Traceback: The Hunger Games

 

With Friday’s release of the final Hunger Games film , Mockingjay Part 2, I felt it was my last chance to address one of the more mainstream plagiarism accusations that’s been tossed around in the past seven years, as well as introduce what I hope to be a regular feature here on Cinematic Oblivion.

If you’ve paid any attention to the publicity surrounding Suzanne Collins’ popular dystopian young-adult series and/or the subsequent films you’ve probably heard that The Hunger Games bears a striking resemblance to the Japanese 1999 novel and 2000 film Battle Royale. 

But influences for The Hunger Games series  go back much further than 1999. As most popular mainstream media The Hunger Games is not a uni-sourced rip off, but rather a well-tuned remix of books, movies, and stories reaching back through narrative history.

So here, in our first issue of Traceback, we plan to break down the major, obvious influences other than the Japanese classic.

But if you have no idea what Battle Royale is I’ll catch you up briefly:

Battle Royale

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Hunger Games similarities: A dystopian future where teenagers are forced to fight to the death on a specially designed battle island as an oppressive control tactic against rebellion. Our heroes exhibit kindness, resist the game and forge partnerships while their peers are reduced to animalistic aggression and sadism. 

A little after the first Hunger Games film was released all of my Tarentino-fan friends were making the same joke.

“Do you know what they call The Hunger Games in Paris?”

Me: “No, what?”

“Battle Royale with cheese.”

If you don’t get that joke you may not have seen Pulp Fiction.

Battle Royale is a 1999 novel written by Koushun Takami about a dystopian future in which a defeated teenage rebellion (which aimed to create a society that favors the young)  is annually addressed and punished by The Battle Royale Survival Program, wherein a high school Freshman Class is selected to fight to the death on a battle-weary island.

Takami shopped the novel around for three years before publication, struggling mostly due to the graphic content involving adolescents, but upon publication Battle Royale gained a cult-following and even garnered praise from Stephen King, who  further drew comparisons (chainsparking back farther and farther through the endless remix that is media culture) to Survivor and WWE as well as favorably comparing it to his own pseudonymous novel The Long Walk.

A year after publication the novel was adapted into one of Japan’s finest ero guro films that became both a blockbuster and a cult classic. Quentin Tarentino claims that 2000’s Battle Royale is the best film to be released since 1992 (when he joined the profession) and the one movie he truly wishes he’d made himself.  If you haven’t seen it, and you’re not too squeamish, do yourself a favor:

 

 

Though The Hunger Games exhibits striking, sometimes (seemingly) lazy similarities to Battle Royale, Takami’s novel is not a snowflake of originality. Fine work though it is, it draws richly on collective fears, civil history and past literature. Just as Stephen King became a self-avowed fan of Takami’s work, it’s possible Takami is a King fan himself…

The Long Walk

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Hunger Games similarities: a public contest to the death  between teenagers to gain fame and financial security in an impoverished dystopia. 

 

…or a Bachman fan more specifically. For a brief period in the late 70’s and early 80’s a young and hungry Stephen King was producing novels at such a pace that he was forced to create a pseudonym to avoid over-saturating his brand. That pseudonym was Richard Bachman, an author who did more than just take a few books off the King name, but rather represented a fast-paced and bitingly cynical style wholly different from Stephen’s slow-burn terrors. Bachman’s novels Rage and The Long Walk encapsulate the violent indignity, hunger, and fury of the young, while The Long Walk, The Running Man and Roadwork seeth disdain for society and authority. The Bachman Books are a standout view of King accessing the raw resonance of his adolescent energy before wizening.

The Long Walk deftly describes an endurance feat from hell. A walkathon that can only end with one teenage boy left standing. One rule: keep walking. Slow down below four miles per hour and you get a strike. Three strikes and you’re out. Out as in shot dead by one of the soldiers riding in a half-track alongside you.

The Long Walk mirrors its characters in mastery of pacing. The story encompasses the full walk, the conversation between the boys, their ambition, their pain and all but one of their deaths. There is, perhaps, a subtle military critique in the way auxiliary characters in the book celebrate the “noble sacrifice” of these young men. Bachman/King has never been an impatient writer and takes his time describing every foul detail of being walked to death, from boys trying to eat their provided lunches while moving (some dropping them accidentally and unable to walk back), soiling themselves, collapsing from fatigue, bleeding through their shoes, and occasionally going insane. Though Battle Royale is very disturbing in its depiction of youth on youth murder, The Long Walk‘s portrayal of slow, drawn-out suffering and endurance will make you grateful that you have the option to sit down.

Bachman/King visited a similar dystopia three years later, and focused his patient study of suffering on a faster paced tragedian.

 

The Running Man

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Hunger Games similiarities: the most popular television event in the world is a game show in which contestants, (volunteers from the lower, impoverished classes) are hunted to the death.

It is said that Stephen King/Richard Bachman wrote the The Running Man in just a week while on a cocaine bender, which is about as apocryphal as Robert Louis Stevenson’s composition of Jekyll and Hyde. 

Nose candy or not the no-pause pace of the story reflects how quickly the book was written. The prose has the frantic quality of our doomed hero, Ben Richards, as he evades “hunters” across the country, the rest of the nation watching his desperation on their TV’s. The Running Man hinges upon the techno-paranoia emerging in the 80’s against television culture. Its critique seems aimed at the humiliation of game shows of the era, but has become even more relevant in our current, reality-show world.

The book, which is a thrilling, quick read was regrettably developed into one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s worse movies. However, the film highlights an aesthetic that seems even more reminiscent of the The Hunger Games. Rather than be hunted across the world, as in the novel, the film’s Ben Richards is hunted within a specially designed murder maze. The way the plastic-faced host, Damon Killian (played by the real life host of Family Feud, Richard Dawson) hypes the studio audience up for the syndicated carnage is reminiscent of Stanley Tucci’s unnervingly beamish depiction of Caesar Flickerman in the Hunger Games films. Additionally, the garishly festooned “hunters” of the film, with kitschy names for their signature weapons (e.g. Subzero, Buzzsaw) are like the colorful, neo-eighties styles and weapon specialties of Katniss’ blood-hungry competitors.

Though Stephen King, under any name, has defined the horror of the second half of the twentieth century (and much of the twenty-first) there was another master, or rather mistress, of horror that presented our fears of a human sacrifice based dystopia long before Stephen had written a word.

 

 

The Lottery

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Hunger Games similarities: An eery world where yearly tributes, in the form of human sacrifices, are selected by lottery to insure the stability of the society

If you’ve taken a high school English class, it’s likely that around Halloween your teacher had you read and analyze Shirley Jackson’s enigmatic and harrowing short story The Lottery. 

If not go ahead and read it here or listen to it read aloud here. 

Or if you’re too lazy for that then Spoilers Ahead:

The Lottery describes a small farming town’s annual tradition of drawing lots. The horror arises from the enigmatic dialogue surrounding “tradition,” and “the harvest,”  creating tense uncertainty. At the end, as a woman pulls a black dot from the many scraps of paper, and cries that “it isn’t fair,” everyone in the town, including her own children, pick up rocks and stone her to death.

Taking the ancient idea of human sacrifice, from cultures such as the Celts and the Aztecs, and setting it in contemporary America was Jackson’s deft way of illuminating how far we think ourselves from our bestial origins, but how easy it would be to slip back into barbarity. The futuristic inhumanity of The Hunger Games’ opening tribute lottery has the same tone, as Katniss Everdeen volunteers herself as tribute to save her little sister, whose number has come up.

Though Collins can feign ignorance of Battle Royale it is hard to believe she never read Jackson’s Lottery. Though the story’s initial publication in a 1948 edition of The New Yorker was so inflammatory that it caused readers to cancel their subscription and send hate mail it has since become such a touchstone of American literature that it was adapted into a radio play in 1951, a ballet in 1953, a short film in 1969, and was even parodied in one of the more disturbing yet prescient episodes of South Park.

But it wasn’t the first short story about mankind’s bloodlust to merit a plethora of adaptations spanning so wide that you’ve probably seen it on an episode of The Simpsons or  American Dad…

 

 

The Most Dangerous Game

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Hunger Games similarities: people on an island are forced to survive being hunted for the entertainment of an aristocratic villain

A double entendre of a title, this short story’s title signifies both the most dangerous game you’ll ever play, and the most dangerous prey.

Go ahead and read it here or listen to it read aloud here.

Or if you’re too lazy, once again, Spoilers Ahead.

A castaway hunter named Sanger Rainsford finds brief shelter on Ship-Trap island. Here he comes into the care of an aristocratic Cossack named Zaroff who informs him that after years of hunting all the world’s most dangerous beasts, he desires only to hunt humans, the eponymous most dangerous game. Rainsford is given a head start, a knife, and some supplies before Zaroff comes after him with a pack of hounds and a  gun.

