Black Christmas and Reinventing Holiday Horror for Today

Black Christmas star Imogen Poots says the remake pays homage to the original while acting as a 'Trojan horse' to new ideas for 2019.

Imogen Poots in Black Christmas
Universal Pictures

Both the original Black Christmas (1974) and its 2006 remake were structured around the same basic plot: a killer is stalking the women of a college sorority house who stayed behind during the winter break, with the big “reveal” being that the murderer has been hiding inside the house the entire time. The 1974 film (directed by Bob Clark) was surprising in that it ultimately did not identify the killer, and that it also dealt with issues like abortion and women’s liberation–both hot-button topics then and, sadly, now. The 2006 version… well, let’s just say it didn’t have the same flair for relevance.

The new version, directed by Sophia Takal and co-written by her and April Wolfe, is a different prospect entirely. It’s still set on a college campus with a group of women staying behind during the hiatus at their sorority house, but there the similarities take a sharp turn: this Black Christmas is very much of its time and deals with issues of toxic masculinity, rape culture, female empowerment, the role of diverse voices in the classroom, and the effects of social media, all within the stylized aesthetic of a ‘70s horror film.

Imogen Poots (The Art of Self-Defense) stars as Riley, one of the women who stays on campus while she is still getting over being sexually assaulted by a man from one of the fraternities. As that fraternity prepares to throw its annual holiday party, and the women ready themselves with a response, some of the members of the sorority begin to fall prey to a hooded killer–leading Riley and her sisters to wonder whether they can trust any of the men, even the ones they love.

Whether the new Black Christmas speaks to you or not, whether you engage with its politics or simply want to enjoy another variation on a classic genre template, there’s no question that this movie doesn’t just remake what came before. Den of Geek spoke with Imogen Poots at the film’s Los Angeles press day about what drew her to the film and why she thinks it’s important, while also drawing a line between Black Christmas and her next project, a long-awaited TV adaptation of the groundbreaking graphic novel Y: The Last Man.

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Den of Geek: What was the biggest lure for you in doing this?

Imogen Poots: Well, the biggest lure was Sophia. We had emailed back and forth over the years to find something to do together, and I was a really big admirer of her work. Always Shine and Green, and then she’d acted in a movie called Gabi on the Roof in July, which was just a brilliant study of how pretentious artists can be, in the Brooklyn scene in New York. I was really excited to do something with her, knowing that whatever she had in her hands was going to be pushing certain buttons and moving the dial. I was really excited to be part of the film, which is just a massive Trojan horse so that we could talk about different messages within it. April is such a brilliant collaborator for her too, so it was great.

Were you familiar with either the original one or the 2006 remake?

I was familiar with the original one, and I know that we have little nods to it throughout the film. But it really is a totally different movie, I think. I mean, I think in terms of our ingredients and the content, I think it just couldn’t be more different. I’m sure that would disappoint some ’74 fans, but I also think that’s what culture does. It kind of moves forward and if you’re going to remake something, even if it’s just got the same title, I think it has to be a reflection of culture back on itself, doesn’t it?

read more: The 17 Best Christmas Horror Movies

But the setting’s the same. And the original was, for its time, fairly progressive in some ways.

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It’s cool. It’s interesting to think about. And also the fact that this is a female director, I think that’s different too. Just for a horror movie to have a female helming it. But I’m hoping that people will get why it was exciting to remake that film specifically. Because as you say, I think fraternity culture now, compared to in the ’70s, it’s such a historically embedded institution that takes place in the American college system, and we’re examining if we really need those anymore.

In England, you don’t have fraternities of sororities.

That’s right. You just have snobby clubs.

Are these all outdated modes of gathering people together?

I think so. It seems to me to be a reinforcement of gender categories and I don’t see how that’s helpful these days. It depends of course what’s being valued and spoken about and encouraged within those groups, but I don’t see the benefit of it, really anymore. And it’s the same as anything, if something has set up a really, really long time ago, like the Electoral College, it’s sort of like, well this isn’t helping anyone. This isn’t moving anything forward. So I don’t really know what the benefit of that is. That’s not to say that something should be totally disintegrated, but it certainly needs to be re-examined, I think.

