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Review by William Connor Devlin
Further proof that studios think that any intellectual property is better than having no intellectual property, Black Christmas, the second remake of the original film, actually doesn't benefit from its namesake since it bears very little of that infamous, incredible proto-slasher from 1974. The idea to update what was an incredibly socially relevant and quite subversive horror flick during its time and make some new for a modern audience that was equally attuned to what our current generation struggles with isn’t a bad notion in the slightest. But in its eagerness to “be about something,” Black Christmas 2019 commits a major cardinal sin for its genre... It's not scary.
Inadvertently, such an approach to adaptation can't help but highlight the struggles of studio horror in the postmodernist era, where filmmakers try to leverage pastiche with of-the-moment social commentary that disallows their films from having any genuine staying power because they’ve focused on the wrong things entirely, no matter how important the theme work is or clever the homages are. Increasingly, it seems that horror films in the 1970s had the right idea, working overtime to make the film itself something experiential through smart camerawork, editing, and cold, candid explorations of relevant topics and taboos made into something monstrous rather than attempting to be a think-piece.
Let’s clear the air here – what Black Christmas 2019 is about on a thematic level is definitely, immensely important because it is so horrifically relevant. In fact, this is really a case of where fact is much more frightening than fiction, and it’s frustrating that director and writer Sophia Takal and her co-writer April Wolfe didn’t dispense this knowledge a bit more readily when they were constructing their updated approach. The choice to lean into broad, undefined supernatural elements not only feels haphazard, but disallows the film from taking full advantage of the potent realist elements it’s attempting to explore. All the buzzwords are there and tackled as if they were just bullet points on a checklist, thrown into a blender to make soup rather than being layered thoughtfully. Right message, wrong approach.
But we should back up a bit, briefly returning to 1974 and discussing Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. Understand that the concept of the slasher sub-genre wouldn’t be crystallized until John Carpenter directed Halloween four years later in 1978, but many of the hallmarks can be found within Black Christmas. The concept takes from various urban legends about babysitters under siege in the homes they’re staying in, as a unnamed, barely-seen psychotic man climbs into the attic of a sorority home just as Christmas break begins. With most of the sisters gone, the remaining few have no reason to suspect anything weird when people start to go missing. But those lewd, genuinely upsetting phone calls from the killer start to unnerve – and the film does the unconventional, by not only providing its killer of any reasonable or stated motive, but also letting him getting away almost undetected.
In terms of themes, the entire film could be seen as a parable for the feminine body under attack. Coming in during an era of social movements, an early wave of feminism amongst them, one of the key character plots in Black Christmas involves Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey) arguing with her emotionally-abusive boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), about wanting to get an abortion after an unwanted pregnancy. Boozy sorority sister Barb (the fabulous and dearly missed Margot Kidder, in a truly inspired and memorable performance) is killed by a glass unicorn’s horn, penetrated in the abdomen whilst lying on her bed as the film cuts back-and-forth to Jess listening to a group of children sing Christmas carols at the door. And lastly, the whole concept itself is an attack on femininity – if the house represents a woman’s domicile in the gothic sense, then the film is an invasion film where an unwanted, dangerous man intrudes. The final conflict between Jess and Peter – who she suspects as the killer – takes place in the building’s basement, which often symbolizes a womb, where she spears Peter with a fire poker.
It’s disturbing stuff. But Black Christmas is through-and-through a horror film first, so it tackles all those difficult subjects with little nuance but plenty of subversion. Set during the happiest time of the year, the film’s grotty, almost mean-spirited dedication to paralleling the festivities and warmth of Christmas with something abominable and assaultive is part of why that film has been so endurable. Never mind that it’s a lean, mean, thrilling machine, utilizing incredible cinematography that keys the audience in on details the characters don’t get to be privy to and that only makes things even more unnerving.