The main similarity I noticed to The Hunger Games in Most Dangerous Game is one you might also draw to MacGyver, Home Alone or even Breaking Bad. Rainsford, though bearing little defense to Zaroff’s hounds and gun, manages to fashion a myriad of clever and deadly traps out of the island’s native vegetation. Just as Katniss demonstrates her cunning when she drops a hive of tracker-jackers onto the mob that has trapped her up a tree, Rainsford builds Malay-man-catchers and Burmese-tiger-pits to stay the tide of the even pursuant Zaroff. In the end we love Katniss’ victory not just because she is kindhearted, but because she is clever. Rainsford set the precedent for turning from the hunter to hunted (after having the same tables turned on him), and The Hunger Games is far from the only piece influenced by Richard Connell’s story. It was adapted into a film of the same name in 1932, an Orson Welles radio play in 1943, many B movie knockoffs in subsequent years such as A Game of Death, Run for the Sun, and Bloodlust (which I recommend enjoying along with Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, and Mike Nelson), was parodied in a terrible 90’s comedy you barely remember and has been adapted for TV about as often as A Christmas Carol. It even made it’s way into a joke on Parks & Recreation:

The Most Dangerous Game so aptly epitomizes the classical irony of the hunter becoming the hunted that it has become one of our cultural myths, of which The Hunger Games series is one of many retellings.

 

Spartacus

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similarities: slaves forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the aristocracy rise up in rebellion against the Empire and attempt to end slavery in the name of their charismatic leader. Shares most similarities with Mockingjay, the third book of the series. 

As The Hunger Games series draws to a close in Mockingjay the focus turns from neo-gladiatorial carnage to revolution and resistance of the gaudy empire by the disenfranchised districts.

While revolution is a theme so timeless in history, narrative and media that it would be foolish to try to assign its originating depiction to a single cinematic predecessor, the idea of those who have been trained to fight for the entertainment of hedonistic aristocrats using their slave training against their masters is specifically Spartacus. It fits even better in the many references The Hunger Games elite make to Ancient Rome (such as their excessive parties where they drink vomit-inducing cocktails between courses while those outside the city starve to death, their choice of cuisine, and their clownish sense of style.)

In addition one of the most iconic scenes in Spartacus mirrors the level of solidarity Katniss manages to garner in her own impassioned revolt.

Compare the willing sacrifice of life in solidarity with a brave ex-gladiator:

to:

That touchstone moment has inspired many scenes of solidarity throughout cinema. It even resonates with the reality of its conception as it was indicative of the brave solidarity certain screenwriters at the time (1960) expressed in staying loyal to their blacklisted colleagues (and comrades) during the McCarthy Hearings. Kirk Douglas insisted that famed blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s name appear on Spartacus despite threats that such solidarity might end Douglas’ career.

Spartacus retells the story of a slave rebellion known as the Third Servile War. While the epic film takes narrative liberties to elevate Spartacus from obscure military figure (little is factually certain about the man) to messianic symbol of freedom, the spirit of Roman excess at the cost of slavery has forever cemented the way we as a society think about the excess which superiority condemns upon us.

Suzanne Collins freely admits that the history of gladiatorial combat directly influenced her books. It is an irresistible and cosmically apt irony that the poor and oppressed must train to become perfect killing machines for the entertainment of the elite, only to turn their deadly skills against their oppressors.

Even outside of the Hunger Games context I must recommend Spartacus, a film most people forget is directed by the great Stanley Kubrick, which is well reflected in the awesome cinematography:

Whether the real Spartacus was anything like the way Kirk Douglas portrays him matters no more than the fact that Katniss Everdeen has never existed. The phrase “I’m Spartacus!” is as good a song of solidarity against the oppressor as the four-note tune whistled by Roo.

 

Conclusion:

I hope you enjoyed our first issue of Traceback.

The fact of the matter is that while artists, writers, and filmmakers may seems cleverer or more creative than you, more often they’ve just read more books and watched more movies. What they produce seems resonant, exciting and original, when it’s usually just a well curated smoothie of past works.

Understanding the influences of a certain film or book series reveals the patchwork that defines storytelling. Read enough and watch enough and one day you’ll learn to sew disparate parts so that the final product seems all your own.

As T.S. Eliot, a poet whose life work is little more than a finely phrased compilation of references, said; “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

(incidentally T.S. Eliot stole that quote from W.H. Davenport. But he phrased it better.)

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P.S. Anyone ever read any Ralph Ellison?

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Top 10 episodes of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

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The answer was yes. I slept with all the lights on and blamed it on my little brother’s fears. But every afternoon I, masochistically, came back to the screen for more. Right after Pete & Pete Canadian kids would gather around the fire to weave dark tales for the 8 to 10 demographic. Ask any nineties kid if they remember Are You Afraid of the Dark? and they’ll shudder “yes,” or more likely “oh God that one with the clown!”

But we’ll get to that.