But it’s a great setting for a horror film, especially one that’s combating misogyny in that way. But it’s interesting, in England we just don’t have that, apart from school dances. That’s really the last time I remember boys over there and girls over here. That’s, unfortunately as well, what you’re brought up to be like. But from movies like Animal House or certain American TV shows, it’s ingrained in your mind as part of the American collegiate system.

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There are a number of issues brought up in this film: toxic masculinity, the role of diversity in education, the damage that social media can do. Any of these particularly close to your heart in a way or were you interested in digging into all of them to some degree?

I think a certain type of toxic masculinity is explored, and I think growing up and being a woman in 2019, you recognize how inured you’ve become to certain behavior, which you shouldn’t have put up with. When I re-examined certain episodes or incidents in my life that, at the time, I thought were my fault or that I dismissed as being part of life, totally normal, you can put it under the microscope and say, “That wasn’t okay. That was something which I felt really uncomfortable about.” Again, that’s just part of growing up in a world where just because it’s so old or so ingrained, it doesn’t mean it’s natural or normal.

On the other hand, I have a plethora of male friends who are extraordinary feminists, so I think it’s important not to just constantly talk about toxic masculinity in relation to men. I think it’s a cultural problem and systemic. And then, to your point about social media, it’s such a double-edged sword, because the internet is horrible for so many reasons. Especially for the media leading people astray on many fronts, but it’s also been an extraordinary thing for something like feminism. I think that #MeToo and #TimesUp benefited hugely from the soundbites which was on social media, Twitter and Instagram. They really supplied people with a platform to communicate and share. So I think they’ve really helped to move their argument along and enhance the conversation.

You mentioned having lots of male friends who were feminists. The movie business itself seems so split. You have on the one hand the Weinsteins of the world and all of the horror stories that people have gone through and that we’ve heard about. And then the other hand, you have a lot of progressive, forward-thinking people in this town.

Totally. I think it’ll always be that way in some sense, purely because that’s just humanity and there is that conflict. But hopefully, the more we continue on in this industry, it won’t be such a big thing to have a movie about toxic masculinity or a movie about feminism. It’ll just become a subject, in a way that a movie about dinosaurs is. Something historical from the past. I think that there are so many directors, filmmakers out there who are male, who are also contributing to the feminist argument in a great way.

You were in a remake of Fright Night a few years back. What is it about this genre that makes certain titles just ripe for this kind of treatment?

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Well, I think going back to the Trojan horse idea, with genre movies, you can market a film as one thing and then you get the audience there and you tell them a totally different story, or something with a subtle hidden message of some kind. I think the genre really can deliver a great platform for female performances, like Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Toni Collette in Hereditary. There’s a real sense of traveling and going on a journey with a character who endures tragedy or endures struggle. And I think it’s important for an audience to feel seen. There’s something really noble about characters persevering and coming through great trauma.

So I think genre can do that, but it’s also fun. It’s also an escape. I don’t think we need to fill our heads with total cotton and stupid ideas to have fun. I don’t think we need to see some lame rom-com that nobody gives a shit about. I think it’s far more fun to see Gremlins.

You’re about to start work on the adaptation of Y: The Last Man, which is also about gender issues. What’s the approach that the show is taking?

I think it’s going to take a really interesting approach. I think there’s going to be some additions which have come from the filmmakers with the consent of the people behind the graphic novels, I should say. But I think, again, it’s a story about women, all different types of women. That doesn’t mean it’s fluid or smooth, if anything, there’s a lot of conflicts, and women have ego struggles too. So there’s all of that in there and some other characters that have been added. Which I think will really enhance the argument and conversation about gender.

Black Christmas is out in theaters this Friday, Dec. 13.

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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye