Black Christmas (2019)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2019-12-20 05:00

Written by: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe
Directed by: Sophia Takal
Starring: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, and Lily Donoghue

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

Sisters never stand down.

In 1974, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas featured a primal vision of women under siege by an elusive boogeyman. Cloaked in shadows and obscured behind obscene, almost inhuman phone calls, “Billy” remains an ambiguous, faceless prowler even as the film’s credits roll. 45 years later, April Wolfe and Sophia Takal have taken the bones of Clark’s original plot but have dispensed with the ambiguity: this Black Christmas is a decidedly more brash and literal screed against institutional misogyny that isn’t just unafraid to put a face with a name—it wants to bring abusers out of the shadows and hold them accountable in the blood-stained glow of a candy-colored winter wonderland. What once lurked as subtext in Clark’s film has become the text here, and the message here is abundantly clear, mostly because it echoes the mantras of various contemporary movements: “time’s up,” “me too,” etc.

For a while, it makes for a timely, compelling hook for a slasher film, one that honors the legacy of the original film before it goes off and very much does its own thing. In doing so, it strays a bit into farcical territory and its message becomes slightly glib. What’s more important, however, is that the messaging remains intact: this is an unrelenting bullhorn of feminist horror with a scorched-earth approach to toppling the patriarchy.

Christmastime approaches at Hawthorne College, a venerable institution of higher learning whose woke students are trying their best to drag the school into the 21st century. Monuments to racist founder Caleb Hawthorne have been moved from the public space, while students petition for more diversity in the curriculum. Someone, however, is obviously displeased by these developments and begins to stalk sorority girls while wearing a Caleb Hawthorne mask.

Among the most obvious targets are the girls of MKE, a brash set of sorority sisters who have lead the charge against both the school’s misogyny. One member, Riley Stone (Imogen Poots), was raped by a prominent fraternity member (Ryan McIntyre), only to have her case dismissed and her name slandered. After spending a couple of years internalizing her trauma, the opportunity to shame her attacker arrives in the form of a talent show, where she and her sisters deliver a rousing, scathing rendition of “Up on the Rooftop” that leaves no doubt: yes, she was assaulted, and no, the sneering, entitled frat boy in the audience shouldn’t be let off the hook. Unfortunately, the masked assailants stalking the campus have their own revenge in mind and begin to stalk Riley and her sisters.

For much of its runtime, Black Christmas is quite effective: it captures the quiet, chilly intimacy of Clark’s film, only it’s been infused with a decidedly 21st-century sensibility in its lingo and contemporary awareness. In a lot of ways, it’s easy to imagine that this is what a Black Christmas remake may have felt like in the late-90s, in the wake of Scream and its ilk. It’s slick, sharp, clever, and full of timely dialogue as Takal and Wolfe tackle the urgent and potent subject of misogyny, specifically in the form of campus rape culture. Marrying this to the slasher genre makes for a natural fit, and the early-going at least strikes a nice balance between suspense, violence, and socio-political musings.

In this respect, Black Christmas is a worthy update of its ‘74 predecessor. For all the praise that film rightfully receives for shaping the slasher genre, it endures because of the recognizable humanity underlying the carnage. Clark saw his sisters as more than dispensable victims, infusing them with a warm camaraderie, humor, grace, and personal dilemmas outside of the slashing. Those characters were genuinely endearing, and Clark largely prioritized suspense over dwelling on their gruesome ends. The same is mostly true of Takal and Wolfe’s vision, especially the way the duo insists on allowing these women to be, well, women. Films have often perpetuated the stereotype of the ditzy, catty sorority girl, but Black Christmas has none of that: this is a group of smart, badass, and supportive women wading through a sea of misogyny.

Even though many of the supporting players don’t have an abundance of screen-time (thanks in large part to the brisk 90-minute runtime), there’s something authentic about these sorority sisters, whose shared history feels genuine because of some nice moments. An early interaction between Riley and one of the younger sisters reveals the sort of bond these girls have, as the older girl--now a senior--passes down a comb to a freshman who’s anxious about going on-stage later that night. It’s a small moment, and Black Christmas is littered with a few more effective ones to give the actual slashing some bite once some of these girls do fall victim.

Poots obviously emerges as the most memorable of the bunch. If we haven’t bestowed some kind of notable status on her following 28 Weeks Later, Fright Night, and Green Room, then her turn here certainly cements her place as one of the genre’s strongest performers during the past decade. Riley is instantly compelling as a lead, and not at all because of her trauma; in fact, the screenplay doesn’t define her by that, choosing instead to reveal her kindness before detailing her troubled past. Likewise, Poots’s turn is nuanced: Riley is obviously a bit timid but is also quietly determined to overcome the circumstances that made her as such. She’s taken a lot of shit, but she’s also not about to take anymore, and I have to imagine Black Christmas features one of the more authentic portraits of a woman who’s endured this kind of assault and is forced to somehow put on a cheerful face--even as her (now graduated) attacker receives a hero’s welcome upon his return to the frat house.