Reviewing the show as an adult is illuminating. It has, duly, lost much of its bite. After a decade or more of viewing and reading mature horror content it’s hard for AYAOTD to deliver the same traumatic punch as it did back when I was in grade school. But it’s impressive how the writers were able to walk such a fine line, creating a show that is both very scary and very suited for young viewers. I am still of the firm belief, famously held by Jim Henson, that being afraid is an important part of childhood. While frightening life experiences can be traumatic in youth, frightening media experiences are formative. I now regard old AYAOTD episodes with reverence, often owed to the fear they once caused me.

But there is something else about the show that keeps my attention, that drives my nostalgic, questing instinct back through them each October. The level of fright AYAOTD expects its 8 to 10 year old viewers to tolerate is mirrored in the level of independence the recurring framing v6t1qvdevice characters exhibit. Gary, Kiki, and, my personal favorite and childhood crush, Betty Ann all demonstrate a canniness for storytelling, a youthfully romantic degree of organization (in the strict rules and practicalities of running The Midnight Society) and a high level of community responsibility (as the camera zooms in to show them quenching the campfire every night.) If there’s anything I feel AYAOTD sorely lacks it is more time spent with The Midnight Society, and slightly less time with the stories. I always wanted to know more about these youths who had somehow organized this coming together in the woods, weaving strange tales.

And no, The Silver Sight, didn’t come close to satisfying this desire. I feel the same way about The Silver Sight as I feel  about Scooby Doo on Zombie Island. The show loses its charm when the monsters are real. To me it was always about the way stories are trapped within the telling, how these youthful bards had learned to master their fears within narrative.

And of course, as an apostate of Cinematic Oblivion, I have always felt that this modest yet pithy show speaks my language:

So, in the spirit of October, I offer you my Top 10 favorite Are You Afraid of the Dark? episodes. Tuck in and revisit your youth. See if your answer to the eponymous question has changed.

10. THE TALE OF THE CRIMSON CLOWN

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Putting creepy clowns into a kids show is just unfair. Nothing more perfectly perverts the imagery of a child’s world. Almost everyone has a disturbed media memory of Tim Curry as Pennywiseor the dream-sequence clown from Brave Little Toaster, or maybe even a distant family member who was a little too into Psychopathic Records. Still a few might remember the cackling horror of the Crimson Clown.

This episode has all the grim justice of a Tale from the Crypt. A little kid acts selfishly, snitches on his big brother with a lie, and meets supernatural justice in the form of a merciless toy. In the end we all learn a valuable lesson; don’t spend gift money for your mom on something for yourself. Or more generally; don’t be a jerk. Or maybe it’s just; clowns aren’t cute or funny.  Crimson will never be as timeless as zee other Are you Afraid  clown who we’ll meet further up the list but he deserves the ten spot, and this episode still has some bite:

P.S. This episode also contains a fair amount of Midnight Society development, Gary using the story as a life lesson for Tucker, and the burning poem at the end progressing his romance with Sam.

9. THE TALE OF THE SILENT SERVANT

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Betty Ann was always my favorite member of The Midnight Society. She had the bookish look of the girl next door but her stories introduced great, scary creatures and didn’t always have a happy ending. Eight-year-old me wanted to meet a girl like her, one with the innocence to denounce sneaking into a movie but with the dark edge to back up her morality with a creative story about a scarecrow who will kill anyone you request.

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The Silent Servant lends to the October aesthetic with its harvest themed monster, and draws inspiration from the Jewish legend of The Golem. It’s an episode you might not remember that deserves review, the first of many of Betty Ann’s contributions to this list:

8. Three Way Tie: THE TALE OF THE NIGHTLY NEIGHBORS/THE TALE OF THE VAMPIRE TOWN/THE TALE OF THE MIDNIGHT MADNESS

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I’m cheating a bit here, but with the glut of vampire books, shows, and movies in the past decade I wanted to get all the good AYAOTD vampire episodes out in one ranking. .

Nightly Neighboors was another great story from mistress of the dark Betty Ann with one of her trademark unresolved endings.

Vampire Town is one of only a few episodes I love from The New Midnight Society (when the show was revamped from its early nineties glory into its humdrum late nineties manifestation) which also boasts a surprisingly dark and unhappy conclusion.

And Midnight Madness gets credit for introducing me to Nosferatu, a classic silent horror film that helmed my journey into Cinematic Oblivion at an early age. Any show that gets kids into classic cinema is good in my book.

