s Barb in Black Christmas that might get me there.

The movie starts out with a house invasion, with the killer of the 13-year-old in the park coming to roost in the attic of the sorority house. Then we see life inside, and it is spun about by Barb, coming down the stairs, with a drink in her hand (also note the honeycomb Christmas decoration, an all-directional apotropaieon, which, for that, screams look out)

amar 1while she stirs the pot

amar 2the killer invades the house

amar 3and it will stay like this, it is almost as if she is the “reason” or at least the symbol for the reason why the killer is there, which is that is he a first entry in the counterrevolution in horror against the sexual revolution, a victim-psycho of the sexual revolution who now wants his revenge at all the slutty girls in the world (there is little question that underneath the unhinged liberalism of the 70s, that is, detached from progressive actual politics, there was a riptide current activated). So it is important to note that while the killer is already, in media res, psycho, she is already, at the very start of the movie, pouring heavy, and drinking a lot

amar 4and while her dog collar indicates a perhaps sadistic edge, her open blouse is revealing of a woman comfortable with her sexuality, even flaunting it all over, and then, of course, a cigarette to make of her a moll, a wild girl who is indulging in everything (Kidder died of throat cancer thus I fear this pose took ten years off her life in real life)

amar 5she is even tending the bar, opposed to the bookshelves

amar 6and in a synchrony that is quite strange her drinking is paralleled to the psychokiller finding a place to squat up in the attic, and it features several shots of the rocking horse, why would that be up there? being rocked back and forth

amar 7I mean, it is a trope, instrumentalized

amar 8a lot

amar 9the last time I had to deal with the rocking horse was in dealing with the true haunting of Biddesden house, where it might be that a legend of the old duke riding his horse up and down the main stairs was perhaps the basis for rocking horses showing up as the toy du jour in all the upper floor bedroom nurseries. It may be that the rocking horse also signifies the nursery, as spelled out in English lore of the upper class, that is, the special out-of-touch world of the upper class nursery-educated, with their secret languages and way of talking. It is also true that the “rocking horse people” are mentioned in Strawberry Fields, and they may be taken to be people who have become accustomed to living in fantasy, stiffly, plasticly, going through the paces of corporate or middle class or upper class life, but detached. The horse aspect might also bespeak a wild animal element to this too. So, having seen this settling, we get Barb on the phone, calling upstairs, no problem, because she is also a loud mouth, and has no problem screaming

amar 10and it is almost as if the movie is timed to make the point that by calling up, she situated the killer at his point of remove, and so he took up his place, vis a vis her, or all the girls, all “whores” represented by her sluttish ways (again, this psycho POV)

amar 11then she goes back to talking, she is talking to her mother, and when she says, mother you are a real gold plated whore, but also that she has a ski place in the country, we learn that she IS a rich girl, but has been entirely neglected by her family, so has a deep hurt in her, for that

amar 13when she calls her mother a whore, she is seen POV by the killer, the first in-house sighting by him of anyone of the girls, all of whom are characterized thereafter as whores

amar 14and, of course, Kidder’s performance is so special because she manages to slip in between her moments of public bravura moments of private pain and fragility, as when, after the call, she is quickly devising a face-saving proposal, so her sisters don’t know what a messed up person she is

amar 15When, then, they get the first obscene phone call, in the movie, though it is suggested this has been going on for a while, Barb takes an interest in it, and is curious about its twisted sexuality

amar 16at one point even admits to being rather impressed that he has upped his game to talk of licking pussies, big pink pussies

amar 17and, then, another gem moment for Kidder, whatever this means, is she turned on by this? is her sexually liberated sex drive got so unhinged that some talk of oral sex by an obscene phone call turns her on?

amar 19she even has a smoke, listening in

amar 20and then returns fire and reassumes her role as the golem or guide in these matters, the front person, of the group, in dealing with the evils of the world, the experienced girl, and she taunts him, and almost at one point turns it into phone sex, and the other girls are horrified, thinking that maybe she is encouraging him, or putting a target on her back (which she is)

amar 21and then when Martin says that she is playing with fire, because a townie was raped last week, she says, you can’t rape a townie, meaning that townies are too tough to get raped, that is, it was part of it, for them, but also, she says, this is a sorority house not a convent, that is, we talk about sex, sex is good, sex is almost the point of all this, so, no need to worry

amar 22then when Carol, the first victim retreats, not being able to take it, Barb shoots at her, I know a professional virgin when I see one, and the others tssk along, though no doubt all sexually experienced by this point

amar 1 1and then the movie moves on. Later, at a house on campus (I am unsure of the timeline), where the sorority is staging a kid’s Christmas party, she reveals her even worse sense of the inappropriate by, in front of all the kids, at a public event, deciding to continue her binge, drinking bottle-heavy

amar 25she even SERVES ALCOHOL to one of the kids, while the father of the missing girl, Carol, is talking about his missing child on the phone (for this she might be arrested today).