Riley’s arc is a familiar one, as the emergence of the mysterious stalker forces her to embrace the suppressed rage smoldering beneath that cheerful face. Once the police (again) dismiss her concerns over some missing girls, she quickly realizes it’ll be up to her and her sisters to do something about it. Her boldest support comes from Kris (Aleyse Shannon), a firebrand campus activist who doubles as the script’s most prominent mouthpiece as she rails against the various injustices she sees unfolding around her, be it sexual assault or a sexist professor (Cary Elwes) who refuses to adopt a more modern, inclusive curriculum.

Her character especially reveals that Tokal and Wolfe have a lot on their minds here, especially when the script goes off on some brief tangents that begin to resemble your average day on Twitter, including a “not all men” rant. At times, this stuff feels a little too obvious, if not a little forced, and the film is at its best when its politics are more gracefully woven into the mayhem. The general premise might also be obvious, but it’s also kind of brilliant: in a genre that’s often been defined by subtextual gender politics, here’s a movie that pulls that to the forefront by having its mad slasher explicitly target the women who have dared to challenge traditional power structures. In short, the psycho here has pledged to make Hawthorne great again by putting women back in their place.

Most of this deranged quest unfolds within the familiar confines of a slasher and a pretty sharp one at that. Takal definitely has an eye and feel for this genre, particularly when it comes to unsettling the audience with measured stalking sequences that emphasize nimble camerawork over on-screen violence. She’s more interested in making clever homages to The Exorcist III than she is producing an outrageous splatter movie, and it’s a commendable approach, especially given the confines of the PG-13 rating. For the most part, you don’t even miss the gory payoffs, mostly because it would be strange to have the audience indulge or enjoy on-screen violence against women here. Instead, Black Christmas wants these deaths to register as genuinely disturbing losses: at least two moments linger on the scenes of these bleak crimes, emphasizing how these victims have been snuffed out and have gone missing amidst holiday revelry and incongruously beautiful snowfalls.

Eventually, though, Black Christmas takes a pretty pronounced left turn. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say it strays into pod people territory, where the menace is literal toxic masculinity. The turn isn’t completely unwelcome since I’m down for any movie that takes big, gonzo swings. Something about this one feels a little too rushed and at odds with what comes before, though. In this moment, Black Christmas feels very much like a movie that went into production less than six months before its release date. Another pass at the script may have smoothed over the rough transition here, perhaps by deepening and subtly foreshadowing its turn of events rather than abruptly careening into them to create the impression that the audience has suddenly wandered into a different movie. Even the tone feels a little off, almost as if the script itself can’t believe its own ridiculous twists and turns, so it takes on a quippy, farcical tenor that doesn’t quite vibe with the urgent, serious-minded approach of the rest of the film.

With this comes an increase in wanton violence, and, while Wolfe and Takal rightfully flip the script by having the women turn the tables on their attackers, the PG-13 rating is actually a handicap here. Again, it makes sense that the film doesn’t delight in violence against its innocent victims; however, recent films like Green Room and Ready or Not have revealed the cathartic power of inflicting gory, over-the-top violence against those who absolutely deserve it. And make no mistake, the men of Black Christmas very much deserve it--I just think the audience also deserves to see them dispatched more satisfyingly.

Of course, I can’t really presume to speak on behalf of the entire audience here. As a man, my experience watching Black Christmas is going to be far removed from what women will glean from it. This doesn’t mean I (and other men) can’t appreciate it, but something tells me women--particularly those who have experienced the horrors the movie explores--will find it cathartic despite the somewhat tame finale. Likewise, the film manages to find the abject horror moments that might seem mundane to most men in the audience who don’t know what it’s like to look over their shoulder and grip their keys to fend off a potential attacker as they simply walk home alone at night. During the past week, I’ve seen several women say they’ve felt seen by Black Christmas, and we should never overlook that particular function of art. Sometimes, we do need to see ourselves and our perils reflected on-screen, and this film does that for an audience that has been marginalized, dismissed, or exploited by pop culture.

Black Christmas might do it with nuance, and it isn’t always exactly graceful in exploring the nature of trauma and victimhood, but this isn’t exactly the time for subtlety and grace. Some will take issue with how obvious and unabashedly political this movie is, and the ironic thing is that they’ll be among the ones who need to hear it the most. In an era where this country confirms rapist supreme court justices and elects presidents who flaunt their misogyny, I quite frankly don’t want to hear that a slasher movie might be a little too bold in its politics. At this point, movies like Black Christmas are shouting it to the folks in the back because its message desperately needs to be heard over the barbaric grunting of the loathsome troglodytes who assume their own obnoxious volume grants them power and authority. I’d say you can’t get mad when people finally yell back, but I know better. The folks behind Black Christmas know better too, but they refuse to be demure, and anyone who takes issue with that needs to hear this movie more than they think they do. They won’t, of course, and that’s why we’ll need more where this came from.

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