Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Black Christmas is the incredibly rare remake that actually seems to have a purpose for existing, beyond the obvious commercial one. The basic concept has been adapted from a horror movie of the same name from 1974, which was previously remade in 2006. I have seen neither of the earlier versions. Based on my brief investigation, this appears to be significantly different from those two. All three are about members of a sorority being menaced by a murderer around Christmas, but this version is not very interested in being a slasher movie. Yes, there are screaming young women and a relentless masked killer. However, the emphasis is not on violence or gore (it is PG-13, so it had to be comparatively light on those things anyway). That is a positive thing because Black Christmas completely fails as horror. It is not suspenseful, dramatic, exciting or scary. Though it does succeed to a degree as social commentary.
As a feminist look at women fighting against campus rape culture and the patriarchy, it truly has something to say about its topic. It is not a case of something topical tossed in to sell tickets. It really engages with its subject matter in a way that convinces me this is why the filmmakers wanted to make it. The ending feels like a cop-out and it gets sidetracked far too often by being a bad genre entry. Still, it turned out more thoughtful than I anticipated.
The story takes place at Hawthorne College, a (fictional) institution founded by a man who strongly believed women should know their roles obeying the men who (in his mind) deserve to rule the world. It is no surprise a campus created on those principals would have many instances of sexual violence against women. Then, female students start going missing and Riley and her sorority sisters, who have been outspoken against the issues plaguing women at the school, must figure out what is going on before it is too late.
That is enough of the plot and its lame slasher movie tropes. Let’s talk about the interesting stuff. That would be the conflict between the women and the college’s male leadership, who have adopted a dangerously ignorant “boys will be boys” mentality in regard to the behavior of their male students. Black Christmas is not subtle about Hawthorne College being a microcosm of this country’s biggest gender-related problems (both on college campuses and everywhere else).
A couple of years before this story begins, Riley was raped by a frat boy. None of the men believe her (“he would never do that”) and the school did nothing. Her friend Kris is on a crusade for real change. She got a bust of the school’s misogynist founder moved from a public location and is working on a petition to get a sexist faculty member fired. Then, in Black Christmas’ boldest moment, there is the song they perform at the frat talent show, directly accusing these masters-of-the-universe-in-training of rape.
These are the things that really matter to these characters and it is mostly what they talk about when they are not fearing for their lives. This is a screenplay that seems to understand what those things mean to these people. It comes close to satirizing this world to emphasize its points, but never goes quite far enough in its depiction of the men to get there. None of them have enough personality (either good or evil) to make this as impactful as it could have been though the final confrontation comes close.
The story of Black Christmas (86 minutes without the end credits) contains comments and criticisms regarding what our society does to men and then what those men go on to do to women. When it focuses on the powerlessness these women feel, it is smart and suitably angry. Unfortunately, too little of it fits that description. Director/cowriter Sophia Takal clearly did not expend nearly as much energy on the slasher material. I do not blame her. I just wish she had found a way to blend the two different elements together in a way that enhanced what she wanted to say. Instead, the good stuff is overwhelmed by the bad stuff, which is, after all, more important to its commercial success. It feels like viewers hoping for brainless violence will be thrown-off by the overtly feminist message. Viewers hoping for social commentary will most likely not be seeing it in the first place. The movie does not work. Yet I admire Takal’s ambition.
2½ out of 5
Imogen Poots as Riley
Aleyse Shannon as Kris
Lily Donoghue as Marty
Brittany O’Grady as Jesse
Madeleine Adams as Helena
Cary Elwes as Professor Gelson
Simon Mead as Nate
Caleb Eberhardt as Landon
Directed by Sophia Takal
Written by Sophia Takal and April Wolfe