Last month, there was a mild controversy over director Sophia Takal’s aim with her remake of Black Christmas. One prominent figure in the horror community, for example, seemed to complain that this horror movie came with a message. After all, the classics never did. That, of course, is silly (and that prominent figure took it back). Because even if the writers or directors of 70s and 80s horror didn’t explicitly include a message, we all have biases. Knowing that, I went into the screening of Black Christmas fully aware of mine, but determined to remain objective as I write this review.
[Sorority] Girls Are Under Attack
image via Universal Pictures
The basic blueprint for every Black Christmas film–the 1974 original, the 2006 remake, and this one–is the same. A small group of sorority girls stays behind on campus around the holidays and then find themselves under attack. In both the original and the first remake, the girls are just random targets of a psycho killer (Qu’est-ce que c’est?). In this, the 2019 version, there’s something else at work.
Things have changed on college campuses even since the 2006 film. Various social movements–#MeToo, in particular–have sprung up since then, changing the way we view things at school. Some of us have learned the phrase “rape culture” and seen its illustration through books like Jon Krakauer’s Missoula. As the title indicates, that one college town is Krakauer’s main focus, but it’s clear through his reporting that that one town doesn’t exist in a bubble. These issues are more widespread than we’d like to believe. And some people don’t want to believe at all. That’s why it’s so damaging when false stories make the news. Skeptics can look to debacles like the ultimately untrue Rolling Stone story to reinforce their feelings. Nevermind that the facts don’t care about their feelings, a phrase they should appreciate. It’s enough, sometimes, for something to feel true.
How This Version Fits the Times
image via Universal Pictures
And that is the world in which this new Black Christmas finds itself. Riley (Imogen Poots), a sorority gal, is the survivor of a date rape. Well, “date” is too loaded a word. A young man on campus raped an unconscious Riley at one of his frat’s parties. Although Riley spoke up about it, nothing ever happened and not everyone believes her. You know, a familiar tale.
At a Christmas talent show (?), Riley and her sorority sisters do a rewritten version of “Up on the Housetop,” the lyrics changed to call out the rapist’s frat. The school is already a bit of a powder-keg. Riley’s sorority sister Kris (Aleyse Shannon) has gotten a bust of the school’s founder removed from display–shades of Confederate statue removal–and is now campaigning for a professor (Cary Elwes) to be fired. When the video of their performance goes viral, it just makes things worse.
Then unsettling things start to happen. Another sorority sister doesn’t make it home. The girls start receiving direct messages from an anonymous creep purporting to be the school’s long-dead founder. Then Riley witnesses the boys of that one fraternity apparently conducting a ritual that involves wearing masks and cloaks. That’s never a good sign. And then the violence starts.
The Bottom Line: Black Christmas Review
image via Universal Pictures
While I didn’t hate or even strongly dislike the film, I felt it was a little weak tea. As both a feminist movie and a horror movie, it tries too hard (or maybe not hard enough) to be both. As a feminist movie, it relies too much on cliche buzz words and phrases that at this point, seem apt to provoke eye rolls even from the people it’s trying to represent. It comes off more as Barbie’s First Feminist Phase than as a credible example of whatever wave we’re surfing now. I think Kris, for instance, is supposed to be a positive character, but too often, she’s just problematic in her own way. (Her line about the founder’s slave-owning is choice, though.) In that sense, it was everything I hoped it wouldn’t be.
And as a horror movie, whew, child. To horror fans, all I have to say is that it’s PG-13. But if you’re not a horror junkie, what that means is that the thrills and chills happen largely offscreen. There are some decent fighting scenes–it always feels good to watch a Final Girl (or in this case, several of them) fight back–but they come too late and are over too soon.
Black Christmas Review: Final (Girl) Thoughts
By the way, this is after the movie has taken its scares in the direction of what should be a twist. But thanks to the generously revealing trailers, it’s not as surprising as they would like it to be. Well, it is a little surprising how ridiculous the twist is. And it seems like a cop-out. After the work they’ve tried to do to reference our current social climate, they might as well have gone for “it was all a dream.” It would have had the same impact as their actual twist. Because far too often, as we’ve learned far too often, the real monsters live beside us. They look like us, but they don’t value us as people.
And that’s what should be the message of this movie. Instead, some good performances and a few suspenseful set pieces are unfortunately surrounded by a muddled storyline. This isn’t a bad story to tell, but it should be clear. Otherwise, you’ll never take any power back.
featured image via Universal Pictures
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.