amar 26then at the police station, when the Carol case begins to actually develop into something, she is back at “the man”, at playing at hijinks by relaying the sorority number to the dumb desk sergeant, this an old trope, it is FE exchange, that is Fellatio 2450, etc (note that when the girls first gather around the obscene phone call, the side of a calendar one sees only spell out, on screen, FE FE FE FE FE, for February)

amar 27and, then, that evening, the drinking still continuing, she is at dinner, or after dinner, sitting on a couch, paging through no less than a Penthouse magazine, while the father worries

amar 28it is a Penthouse, with a centerfold of a female nude, which she was scribbling on, and the question would be why is it in the house, if not to satisfy, in the logic of the picture, a same-sex vibe in her character (could she be miserable because closeted?)

amar 29then she gives her talk about turtles having sex for three days without stopping, unlike men, who take about three minutes, another jab, and after that, she is shown to bed, for she, they all now realize, has had way too much to drink

amar 30but not without a total reaction that she has internalized a bunch of inferences that, because of her taunting of Carol, she drove her away, to her room, and by upsetting her, and not letting rest in the group, she caused her death, and she is like, why don’t you say what you are thinking? you think I had something to do with this, I caused this, it’s my fault

amar 31one more time, some time later, we see her again, as we find out that she has yet another weakness, she has asthma, and should not have been drinking for another very good reason, it triggers episodes, but she did, and here she is, attending to by Hussey

amar 32but for this, she comes directly into the POV radar of the killer

amar 33then Hussey tucks her in, but not really, as she is pretty exposed, indicating her weakness, perhaps she left her chest exposed to help her breathe

amar 34and she goes, because drunk, right back to sleep

amar 35but while it was previously suggested that her first introduction and her rambling attack on all things by way of being drunk and wild, echoed the ingress of the psychokiller into the sorority house, making of him an all but homunculus form of her, them the two sides of the same coin, the failure of the sexual revolution, here, there is now a direct misdirection involving her to allow her to die unattended by the protection she was promised by others. As the killer steps aside, to hide, passing a picture of sorority girls past

amar 36Hussey is drawn downstairs into seasonal ritual by the appearance at their doorstep of the Christmas carolers

amar 37she then has to snap out of it, from the emergency mode, and having all these troubles in the house, to play the hostess, in a pro forma way, for the kids, for the season, and stand at the door and as part of the ritual listen to the kids sing out their song, next to the red star

amar 38and yet it is almost as if the red lit wreath star is this movie’s version of a shower sequence, as it is to the obligations of the season acts as the device that causes her, behind her back, to NOT PAY ATTENTION to what she should be paying attention to, and in that backstab blindspot behind her, behind the formal niceties of the season, the red lit star is contrasted directly and immediately with its eclipse form, the parodic black mass version of Christmas cheer placed by Barb on her dorm room door, the black Christmas wreath, ornamented with little bottles of alcohol

amar 39and made darker still (ie, black), by the killer’s shadow in POV falling on it

amar 40and then he enters the room, we see him in silhouette, but figured out by the glass unicorn in Barb’s surprisingly delicate collection of glass figures, the arty nature of which I have commented on in another note. But, at this point, I want to point out the unicorn nature of the nexus itself. That is, this is a clash of two injured people, a psycho and a drunkard, both are easily breakable, he is animalistic, she is glass, the horn perhaps represents his knife, his weapon, his ill intent, but the “unicorness” of it represents, in keeping with my previous analysis of the movie’s use of the trope of the Dead Eyes of the World, the absolute wrong-place at the wrong time stupid nonsensicalness of them coming in contact with each other, to this bad end. In this capacity, a unicorn represents an act of violence of shocking unnecessariness, a freak accident, as they say, but, here, a freak killing, with no point, except that it happens. And Clark is saying that this happens, this reduction to glass, in the wake of pro forma keeping of things like the holidays, and behind or in the eclipse of a wreathe reversed by alcohol into a black mass negation, which ten breeds other darkness. But, it is important to note, Clark is not saying that this killing has any agency, this is a clusterfuck incident in the big wide rationalized modern world, and not a ritual killing done in some contra or psycho world divorced from it, this is just the fuckedupness of the god of carnage of the world, expressing itself. I previously noted that Barb’s barbs are all expressive of pure spite and messing with the system and “the man” and have no serious point or in any way other than just being acting out of her hurt and pain and giving it to others. That is, I think Barb operates relative to the world of the 70s, much in the same way as the bikers in California biker movies in the 60s acted out irrationally and absurdly against “the man” and “the system” and in that sense I see their actions as but reactive responses in pure spite or hate to the current oppressiveness of mass modern life (see my piece on what the Swastika most definitely does NOT mean in a 60s biker movie, ie it is NOT a regression to neonazism). What to call this? I graph out her situation like this

