by Andrew Wyatt on Dec 16, 2019

Director Bob Clark’s seminal 1974 Canadian slasher film Black Christmas has acquired a prodigious cult reputation over the decades, in substantial part because it’s the most convincing contender for the title of the Very First Slasher. Earlier films – most notably Peeping Tom (1960), Psycho (1960), Sisters (1972), and the near-contemporaneous The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – played in the same blood-spattered, psychosexual sandbox, but Clark’s feature was the first to assemble the subgenre’s defining elements into a single package. All the essential components are there: a mysterious, faceless killer; a collection of expendable meat; brutal death scenes; creepy point-of-view shots; and a climactic showdown with the Final Girl. However, Black Christmas remains a surprisingly smart and atmospheric thriller when approached on its own idiosyncratic terms, rather than as some sort of preserved-in-amber archetype. Indeed, Clark’s film is distinguished as much by the customary slasher traits it lacks as by those it typifies: no over-the-top gore effects; no groan-inducing humor; no illogical story beats; no reactionary subtext equating female sexuality with deadly retribution.

Not many horror films manage to be a superb example of a form while also eschewing the most questionable aspects of that form – which naturally makes the original Black Christmas a target for revival in a genre notoriously beholden to the cynical cycle of sequels, remakes, and reboots. Indeed, writer-director Glen Morgan – best known as one of the creative minds behind The X-Files – took a stab at a Black Christmas remake in 2006. The results were, at best, peculiar: a sloppy, nonsensical, and gratuitous bloodbath that shifts almost arbitrarily between tedium and giallo-like excess. Morgan’s film also makes the understandable but objectively terrible decision to give the killer – originally an enigma about which the viewer learns virtually nothing – a forgettable backstory cobbled together from elements of Deep Red (1975), Friday the 13th (1980), and Sleepaway Camp (1983).

All credit to director Sophia Takal (Green, Always Shine) and co-writer April Wolfe, then, for going in a completely different direction from Clark’s original with their Black Christmas remake. There are some fangirl callbacks scattered throughout the film – most notably iconic props that show up in a new context, some as instruments of death, some just as winking background references. In the main, however, Takal’s feature plays like a ground-up reimagining of the 1974 original, as though both screenplays were simply riffing on the same suite of improv keywords: sorority house, Christmas, serial killer. Indeed, this Black Christmas is perhaps best approached by ignoring its namesake completely, as invoking Clark’s feature implies some essential slasher ingredients that Takal and Wolfe have no interest in pursuing. Black Christmas 2019 is, at bottom, a feminist revenge fantasy, one that gamely embraces slasher tropes before turning into a PG-13-friendly survival thriller in its back half. There’s something a bit perplexing about this, given how refreshingly feminist the 1974 feature was for its time. (Example: There’s a subplot where a boyfriend’s oppressive hostility to his girlfriend’s abortion makes him a prime suspect.) Of all the early slasher flicks for a woman filmmaker to reclaim, Black Christmas seems an odd choice. However, the new film’s problems have less to do with its premise than with its execution. Simply put, Takal has trouble juggling the fun, scares, and politics in what had the potential to be a misogyny-skewering Yuletide romp.

Like any slasher worth its salt, Black Christmas gets things rolling quickly: On the last night before winter break begins at the fictional Hawthorne College, a senior named Lindsay (Lucy Currey) is ambushed while walking home, stabbed with an icicle by a mysterious figure in a black mask and hooded robe. Afterward, the assailant removes her body from the scene. Accordingly, while the viewers might know of Lindsay’s grisly fate, her sisters at the Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority only know that she never reached her destination. Takal and Wolfe thereafter introduce a core group of MKE women, the so-called “orphans” who plan to spend their holiday break on campus: the guarded Riley (Imogen Poots), a literal orphan with unresolved traumas; no-nonsense firebrand Kris (Aleyse Shannon), an outspoken campus activist; sweet-natured Marty (Lily Donoghue), attached at the hip to her boyfriend (and honorary MKE house bro) Nate (Simon Mead); the anxious and slightly hapless Jesse (Brittany O’Grady), who has a low tolerance for her friends’ drama; and Riley’s designated “little sister,” Helena (Madeleine Adams), who’s a bit of a wide-eyed girly-girl compared to her older housemates. It’s thin stuff as characterization goes, but at least Takal’s Black Christmas gives its sorority sisters some distinguishing attributes, which is more than can be said of the undifferentiated cast of generic brunettes in Morgan’s 2006 remake.

