Even though it was already remade in 2006, it makes a lot of sense that a movie like 1974’s Black Christmas would come around yet again in 2019. The story is about a group of female students terrorized in a sorority house, and because conversations of toxic masculinity and on-campus rape culture have become more prevalent at schools across the country in recent years, the scenario is inherently more volatile and socially relevant now than it was 45 years ago.
Director Sofia Takal uses the source material as a way of delivering pointed commentary on the challenges women face in a male-dominated world, more specifically, on college campuses. Toxic masculinity manifests itself in clever and innovative ways in Takal’s take on the slasher classic, with social commentary serving as jet fuel for the onscreen violence. What makes this remake better than the original is that the young women at the center of the story are strong, and they draw that strength from compassion and self-respect. Aside from these characterizations being more realistic than what you’d typically find in an average slasher flick, they’re also more compelling and give the inevitable deaths emotional weight.
I’ve always felt like Imogen Poots was an untapped talent in the film industry, making the most of every role she’s given (she was crazy good in Green Room, another slasher-ish romp). Her career hasn’t surged in the way I would have expected by now, but in Black Christmas, she’s fantastic in a lead role that gives her time to exhibit her gift for exuding strength and soulfulness at once. She plays Riley, a senior who’s a source of controversy and speculation on campus due to a previous accusation that an alumni frat boy date raped her three years ago. On the night before Christmas break, he’s returned to attend his fraternity’s pledge initiation, where Riley and her sisters embarrass him and his fraternity with a scathingly re-worded rendition of “Up On the Housetop.”
Coincidentally, Riley and her sorority sisters begin receiving threatening DMs on social media from an account bearing the likeness of the university’s white, male founder. One of Riley’s sorority sisters, Kris (Aleyse Shannon), is a passionate women’s rights activist who’s started a petition to get their misogynist Literature professor, Mr. Gelson (Cary Elwes), fired for pushing a non-inclusive curriculum comprised exclusively of white, male authors. When Riley’s friend Helena (Madeleine Adams) disappears inexplicably, the paranoia sets in and she suspects that the vanishing could be related to professor Gelson and the angry frat boys, but the on-campus security guard doesn’t believe her story. Unfortunately, Riley’s worst fears are realized when the sorority house is invaded by hooded invaders.
The strength of the film is in the relevance of its subject matter. Rape culture has been a heated topic of conversation on college campuses in recent years, and Takal and co-writer April Wolfe examine the issue from all angles. Horror is a genre that’s had a long history of bringing light to issues like this in ways that other genres cannot, and Black Christmas continues the tradition, touching on everything from the #MeToo movement to the infamous “not all men” faux pas, to the incessant refusal of persons of authority to believe women.
Where the film falters is in the horror department. It simply isn’t all that scary, at best offering a few jump scares that might take you by surprise but won’t leave any sort of lasting impression. Also notable is the lack of gore, which is borderline distracting. Both men and women meet gruesome deaths throughout the film, but the camera constantly cuts away right before the true act of violence occurs. The result is a cumulative sense of security as the reality sets in that the movie won’t ever confront the extent of the violent acts head-on, ultimately lowering the stakes and softening the scares.
What Takal is more interested in confronting is the horror of being a woman in a world designed to make them subservient and less-than, and in this respect, she succeeds. She spent years working alongside mumblecore legends like Joe Swanberg and Adam Wingard, so it comes as no surprise that her character work is her strongest asset. The protagonists are likable across the board, including sorority sisters Marty (Lily Donoghue) and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady), whose chemistry with Poots and Shannon lends the movie a sincere warmth that many horror flicks go for but almost never achieve.
Black Christmas goes a little over the top in its third act, mostly in terms of tone. The plot ventures into supernatural territory in a way that works in terms of providing a metaphor for the men versus women power struggle that’s been dominating headlines in recent years, but doesn’t gel with the rest of the movie. In a lot of ways, the film feels like a middle-of-the-pack episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Strong social commentary supported by wonderful character work and stifled by so-so scares and cheesy villains.