Black Christmas (2019)

2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Imogene Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Cary Elwes | directed by Sophia Takal | 1 hr 34 mins |

With Christmas approaching the halls of Hawthorne College are emptying out for the break leaving behind a handful of sorority girls, er, women. Chief among them is Riley (Imogene Poots, Vivarium) who was assaulted by a frat boy the previous semester and was maligned by the frats for outing him. Soon a hooded figure with a bow and arrow begins stalking the girls and they must band together as sisters to fight the assailant off.

Bob Clark’s 1974 Black Christmas is a slasher classic. Glen Morgan’s over-the-top gory 2006 remake is a ghastly abortion. Remade again from a new perspective for a new era, the 2019 version falls somewhere in the middle. There is a lot to like about this movie from a stylistic perspective and an ambition perspective, even if it doesn’t always hit the bullseye. Director Sophia Takal and co-writer April Wolfe are less interested in making another slasher movie then they are spinning the basic framework of Clark’s film into a new satire for a post-Weinstein, rape-culture America. It’s a ferociously political film that balances it’s gender dynamic statements in (almost) equal measure with it’s genre-movie impulses.

I like this type of movie and I admire it’s ambition to use a slasher film as sucker bait to wheel in a feminist message. The problem is that it doesn’t go all the way in either direction. The film has cocked in it’s chamber a nice new spin on the villain’s identity here, but it rarely goes beyond the surface level as a slasher movie to deliver inventive kills or as a satire delivering a full throated thesis of 2019 gender power dynamics. In the way that The World’s End uses aliens to talk about arrested development, Get Out updates The Stepford Wives body snatching to talk about race relations and Us uses underground clones to talk about class warfare, Christmas walks up and knocks on the door of this type of socio-horror blend, but doesn’t quite go all the way in. The script’s dialog often seem constructed entirely out of instagram bumper sticker slogans and Buzzfeed word salad without offering it’s own unique take on it (the way Get Out does). If asking for more in-depth smartly written dialog seems out of character for a slasher movie, it’s clear that Takal does not want to make a slasher movie here. Christmas is not fun on that level.

What does work here are the characters, the chemistry among the leads and particularly the well-rounded and realistic portrayal of Riley by Imogene Poots. Riley seems to be thinking beyond the T-shirt slogans that fill the mouth of her friend Kris (Aleyse Shannon, Charmed reboot). Where every word out of Kris’ mouth is correcting someone’s language, demanding a teacher by fired or the curriculum changed or shoving Riley out of her comfort zone before she’s ready. For Riley, even when she agrees with her, is written dynamically enough to see the bigger picture. Rarely have I wanted characters to be brutally murdered like the non-Riley characters in this movie. They are insufferable, not for what they believe, but because that is all they seem to believe.

Black Christmas exists in the same pop culture world commented on by the boys vs. girls 20th season of South Park – a fundamental acknowledgement that men and women are at odds, maybe literally at war, with each other. It expresses that well too. It shows that both the women and the men will not lie down and take their subjugation without fighting back and that both expect the other to just get in line and go away. The film leans on PC conclusions here, but it could have been worse.  I’ve spoken before about how some movies have a political message that tugs at the needs of a story – for example, that having a tough female character conflicts with a screenplay’s need to have a character overcome an obstacle or the desire to create a juicy female villain role conflicts with the audiences’ reluctance to see a female villain killed off on-screen. Black Christmas suffers from this on a more basic level. As a slasher movie with a mystery component there is never a doubt who the villains are and who the heroes are – they follow exactly intersection racial, gender and sexual orientation guidelines. This pattern is making movies like this wholly predictable. The movie also doesn’t really end, it just stops.

Also of note on the plus side, Takal’s film looks gorgeous. The dynamic reds of the Christmas lights and whites of the snow pop beautifully giving the movie a delicious comic book-esque color pallet that makes it stand out from most recent slasher films. If Christmas doesn’t quite work I’d still be curious to see what Takal’s visually stylish eye cooks up next.

Black Christmas sets up everything just right – even an argument between the girls and their male friend provokes one of the more realistically hysterical female reactions I’ve seen in a movie lately. Pootes makes a great lead in an interesting character. But Takal’s version stop short of really banging this charged idea out of the park. A few more passes at the script to really drill down into it’s battle of the sexes and give the movie a unique voice with something new to say would have made it great. Instead it’s content with shallow feminism, platitudes about girl power and uninventive slasher set pieces. Black Christmas 2019 is entertaining and just inventive enough to make you wish it was better.

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