If you’re a fan of pale, nocturnal bloodsuckers you’ll enjoy all three:


The Tale of the Midnight Madness: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2d2l8b_ayaotd-s02e06-the-tale-of-the-midnight-madness_tv

7. THE TALE OF THE DARK MUSIC

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This is one of the few episodes that I sometimes feel went too far. It’s filled with all kinds of scary imagery to haunt any child for years to come married with the boyhood fantasy of exacting grisly, supernatural revenge on all who wrong you, bullies and annoying little sisters alike.  It’s also notable for being one of only two episodes told by little remembered Midnight Society member Eric, who always seemed like a Sandlot kid to me.  (Note: this is a mediocre link, I will update when I find a better one)

6. THE TALE OF BIGFOOT RIDGE

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The only tale from The New Midnight Society to get its own place on the list. A snowy episode that highlights the show’s Canadian origins and boasts a young Hayden Christiensen, I was always very frightened by the way home videos and framed photos would talk to Dani, begging for help and rescue. I guess I always feared characters in movies, or even in Are you Afraid, would turn to the screen and talk to me.

And the Umbra is a fairly scary concept creature. The snowy setting and the image mimicking monster give this episode a John Carpenter’s The Thing feel.

5. THE TALE OF THE PHONE POLICE

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The Phone Police is like Kafka’s The Trial for kids. Understanding very little about the scope of any police organization’s power as a child (and as an adult in this Patriot Act world) it always seemed grimly possible that secret police could carry you off to an unmarked cell and erase your name from society (or in this case the phonebook, which stood in for society in the nineties). It’s also one of many episodes that utilizes fear of technology, with the same trademark creepy phone calls of mature horror films like Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls, or Scream, but without the dated paranoia of such Are you Afraid episodes as The Tale of the Renegade Virus or The Tale of the Virtual Pets. I always liked Tucker’s storyteller touch of relaying the story through a phone. It also might have done a public service, discouraging North America’s youth from prank calling lest they become secretly imprisoned Billy Baxters:

4. THE TALE OF THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR

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Getting down to the gold on this list you’re gonna be seeing a lot of Betty Ann. Thirteenth Floor follows the trope of the changeling myth and ends with one of Betty Ann’s classic twists. The image of the faceless creatures ushering Karin up through the smoke is classic 90’s nightmare fuel and Gary’s closing goodbye quipping “whoever you are,” calls identity into question in an almost meta way. I daren’t say more, just watch:

3. THE TALE OF THE DEAD MAN’S FLOAT

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The Midnight Society was too mean to Stig. He’s a good storyteller! And as he says, the Society should be about who can tell the best story, not about popularity. The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float contains one of the higher budget monsters, something between Davy Jones and The Skeleton King with the power to slide around in liquid form like Alex Mack.

It’s a crime that Stig wasn’t accepted for this story, but at least they let him become a member later on for his star-studded The Tale of Station 109.1. (with Gilbert Gottfried and a young Ryan Gosling.) But Dead Man’s Float remains Stig’s finest tale, even if it does have a weird, Hugh Hefner sort of ending (“you wanna go for a swim?”)

2. THE TALE OF THE GHASTLY GRINNER

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Back to my main girl Betty Ann and her colorful characters. This episode has a better developed cast of characters than any other. Not only do we have the quintessentially 90’s comic book kid (who reminds me of my little brother) along with the frightening, Joker-esque villain of The Grinner, but we also have Ethan’s couch potato 1990’s parents (reminiscent of Otto Maddox’s parents in Repo Man) a sensei figure in Ms. Uncas, and the wonderfully performed, dorky but brave sidekick Hooper Picolero. The independence and talent of our protagonist Ethan is another example of the level of autonomy AYAOTD expected of it’s youthful viewership and I can only hope it inspired a new generation of comic book artists.

1. THE TALE OF LAUGHING IN THE DARK

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And now we arrive at the finest Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode of all. It’s a Betty Ann story, of course, and was the second episode ever, getting all the new viewers set for exactly how scary the show could be. Our antagonist, Zeebo, is a far more sinister villain than Crimson (our ten spot), known for his cigar smoke, intimidating ballon messages and creepy phone calls. The way the suspense builds in the last act of this little tale is truly masterful. It still frightens adults today, and few entries to the genre of Clown Horror have stuck in so many memories as Zeebo.

(The Church investigated this issue in past years with the same conclusion, back at our old venue: ” https://tcoco.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/clown-horror-oblivion “)

If you’re only going to watch one of these ten (actually twelve) episodes make it this one. Happy Halloween, and remember, “it’s the most fun in the park, when you’re laughing in the dark.”

