Double Feature: Female Anxiety, Christmas Edition (Black Christmas & Elves)
Double features are a great way to watch movies. Well-selected double features complement each other like food and wine, bringing out hidden flavors or making you realize new aspects of something familiar. If you’re ever in need of a keenly paired set of movies to screen, check out our handy pre-packaged Double Features category– complete with theme breakdowns, aesthetic comparisons, and honest commentary about which movie should be the leading feature.
We love female anxiety movies here at Back Row, mainly because it sublimates the ever present anxiety we exist inside of due to being ladies or whatever we are. The other reason female anxiety movies sit so highly with us is because female perspectives, like that of people of color and any letter from the LGBTQ crowd, have historically been ignored or presented to us through a much too forgiving lens which made our concerns and problems into silly, irrational issues. The movies in this double feature, especially the lead feature Black Christmas, address not only deep-seeded anxieties that constantly crop up while navigating society in a female body but the dismissal that inevitably arrives when those fears are mentioned. Also, there’s some Christmas stuff going on in the background and let’s be real: Christmas is anxiety inducing for most of us. Even Jewish people are like, “geez, this holiday is exhausting,” as they spend the day eating Chinese food and going to the movies. That sounds like an amazing holiday tradition to me. Time to convert... if they’ll have me.
Lead feature: Black Christmas (1974)
I recently discussed Black Christmas in a previous essay, but that was more focused on how it’s a holiday movie that really isn’t. The core of Black Christmas is about how unsafe it is to be a woman and how that danger and social pressure is inescapable – even from people who claim to love you. To call Black Christmas a slasher movie would be a gross oversimplification, but it does hold up as a prototype to the slasher/stalker movies that be released in the following decade. The premise follows a sorority house that’s slowly clearing out for the holidays, while a man in the attic kills, watches, and makes obscene phone calls to the girls living there. Surely, not the most original storyline in the world but the details involved, not to mention the skill on display from both the actors and the director, are what makes this a chilling, captivating movie.
A thread that runs through the film is that Jess (Olivia Hussey) is pregnant and has no desire whatsoever to have the baby much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea). This movie was released in 1974 so Roe v. Wade was still pretty fresh in the American public’s mind. Peter is outraged that Jess would consider an abortion and even calls her up after they’ve had a fight while weeping and telling her she’s killing a baby. Jess is not a hysterical, irrational young woman and she responds to Peter’s pressure and anger in a reserved but ultimately compassionate manner.
Meanwhile, every phone call is getting more graphic and explicit. The man on the other end seems to be acting out memories from his childhood that imply a pretty unhealthy relationship with his mother. As Jess is sitting at home with one of the last remaining girls fielding these crazy calls, her boyfriend emotes all over her, demands she give up her plans for the future, and tells her she’s selfish. Two different forces both bearing down at the same time.
The symbolic point of the killer being in the attic is a clever one on the part of writer/director Bob Clark. Instead of the danger being outside trying to get in, the danger’s inside and the girls aren’t sure where it’s coming from. Sadly, this is true to life as most of the violence that is inflicted on women comes from people within their own lives, even their own homes. What makes this point sting even more is when the girls go to the police station to report that they think one of their friends is missing and the cop tells them (along with the missing girl’s father) that she’s probably fine and just shacked up somewhere with a boy. Let that sink in – these young women turned to an authority figure for help only to be told that there’s nothing to worry about 'cause bitches be crazy. I’m paraphrasing, of course.
That’s not to say that this movie paints so black-and-white a picture of gender dynamics. The police chief in the town (John Saxon) is a concerned, helpful, intelligent character who is genuinely worried about people’s safety and berates his officer for not taking a missing persons report seriously. Aside from that, there’s also the character of Barb (Margot Kidder), a drunken city-dweller who puts her classism on full display with lines like, “darling, you can’t rape a townie,” in response to hearing about an attack on a local (and very young) girl in the park across the street from their house.
The richness of the characters and their true-to-life interactions is what makes Black Christmas a movie that continues to be screened and gain new fans. I was lucky enough to see this at the Castro Theater in 2010 for the first time and even that long after it was made, it still felt timely and got way, way under my skin.
Second Billed: Elves (1989)
Elves is not Black Christmas so just keep that in mind. Elves is cheaply made and has some really exploitative scenes, but it also has a bizarro storyline about the Nazis trying to harness the supernatural powers of elves and an incestous family whose elderly patriarch is set on bringing about the master race. It’s... pretty weird.
Kirsten (Julie Austin) is a fairly normal teenage girl who works at the mall, doesn’t get along with her family, and takes part in pagan-ish rituals in the woods behind her house. That last part isn’t meant to be facetious. That seems like totally normal, even productive teenage behavior to me. Anyway, Kristen steals an old occult-looking book from her grandfather (Borah Silver), a wheelchair bound, reformed Nazi, and performs a spell that raises (unbeknownst to her) evil elves that start killing anyone who bothers her.
While all this is happening a former police officer Mike (Dan Haggerty) starts working at the same mall as Kirsten. Naturally the two band together against the elves, as often happens in these kinds of movies. He and Kirsten demand answers from her grandfather who tells them all about the Nazi experiments and how he is also Kirsten’s father due to inbreeding in an effort to create a “pure” Aryan bloodline. Kirsten is told that the elves are here to breed with her as she is the last remaining Aryan virgin on earth, a fact that causes her as much embarrassment as it does sheer terror.
What Elves lacks in the nuanced, layered depiction of gender dynamics seen in Black Christmas it makes up for in batshit insanity. Forced breeding, the determination of a girl’s worth based on her sexual history, not to mention a weird little brother who spies on his sister bathing and mocks her for having large breasts, make this a surprisingly female anxiety ridden movie instead of just another dumb b-movie with terrible, terrible (terrible) sound quality. Kirsten’s friends are either slutty or vapid, the men are lecherous or liars, and aside from a cat that her mother kills and eventually Mike, Kirsten is a lonely, alienated person. She is kind hearted, even going out of her way to protect her shitty little brother and refusing to leave her friends behind to save herself. You feel for her even before you find out her grandpa-dad is setting her up to be raped by elves; just watching her holding down an afterschool job where she gets sexually harassed or trying to find some privacy and peace in her home is enough.
It’s not the most brilliant movie of all time but Elves was surprising in a lot of ways and had a nice thick coat of female anxiety slathered on top which makes it stand out a little from other silly Christmas themed horror movies. This definitely is a case of “go big or go home” when it comes to strangeness and it seems like the minds behind Elves decided to go big. With tension between the genders, a few jabs at capitalist mall culture, and the rise of neo-Nazis, it’s the perfect holiday movie for these oh-so-stable times.
Themes: Christmas, Virginity, Pregnancy, Abuse, Mother/daughter relations
Aesthetics: Christmas decoration/motifs, Wooded/rural locations