The campus slayings perpetrated by the strange hooded figure (or figures) continue to unfold quickly but quietly: The night after Lindsay’s disappearance, dorky MKE sister Fran (Nathalie Morris) is dispatched off-screen and left to freeze solid on the sorority house’s balcony. Most of the remaining named characters are presented as possible suspects in the killings. There’s recent Alpha Kappa Omicron alum Brian (Ryan McIntyre), a swaggering asshole who once sexually assaulted Riley and has reappeared on campus to oversee the initiation of the new AKO pledges. There’s smarmy literature lecturer Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes), whose pig-headed rejection of anything outside the Western Canon has prompted a campus petition from Kris. Not incidentally, Gelson – who is himself an AKO man – already has a grudge against Kris for her successful effort to remove a bust of college founder (and slave owner) Nathaniel Hawthorne from the student center. Meanwhile, mild-mannered music geek Landon (Caleb Eberhardt) is nurturing an obvious, unrequited crush on Riley, and a canny slasher fan is likely to regard his character’s sheer cornball niceness as a post-Scream attempt at misdirection. Any one of these men could be the source of the threatening DMs that Riley is receiving from a “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” but neither these messages nor a couple of missing women are enough to get a skeptical, casually sexist campus security officer off his duff.

The film’s events accelerate following an all-Greek charity talent show hosted by AKO. A foursome of MKE sisters – Kris, Marty, Jesse, and a reluctant Riley (filling in for suddenly missing Helena) – turns a sexy Santa number into anti-rape satire song aimed at the assembled fraternities and AKO specifically. When a video of the routine goes viral the next day, Riley lashes out at Kris as they prepare for the MKE “orphans’ dinner,” asserting that she felt pressured into a protest that was more re-traumatizing than liberating. In short order, however, the MKEs have a more pressing crisis on their hands, as their mostly vacant sorority house is invaded by murderous, hooded intruders. So begins a long, dark night of misogynist violence and desperate resistance, as a bizarre, campus-wide scheme to eliminate uppity female students unfolds. Does it have anything to do with the creepy ritual that Riley glimpsed at the AKO house the previous night, one involving the black liquid oozing from the relocated Nathaniel Hawthorne bust? Is there any doubt?

The principal flaw of this Black Christmas is not that it’s been refashioned into a cheerfully cheesy feminist survival thriller, but that the result turns out to be such a scattered drag. The PG-13 rating – which Takal has claimed will allow the film to reach a wider audience of adolescent girls – ends up being a double-edged sword in this respect. On the one hand, director Takal, cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard, and editor Jeff Betancourt do an impressive job of working within the constraints of the rating, particularly in the film’s first half, when classic slasher jump-scares predominate. Rather than gratuitously gruesome “kills,” Black Christmas focuses on startling smash-cuts, wherein a long take is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a lethal threat, only to cut away before the blood really starts flying. (There’s a particular shot that feels like a direct homage of a notorious jump-scare in William Peter Blatty’s 1990 cult sequel The Exorcist III, in terms of its mise-en-scène.) It’s hardly a revolutionary technique, but it’s nonetheless effective. In part, this is because Takal uses it sparingly, but it’s also because it’s the one element where she really seems to be enjoying herself as a director, indulging in the sort of funhouse moments that haven’t really had a place in her filmography until now.

Unfortunately, this coyness with respect to violence also has the effect of dulling Black Christmas’ righteous wrath. As a rebuttal to both  male-gaze slasher fiction and real-world expressions of misogyny – from campus assault to sexist curricula to everyday dismissal of women’s fears – Takal’s film feels blunted, a half-hearted riposte to something that demands a more brutal, bloody-minded response. Gory, subversive, woman-directed works such as Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (2009), Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016), and Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017) have illustrated how to eviscerate the patriarchy with gusto, and in comparison, Takal’s Black Christmas unfortunately prefers a glossy, bumper-sticker approachability. Rather than squirming discomfort or volcanic feminine anger, the film traffics in hokey girl-power slogans that feel focus-tested for the maximum fist-pumping response from the audience. This wouldn’t be such a distraction if the film established and consistently maintained a self-consciously kitschy tone, but Takal and Wolfe’s script can’t seem to settle on what it wants to achieve.

The persistence of Riley’s assault trauma, for example, is treated with the sort of frightening gravity one would expect of an unsparing campus drama. Indeed, some of the screenplay’s smartest moments speak directly to the tension between rape survivors’ mindfulness of their own mental health and the pressure on them to exhibit public courage and contribute to a broader justice movement. However, for every serious, thoughtful gesture of this sort, the film proffers a warmed-over female solidarity metaphor or an awkward splash-page pose that invites eye-rolling. There’s still much to admire in the way that Takal and Wolfe weaponize elements of real-world secret societies and reactionary politics for their narrative purposes. The plot complications that emerge at the film’s halfway point, for example, suggest the way that even well-intentioned men can be roped into insidious patriarchal thinking, while special contempt is reserved for misogynist women who sell out in return for condescending head-pats from their oppressors. Intriguing angles such as these abound, but Black Christmas can’t seem to integrate its more incisive political themes, its tween-level rah-rah feminism, and the blood-and-guts expectations of the genre.

Rating: C+