amar 41

that is, while it is tempting to say that she is living in a glass onion, to see the world through it, and feel impulses from the wider world’s Sentients and Ambients through it, I do not think that is what is going on here. She has let herself, perhaps by drink, maybe by sex, be dissociated entirely into the far scaffolds of rationalization that afflicts modern life, where symbolic and utterly stupid secondary issues clog up the brain and carry things away in endless rationalization. And, then, out there, caught in a clusterfuck maelstrom, wider Sentient forces come in against her, and, because she is defenseless, having given in to all the world’s pressures, and let the world tear her apart, the Sentients whirl in in a manner of cutting, and tear her to pieces, leaving behind a raggedy ann doll ruination. I ran across a quite good word last night, in Gibbon. He talks of a sixth century Byzantine treasurer, Alexander, who reduced the size, but not the figure, of Byzantine coinage, so that the same size denomination was worth less, for that he was called PSALLICTION, the scissors. I believe I will call “psalliction” the process by which far off Sentients of a menacing sort tear to pieces persons who have allowed themselves to get caught up in the riptide of rationalization on the scaffolds of meaningless resentment and unhappiness in modern life (its symbol, then, a paper honeycomb decoration). And there is little question to me that Barb in Black Christmas (1974) is portrayed, for all her pulledapartness, as a girl who has been psallicted or subjected to horrible psalliction by the turn of the times from the 60s to the 70s, where a kind of hook of contrary red and green flows not unlike in a tornado circulation made those few years quite difficult to navigate. So, this is the particular locale of a particular tearing-apart mechanism of the world, and Barb in her bed is in that sour spot, ready for the kill

amar 42

and I noted before how odd it was, such a vivacious, aggressive woman, a sitting duck, dead asleep because of her drinking

amar 43even even uses the unicorn horn as the murder weapon, again, I will call a “unicorn” a basically freak killing, with no sense, or the victim thereof, a person who simply did not have to die, and, perhaps, I have talked about another of this type in The Undertaker, The Black Swan, here a kill that makes no sense, except as to convey the idea that these times are totally fucked up, Barb the Unicorn getting it then

amar 1 2and the minute before death shot, also a trope

amar 45some interaction with her visuals in her room, again reinforcing the “she asked for it” vibe

amar 46then, that’s that, there is a sense of the scene, she does reach up, to fight back, but she is helpless, it is over quickly

amar 47and the movie ends the rather sharp contrast between Christmas Caroling and Christmas Harrowing by pulling back to the black Christmas wreath, festooned thematically with a whisper of blaming at what made of her not only a sitting duck, but a unicorn death.

amar 48now, there are a few odd complexities that I did not pick up in an earlier screening, for one thing, now that Barb is dead, psychokiller can spend some time in her room, so the next call, I think, comes from her room, the empty bed that of her roommate, and by the phone, though I do not know how calls could be made from inside the house, nor does the movie try to explain this oldest of urban legends, and we see by the phone a poster for the McHenry sisters

amar 49then, I think, Andrea Martin must be her roommate, because she comes right in, to see if she is ok, and she gets it too, easily, from behind the door, so he stayed put

amar 50and I would certainly like to know what these posters are, but cannot make them out *though it has both a Che Guevara and a spreadeagle vibe)

amar 53then, later, when Hussey is told, leave the house, she nonetheless, being a good girl, has to go up and check for Barb and Martin, and so she comes back into the black Christmas wreath eclipse too

amar 54and it is at this point that she sees his Christmas wreath, Martin and Kidder wrapped up as if in a parody of triabic consummation, and is terrified

amar 55and since he is STILL on the other side of the door, we get a view of his eye, the cycloptic POV of the killer, from behind the door, looking, now, at her

amar 56two things here, or three. One, first of all, I would wish to know what the posters in Barb’s rooms were, because if by one’s being swept away by contact with elements of popular culture one is completely unfamiliar with that one is put into a state of unhingedness that can lead, in fact, to psalliction. I recollect being regularly exposed, on a the film schedule at my college, a whole series of early 70s current movies, if not blockbusters, then at least in theaters, such as Joe, Straw Dogs, Scarecrow, Panic in Needle Park, Deep Throat (yep), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Monte Walsh (terrible), and on and on, in which one was yanked out of one’s comfort zone to be asked to confront aspects of life one did not even know about, and sometimes this was quite upsetting (I can document this movie going as I have a record). The capacity of the 20 year old to absorb all this is limited, and thus can lead to simply feeling the scratching effect of psalliction. If we knew what she was watching, we might have a better sense of how close to the edge she was, in just reacting angrily to a world, nothing of which was working for her at the time (a feeling common in the early at-sea, unhinged 70s) (the most extreme example of which would be the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, by the unreal fantasy regime of the Symbionese liberation army, but which resulted in realworld confusion for her, and a severe case of disassociative disorder)

Second, I have noted that the killer was introduced as if in a duet counterpointing Barb’s first great spin of this-worldly bravura and posturing through the house. Then, Barb was killed when Hussey had to be watching her, but was distracted by the pro forma obligations of Christmas (the nondiegetic irony of this might’ve amused Kidder, whose career was said to be launched when Brian di Palma left a giftwrapped copy of a script for Sisters under her 1971 Malibu Christmas tree). Finally, Hussey, breaking the cop’s rule, and the cop failing to get her out of the house, first realizes with shock that it is all real and she is in trouble by seeing Barb murdered in her bed, now Christmas wreathed with Andrea Martin. Thus, at this door, at the nexus of this black wreath, symbolic of the fuckedupness of the times, she is now sent running. But, she cannot get out of the house, so she retreats to the basement, so the opposite of the attic. And this is where a very odd scene occurs, and one which places the movie entirely into the rationalized zone of the world’s fuckedupness, far from actual horror. She has previously realized that in so far as Peter (Keir Dullea) was with her, coming down the stairs, but in a false positive way to us, that is, made for a moment to be the killer, when the third obscene phone call was made, he could not possibly be the killer, she is relieved. But, at the same time, she is very upset with him, and they have been fighting, even on the phone, fed into the cops’ suspicions, by the fact that she has told him she is pregnant, she wants to get rid of the baby, he is adamantly opposed. So, there is an inference in his shadow on the basement window that maybe she confuses the two. But, once he gets in, not only is he solicitous in his calling her name, but, seeing her, smiles, what are you doing back here? but, then, the movie breaks, and when the cops break back into the house they find her unconscious in the basement, with Peter lying dead on top of her, and so they assume, yep, got him, Peter was the killer, take her up to recoup, to leave her there for the final crawl away

amar 1 3I mentioned in a previous note a certain medieval cast to this bedside vigil. Then amazement that the police did not search the rest of the house, or even the attic. But they did not because they thought they had their man, Peter, killed by her defending herself from the psycho killer, the killer of one girl in the park, then three or four girls in the house. But THEY ARE WRONG, that is, the movie, this movie, in a way that is not all common, gets itself wrapped up entirely in the red herring, and glories in the red herring, and it concludes inconclusively by the police thinking the red herring is the solution. And Hussey it turns out, to get her way, to be free as a woman from the burdens of children, Hussey committed murder of a person she knew full well was Peter, not the psycho, she killed him, and will get away with. So, here again, THIS, in the whole mis en scene of the movie is itself a PSALLICTION.

I have not mentioned the obscene phone calls. They are odd. They are also the basis for the urban legend that the calls were coming from inside the house. But, the weirdest thing about them, is that they were beyond irrational, they addressed no one, they just gave voice, like the opposite of oracles, to the madness of the outside world, of life now, of the times we live in, and in the use of the many voices, the splicing is almost as interesting in the annals of strange recordings in 70s movies as the backwards ramblings of the devil in The Exorcist, or the like. I do not have the patience to work out the details of the rantings, or where the clips all cut together, into chaotic but frightening nonsequiturs of rage, punctuated by obscenity, come from, but they bespeak the times, and the chaos of the movie’s mis en scene, and, moreover, they are the ultimate expression of a way of expressing onself that even Barb has taken up, all just things said, crazy comments, one liners, all over the place,

you’re a real gold plated whore mother you know that?….. you can’t rape a townie…..this is sorority house not a convent……I know a professional virgin when I see one…..rare species of turtle that screws for three days without stopping, not three minutes, like most men.

Meaning that the obscene phone call, and the phone, strangely enough, for this is quite antique, first expressed, in the group call, by the holes in the receiver

amar 58then after all the hijinks about phone numbers, and then all the cops and robbers about the way in which calls are traced, and then the full phone, unanswered, in its cradle, as the symbol of the filter by which the voice of the angry Sentients come into this world

amar 59and again, the urban legend, he is in the house with you

amar 60all of this speaks to the fact that the obscene phone calls were the very central instrumentation of the movie, then reflected in the character of Barb, and that the irrational, multivocal, schizo, multiple personality insanity of the clipped sequences of the phone were also reflected in her all-over crazy retorting, and that then all of this represents aurally the ingress of Sentients into this world in a way that by the depleting process of PSALLICTION in rationalized scaffold places can tear people to pieces. For all this, in addition to all the issues raised in a previous note on Black Christmas (1974), Black Christmas is, as one of those ramshackle 70s movies that tried to capture the roughshod nature of the transitions of the times, a quite good movie, and one in which the all but unknown Margot Kidder kind of stole the show, in her brief performance of a young woman very much of the moment, Barb.

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