WATCH IT HERE!: “http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2bd2d7_are-you-afraid-of-the-dark-the-tale-of-laughing-in-the-dark_t

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Black Christmas and the patriarchy

Wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air. ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 15

Introduction: Facefulness 

As the creature feature era drew to a close in the mid 1950’s, after audiences had enjoyed every brand of old-time monster, robot, alien, and animal imaginable, the bitter taste of true terror piqued up again and audiences focused on the worthiest monster of all.

Films did not deny audience’s their desire to see human treachery, human madness and psychopathy at its darkest, such early films as Night of the Hunter (1955) and Peeping Tom (1960) provided excellent, profound and probing explorations of serial murdering antiheroes. These films were popular, and hinted at the dark horse on the horizon that was to dominate the horror films of the later 20th centuryThe small difference between these thrillers and the later solidification of the “slasher” genre is the known aspect of the killer’s identity, or rather, should I say, the facefulness of the killers. There they are for you in plain view, Harry Powell, Mark Lewis, bright white faces, dark eyebrows. Monster’s are never as scary when you see them in daylight.

And so, on the road to the evolution of the slasher, killer-centric psychological horror-dramas reached out for symbiosis with the old murder mystery formula. Something in the hiddenness, unspoken faces and friend’s betraying, gave these old beast’s a strong new shadow. Films like Thirteen Women (1932) and And then there were none (1945) had established an exciting premise that had delighted audiences time and again. A group of people dropping off like flies, a mystery killer, and a final, shocking identity and motive revelation. Horror quickly espoused with this formula and held on all the way through to the 1990’s, when it was simplified and satirized by Wes Craven’s Scream(1996)

Psycho (1960) and Dementia 13 (1963) are the first in this series of thrillers to delve into a degree of mystery, they forestall the killer’s identity til the very end, suggesting different culprits and motives.

This game had been played before by Dario Argento. His early mystery film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) is a slasher film avant la lettre, hiding the face of the raincoat clad killer (see Dressed to Kill (1980) for later use of this image) until the end and then, in the spirit of Psycho and Dementia 13, revealing a complex psychological reason for the killer’s mania.

This coupling of murder mystery with psycho killer (replacing the more standard mystery motives of money, vengeance, all rooted in sanity) matched well, but the slasher had not yet been born. Director’s took a page out of the popular exploitation films of the time, and from the splatter genre being refined by Herschell Gordon Lewis. Gore suited well this new genre, Argento himself adopted more blood into his films and they gained popularity, as did Hitchcock.

And so the slasher slid from the womb.

Slasher! The very onomatopoeia of the word suggests a knife entering flesh, a jarring, violent, sexual noise. Where did it begin? In the attic, the woman cannot breathe, a faceless creature has invaded our bodies.

Here there be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie go ahead and watch it:

 

Many people get frustrated with Black Christmas (1974),  the first true slasher, because the film has no solution. No motive or identity is ever ascribed to the killer. Sure there is one integral red herring in Jess’s boyfriend, but the last shot is of the attic window, the rocking, suffocated woman, ever frozen in her maidenhood while the terrifying voice of the killer croons on. But if one took the time to view the film more closely, one might see that the film is actually quite clear about whom the killer is, and its solution is so beautifully horrific, so spectrally ubiquitous that it has been the killer in every slasher film since.

Part 1: An Obscene Performance

No film has topped Black Christmas’ signature feature, namely the obsecene phone calls. Now obscene phone calls were a lot more common back in the 70’s, before Caller ID was on every single cellphone screen. My mother and aunts always talk about getting a “breather” now and again when they were young. Therefore obscene phone calls, especially in this time, represent one of the earliest and most commonly understood experiences of fear for one’s body and safety. It is the most basic kind of threat, that one can reach out from behind your door and connect through the phone line to express violent desire. The most rudimentary nature of a breather or moaner phone call is a male voice threatening sexual violence against a female. Of course this is the nature of the Black Christmas phone call, at first, but the caller, the killer, taunts the girls not only with a harrowing caricature of a lusty violent male, but also with grotesque feminine caricatures of pain and suffering, as though playing out the subtextual gender war in a single voice.

Judith Butler writes about the performance inherent in the very constitution of gender.

“gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which
various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity, instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements,
and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of a constituted social temporality. Significantly, if gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is
precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief. If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the
arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style.” (Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology 
and Feminist Theory” 1988)

What we see in Black Christmas is the latter of these underminings, a subversive repetition of the gender binary. Though it is hard to make sense of the gargled, intensely eery, and schizophrenic voice on the other end of the line, a few key phrases can be gleaned. It starts with Jess’ declaration that it is “him again, the moaner,” demonstrating that this is not the first incidence, placing the narrative appropriately in media res of the historic gender war. The call starts off sounding barely human, the moaning is that of a dying animal, a struggling ape. This noise sets the stage in an almost primal way, for out of this garbled animal suffering and desire emerges Adam and Eve, Agnes & Billy. “Could that be one person?” asks Claire, a fitting question indeed, what is the nature of this multiplying voice that at first sounds male but then out comes the rib and a second suffering marries itself along? The duality is then expanded upon, explained and made true in the performance. The garbled noise is broken by the crying of an infant, the creature born, followed immediately by the typical, expected voice, the deep male voice threatening sexual violence. This varies in pitch throughout the sophmoric sexual threats, sounding at once like a child, then a pig, then an old woman, and finally, in the terminal iteration “I’m going to kill you,” like a mature, adult male, as though this is the conclusion, the culmination of the previous violent evolution. Out of animality, through birth comes the boyish and confused male voice, textured with gender uncertainty finally cemented in the calm declaration that he will kill the woman attempting to undermine his sexual control. It is as though against her retorts he steels himself into the truest predator. It is in the duologue of their twin performances that he develops his own tokenly masculine violence and seeks to exact it throughout the remainder of the film. Who is he? Well he was no one when he first crawled up into the sorority house attic from a POV shot in the opening of the film, a being without gender, without firm identity, with the unformed animalistic tendencies expressed at the start of the phone call. It was against the overwhelming femininity of the sorority house that his masculinity became the foil performance. The creature in the attic is like a virus that adapted into male to more perfectly destroy its host.

In this sense the sorority house functions not only as a setting but as a character, much like Poe’s House of Usher or DuMaurier’s Manderley. The very sight of it, the first image in the film, is like a living beast, breathing in Christmas Carols.

I’ll come back to this point in part 3.

Part 2: Black Christ Mass

Now perhaps we should get to the root of the film’s title. Now obviously it is a simple, darkly comical inversion of the standard ideal Christmas, namely a white Christmas.

In this classic song all of the iconic, loving, generous aspects of Christmas are highlighted, days merry and bright. Black Christmas is simply an inversion of that because bad things are happening during Christmas, a time that is meant to be about family and giving and the spirit of joy. But the actual mythology of Christmas is often overlooked in the context of this film, and its inversion is far more harrowing, and far more pertinent.

For you see, quite simply, Christmas is the celebration of a holy birth. It is a fusion of the ancient pre-Christian tradition of Yule, or the Winter Solstice (a day representing death for it’s lack of sunlight, and then new birth with the remergence of the sun to one point higher the next day) with the Myth of Christ’s birth to a virgin as the Son of God beneath a Holy Star. Christmas is the night that the most divine of births is celebrated.

And so let us view our Nativity. As the mother we have Jess, who has just learned that she is pregnant. The baby in her stomach is Christ. But she doesn’t want it, and the dark voice on the other end of the phone, the conciever. That is God. That is her boyfriend. And he insists that she keep it.

And so basically the Black Christ Mass, is Christ’s abortion, and God, the proverbial He, is enraged.

Black Christmas and the ensuing slasher genre which it establishes are about parallel lines of obvious and subtle violence. the visible blood plays a duet with the subtler abuse, synthesizing in a final crescendo.

This scene clearly hints at pre-existing abuse in Jess and Peter’s relationship. Her downcast eyes, her quick nervous movements. Though abuse is executed throughout the film on a very obvious level (i.e murder), we see here not only the subtler abuse of mere assault,  but of specifically furtive assault. Most domestic and/or relationship abuse is identified by bruised arms and black eyes, but sometimes, as on this black Christmas, pregnancy, and the male control exerted in response, is a sign of serious abuse in itself.

In Lynn Harris’s article When partner abuse isn’t a bruise but a pregnant belly, such violent relationships are outlined, with examples provided:

Sexual coercion and “reproductive control,” including contraceptive sabotage, are a common, and devastating, facet of dating and domestic abuse. A growing number of studies, experts and young women themselves are testifying to boyfriends demanding unprotected sex, lying about “pulling out,” hiding or destroying birth control — flushing pills down the toilet, say — and preventing (or, in some cases, forcing) abortion.  

In Peter’s case we see abortion prevention as a means of control. Jess informs him that she is going to get an abortion and he replies “you haven’t even asked me yet.” He sees her body as his, to mangle and slash, to control. He has slashed her long before Billy, or Agnes, whomever it is that holds the knife. “I wasn’t even going to tell you,” she appropriately replies, reasserting her control of her own body. A different fear presents. This subplot is not random.

It is no coincidence that the image that carries us into this exchange is that of a suffocated, dead woman. All well-developed slasher films artfully contrast obvious violence with more insidious and discrete abuse.

