The Latest Remake of ‘Black Christmas’ Doesn’t Care About Subtlety
Those of you looking for a timely dose of bold commentary about institutionalized misogyny and white male privilege to go along with your slasher flicks will be in for an early holiday present if you see the 2019 remake of Black Christmas. Those of you who lament that the horror genre has become “too political”…you’re gonna have a bad time.
BLACK CHRISTMAS ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Sophia Takal
Written by: Sophia Takal and April Wolfe
Starring: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes
Running time: 92 min
Black Christmas is the *most 2019* film to come out this year, for better and worse. But once the mystery unravels, it delivers some fun shocks to go with its messaging.
This time around, the festivities center around a group of sorority sisters at Hawthorne College. As winter break begins, someone is killing off sorority sisters after sending them lewd DMs through a YikYak-like college messaging app. As more women die or vanish, a pattern emerges. The women who someone is attacking are the same women who have spoken out against fraternity rape culture at the college.
One of those women is Riley (Imogen Poots), who a frat bro drugged and raped during her freshman year. Now a senior, she’s in a sorority with Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue) and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady), who are all actively trying to get an English professor (Cary Elwes, relishing a chance to play a cad) fired for his sexist rant at Kris. Things start to get dangerous when the women perform a riff on “Up on the Housetop” at a frat party that accuses Riley’s rapist. Eventually, Riley begins to suspect that the men behind all of the winter break attacks belong to her rapist’s fraternity.
As she and her sorority sisters fight for their lives, the film deviates from the 1974 original and 2006 remake by taking a wild turn into cosmic horror. In those films, the villain was an unknown killer; here, the evil is much more obvious and insidious. Writers Sophia Takal (who also directed) and April Wolfe are not subtle about implying that these men are doing these things because of institutional sexism. In fact, an old statue of Hawthorne College’s founder has literally cursed them, via some black magic. Through a ritual, Hawthorne’s misogynistic spirit imbues the men. Then they go out and use this power in our courtrooms, schools and businesses. To fight this evil, Riley and Co. must literally burn the patriarchy, or at least the frat house, to the ground.
All of that obvious symbolism might have faltered in a film that was trying to be subtle.
Black Christmas ain’t trying to be subtle, and that’s why it’s easier to forgive some of its more of-the-times lines of dialogue that might not age well. There’s an unironic reference to Brett Kavanaugh’s “I like beer” proclamation as well as a “your body, your choice” mention and a “not all men” shoutout. If it wanted to be subtle, its cold open wouldn’t be of someone killing a woman with an icicle. It also comes by its intentions honestly, unlike this year’s Countdown, which shoehorned in a #TimesUp plot point just so it could. This is an angry film about a nasty subject, and Wolfe and Takal have written it accordingly.
But for those who may think the gender politics subject matter is out of place, it’s actually a tradition in keeping with previous versions of Black Christmas, which also reflected their time periods. In the original version, released a year after Roe v. Wade, the protagonist is considering getting an abortion, which enrages her boyfriend, who is suspected to be the killer. In the ill-received 2006 remake, released at the height of horror’s “torture porn” moment (the hallmark of which is a fear of the violation and destruction of the body, a timely fear in America during the middle of the war in Iraq), the killer is revealed to be a woman who was the product of incestual rape. Dimension Films distributed the film, and Harvey Weinstein was heavily involved in the film’s ending. The 2019 remake is also suitably of-its-time for the #MeToo era.
Does it scare as well as the original? Not really, and the PG-13 rating might be to blame for that. An R rating is not indicative of a horror film’s quality, but the gruesome subject matter could have benefited from a harsher rating. I found myself missing Barb’s foul-mouthed insults from the original (rest in peace, Margot Kidder). On the other hand, the audience would have been even smaller had it been rated R.
But the final showdown in Black Christmas is fun, and features a lot of nods to the original, including a cheer-worthy subversion of the plastic bag kill scene. Every beat in Wolfe and Takal’s script pays off in the end. Mark Schwartzbard’s cinematography utilizes a lot of close-ups, making the audience feel just as claustrophobic as the characters. Imogen Poots puts in a great performance as someone who rises above her trauma, and Cary Elwes chews his few scenes with gusto.
Will the 2019 references age well? No, but the action and metaphors will, and Black Christmas is as effective of an example of horror as a reflection of society’s fears that you’ll see all year.