So it’s not surprising at all that someone might think adapting Black Christmas for the modern era might yield some pearls. The story this time around concerns MKE sorority sister Riley Stone (an always game Imogen Poots), who was sexually assaulted by a fraternity president three years ago – and although her assailant has been removed from campus, she’s struggling to rebuild herself. During the beginning of Christmas break her senior year, Riley and several of her other sorority sisters who have remained behind for the holidays find themselves under attack by masked assailants, who turn out to be members of the same problematic fraternity.
Knowingly, Black Christmas takes advantage of a very real, very disturbing narrative that has not only plagued college campuses as of late, but takes an incisive look at often questionable or outright reprehensible behavior of Greek Life. It’s an uncomfortable set of talking points, from sexual assault to mistreatment of women, even down to literary erasure and the removal of offensive campus artifacts like statues. Until a strange supernatural twist near the end, the film almost works as some statement about women surviving and fighting back against their assailants. But, in a bid to make sure the film is about everything important and topical in the current #MeToo era, nothing has any room to really breathe, and there’s absolutely no nuance. And though the knocks against the patriarchy aren’t unwelcome or even entirely ineffective, the broad and almost satirical treatment actually undermines the genuine threat that toxic masculinity presents.
Look, horror films aren’t subtle. They shouldn’t be. And they surely can’t be political correct, lest the exploration of taboos feels undermined. But a good horror film doesn’t let all those thematic undercurrents swallow up the very real, very visceral horror that takes place – and that’s the ultimate failing of Black Christmas – it’s a pretty terrible scary movie. Takal doesn’t really build any legitimate suspense, as all the twists and turns feel too telegraphed, and she often goes for the easiest, more direct route when it comes to the “scares.” The only strong moment is an homage to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III, an echo of one of the greatest jump scares in cinematic history. So, if you know the callback, it’s fun but not terribly effective.
Never mind the fact that the film is sort of a technical dud, looking every bit the microbudget production it was. The murky, grainy cinematography is clearly trying to evoke the arthouse style of 1970s horror cinema – but if we remember that the purpose of the film was to be a modernization of an older property for a new generation, what does this throwback style really do, other than function as retrograde? Then there’s the editing, which is so choppy it becomes difficult for the film to ever find a genuine pace. Part of the latter issue is mostly likely the result of some last minute edits to trim the film’s gory details down to fit a PG-13 rating. Takal and Wolfe defended this choice, saying it makes the film more universally available for younger women to see in the theaters, but not only does it feel like the truth is that the studio had little faith it would make much money without the rating, but it seems to unknowingly suggest that women might only like horror if the rough edges have been sanded off – and that’s not a very appealing or truthful proposition. To defend Takal a bit, the film did have an incredibly rushed production, having been announced in June, filmed in August, and ready for theaters by December. No wonder it’s so roughly made.
There’s a few bright spots. A key bit of iconography from the original film – a sorority sister is suffocated by a dry cleaning bag – comes back as a reversal, where Riley uses it against a male attacker in a moment that feels like a pretty effective spin. Then there’s Aleyse Shannon as Kris, Riley’s best friend and a staunch social activist. On paper, the role is probably pretty dreadful, but Shannon elevates it immensely, and she carries a kind of energy usually not afforded to characters in slasher films as she almost steals the final girl role away from Imogen Poots (who is also quite good).
And I’m absolutely not averse to the idea of bringing back the slasher film! The sub-genre was appealing to teenagers because it spoke directly to their own latent fears. Given the marketing of Black Christmas, it felt like the film had figured out that, in 2019, every girl is ready to fight back against the often-masculine threats of the slasher killer – meaning that anybody is a candidate for the final girl, so that masked killer is going to have to work extra hard. But that’s not this film – for as much as it wants to be a paean to victims learning to fight back, the film doesn’t realize its women often feel too victimized and helpless, and the bonds of sisterhood are surface level at best. All of that goes against what the film is trying to say, and loudly, so it’s even more jarring.
Still, here’s hoping that someone makes that slasher one day.
- Release DateDecember 13, 2019