Later Peter breaks down. “Dont treat it like getting a wart removed,” Peter insists, a phrase that later echoes in another obsence phone call, first establishing Peter as the potential killer, a solution the local police, all men, seem satisfied with.

But the real solution lies within.

Part 3: The Calls are coming from inside the house

Now it would be silly not to point out the obvious parallel between the intruder/killer and the baby in Jess. In both cases there is something that has found its way into a feminine structure and is violating from within (not that the baby is directly violating Jess but the insistence of its presence on Peter’s behalf echoes back to the killer in the attic, with whom he is eventually “confused.”)

Of course this roots back to a classic scary urban legend, the gist of which is that scary phone calls expected to be coming from a distant stranger are actually within the very house in which you believe you are safe. Many films have played to this classic trope, some far more loyally:

A unique feature of this archetypal tale, often referred to as The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs, is that the climax of the danger doesn’t come from the danger increasing, as many scary stories do. The danger is constant throughout the entire tale, the climax of the thrill is when awareness is granted, when the protagonist learns that “the calls are coming from inside the house!” Just as Jess’ earlier statement that “it’s him again, the moaner,” places us in the middle of an ongoing trend of harassment, “the calls are coming from inside the house!” reveals that the danger has always been present, it has been sitting on top of them since Christmas, waiting like the dark messiah to be birthed. Indeed, Black Christmas is unique to this day for the fact that the killer remains stationary throughout the majority of the film. Save a few strange, moments, the killer is always within the sorority house, waiting to catch one of the sisters alone. In this way it is more in the tradition of such previous films as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), playing off of the parasitic nature of gestation. The killer in the attic is like an unwanted pregnancy, a Christ child that this Mary refuses to birth, and the ensuing deaths naught but the wrath of Him.

Conclusion: Agnes, it’s me Billy

Throughout the many garbled and strange phrases we hear the killer utter either over the phone or in person, as the vague figure brings down the phallic knife, one that comes through repeatedly is “Agnes.” The killer mutters this twice before killing women, and is heard more clearly saying “Agnes, it’s me Billy,” in one murder scene. No back story is ever offered, but this strange line ends up being the film’s concluding sentiment.

Further frustrating fans of certainty, the ending is one of the most beautifully elusive in slasher history. We see Jess cowering in the basement of the sorority house, Peter coming towards her with a smile as she shivers, further hinting at preexisting abuse in addition to her suspicion that he is the killer. Once the police arrive Peter is lying dead in Jess’ lap, she has killed him in self-defense, all is well. The police put Jess to sleep and leave, the camera pulls back through the cadaverous, haunting corridors of the sorority house, finally up to the attic where the bodies of the brutalized women still rot, the phrase is uttered again, this time clearer than ever “Agnes, it’s me Billy,” and then the camera comes into clear focus on the suffocated woman reiterated throughout the entirety of the narrative, the suffocated woman who is on every poster for the film. We hold on this image as the camera pulls back, away from the house, into the winter night. The phone begins to ring.

As stated earlier, it is against the overwhelming femininity of the sorority house that the killer comes to perform as a violent He. The statement “Agnes, it’s me Billy,” perfectly represents a simple binary, the first two letters of the alphabet, the female is addressed by the male. Whatever origin story is here implied is unimportant though the most obvious hypothesis would be that Billy was once wronged by Agnes or vice versa and now this duality must be expressed between the unending binary maintained by gender performance, but this does not hurt all of humanity equally, it is the woman who is suffocated, the woman who is preyed upon for she is the one that has been controlled, abused and infested. She is the one who has been slashed.

In this sense it is not quite so horrific that Jess “incorrectly” murdered her boyfriend, or rather that the suspicion that he was the killer is no more than a red herring, rather he is the killer, just as much as any man, but doing away with him is not enough, it is the deadly phallis in the attic, the ever-looming patriarchy that slashes these young women apart.

The New Church

This blog will serve as a revitalized host for the congregation of The Church of Cinematic Oblivion. The original church has been long dormant at this address:

https://tcoco.wordpress.com

Those seeking oblivion in the pews of our church will find long articles stringing media together backwards, forward, and sideways through time, across cultures and genres. Here at the church we like a whole lot of media delivered in one cohesive batch. Let us be your movie night, whether it be pouring through the essentials of an obscure sub genre, tracing the finer points of a plot line back through narrative history, learning the difference between commonly confused works, or approaching banal cinema with an academic’s eye. We will have analyses, top ten lists, podcasts, and histories. All rife with as much relevant media (mostly film, but television, music and literature as well) as we can plunder from the many avenues of the internet. Anything too obscure will be recommended to your questing inclination.

So join us here for media mass.