For as much as he cornered the market on great Christmas movies, poor Bob Clark has sure had his classics thoroughly tarnished in the years since his death, hasn’t he?
A Christmas Story is arguably Clark’s best-known work to the general populous, but I think Black Christmas is worthy of equal or greater attention.
Released in 1974, for those unaware, the film follows what we would see today as a fairly standard slasher formula: members of a sorority house are stalked down and murdered by an unseen assailant over winter break, until the cast is whittled down to its final girl. Black Christmas was a film relatively unsung in its day, but has since gained a large cult status as one of the first modern slashers, credited with inspiring the 80’s classics like Halloween. It cannot be credited enough for how much it has shaped the current horror genre as we know it.
Alongside John Carpenter’s The Thing, it’s one of my favorite horror films to throw on at Christmastime.
The film, prior to this most recent reimagining, had already undergone the 2000’s remake treatment back in 2007. While the plot remained relatively unchanged, it added a significant amount of backstory to the previously completely unknown killer; the film was a minor financial success, but a critical and audience failure.
That is to say, the original ‘74 film has already been taken by the Hollywood machine once before.
And it seems that the people at Blumhouse had the same thought that I did — a remake of a film that had already been remade within the last fifteen years would probably be a very poor choice. Black Christmas is not Spider-Man, after all. Thus, director Sophia Takal’s take on the film strays even further from the original classic. Outside of some visual references and the film simply existing as a ‘slasher’ that takes place over Christmas vacation, next to nothing has been brought over from Clark’s film.
And, boy, is it not good.
I feel the need to defend the original film a little here, because so much of the marketing for the 2019 adaptation, so many reviews, tout it as a “feminist update”. These girls aren’t “willing victims”, they’re liberated badasses who can fight off the patriarchy and the stalker all at once. They aren’t like the girls of the original film.
But I would really argue that the original Black Christmas is incredibly feminist, undeniably so in the context of the time it was released. In January of 1973, the decision in regards to the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade was heard, which gave protection to women seeking an abortion. Black Christmas was released late in 1974; and abortion is a prominent discussion point of the film.
The final girl, Jess (Olivia Hussey), is revealed to be pregnant by her boyfriend pretty early on. She also very firmly establishes that she doesn’t want to be a parent and plans to get an abortion. This becomes a major point of contention between Jess and her boyfriend, who is aggressively against the idea of an abortion to the point of threatening her several times throughout the course of the film.
This subplot comes to an end once Jess suspects her boyfriend of being the killer; when he breaks into the sorority house, she beats him to death in a panic.
There’s of course an argument to make about the inherent sexism in a film about college girls being slowly and brutally murdered by a man. And there’s no denying that the horror genre is often inherently sexist. I don’t think you could make any argument that horror films don’t exist within a sexist vacuum, in the same way you can’t say that about any genre. Sexism is a societal, deeply rooted issue within Western/American society, of course it has bled into our entertainment media.
Black Christmas, really, is not a masterpiece impervious to criticisms. Olivia Hussey’s Shatner-acting can get really distracting towards the end, and a lot of the humor involving the cops does little more than grind the film to an excruciating halt between kills. It is the first modern slasher, and that means it includes the drawbacks of the subgenre as much as it does the admirable aspects.
But the 1974 film has a cast of characters that are treated like real people. Each girl is different and unique; they’re all clearly friends with each other, they fight in naturalistic ways. Black Christmas is a film that tries to be very firmly grounded in realism, and these girls reflect that. While comments are made about things such as rape culture and the inherent danger of womanhood, they don’t become lengthy dialogues about it. In part, yes, because that’s just not what the film is about, but also because that’s just not how most people talk. Women do not need to explain to other women that threats of violence, rape, and death are a constant day-to-day thing. It comes implied in their anxious looks and body language, the way they act around other women in comparison to when they’re around the men of the film.
2019’s Black Christmas, as one review so eloquently puts it, instead falls into “the trappings of t-shirt feminism”.
It is a film less concerned with creating legitimate conversation about rape culture and political correctness in college settings, and more worried about generating lines that will fit well on a mom’s feminism-themed Pinterest board. This is a film created out of feeding #Woke Twitter into an AI and asking that AI to generate a screenplay.
“You’re insane,” the lead girl cries. “No,” the antagonist tuts, shaking his head, “we are simply men”. Somehow Target already has this on a t-shirt next to the “wine o’clock” subsection. And modern feminism continues to die a slow death, from ideology into commodity.
Black Christmas, 2019, fails as both a horror film and as a message movie. A lot of people cried blasphemy when it was announced the movie was going to be released with a PG-13 rating, but PG-13 horror is not inherently bad horror. It is a different kind of horror than something with a hard R though; PG-13 films have to rely more on atmosphere and tension than on gore and graphic kills. You have to be a good enough filmmaker to deliver the implication of horrific things as effectively as visual horror.
And I just don’t think Sophia Takal is.
Having directed three films prior to Black Christmas, I ended up watching her previous film from 2018, New Year, New You, by happenstance during the writing of this. While not abysmally bad like Black Christmas, the film is instead just this dull void of nothingness and almost-ideas, crowned by a lack of awareness in making the first victim of the film a black lesbian. Takal still ends up being unable to balance horror with the message she clearly thinks is the most important thing in the world (girls are catty, influencers are bad … girl power?), and that makes this film and Black Christmas both tonally unbalanced.
There is such a depressing absence of horror in Black Christmas that it makes me wonder why the title was even attached to it. While a cult classic, I don’t think the original is what you would call a household name in the same way as Halloween or Scream. And horror films independent of franchises, while perhaps not box office gold, aren’t exactly struggling either. Us, Parasite, The Lighthouse, and Midsommar all came out in 2019 to good critical review, all easily made back their budgets and then some. And so the choice to tether this film to a title that it is completely unrelated to is just simply baffling.
It’s not a horror movie. Whenever a kill happens, the camera is forced to cut away before the audience gets to see anything. And while we are deprived of gore, we are never given any substantial tension to replace that. There is rarely even an effort to create suspense, and so what is easily 75% of the film feels like a high school drama a la Riverdale.
Takal has said that she wanted the film to be PG-13 so that the “message” of the film could reach a slightly younger audience, so the lack of horror at least has an explanation. So you would expect the message of the film to be carefully crafted, right? With at least a little nuance?
No, Black Christmas is just as much a shitty message film as it is a shitty horror movie.
The first thing I posted about this movie upon leaving the theater was that if anyone was a victim of rape or sexual assault, they should probably stay far away from this.
Yeah. This section is going to be about that. It’s not going to be in graphic detail, but this is your warning to tap out now if discussion of rape and sexual assault is a triggering subject for you.
In between the murders of the sorority girls, the B-plot of Black Christmas is on the main girl, Riley (Imogen Poots), and her struggles in healing from being raped several years prior by a frat boy, Brian. This subplot is the primary focus of the film for easily the first half, and it gets a vague payoff by the end by converging with the main slasher plot.
On paper, I can see this looking like a good idea. You get to examine rape culture as it uniquely exists on college campuses, the complicity of sororities and frat houses in this, and how the structure of college, as well as society, inherently benefits men and allows them to maintain positions of power. And to want your film to be more accessible to girls is also not a bad thing, I have no gripes with that.
My gripes with this subplot is that the film does not seem to take rape seriously, and it has an incredibly confusing idea of what “empowerment” is.
This is not helped by the fact that every character in this movie is a stereotype, and blatant ones at that. With the exception of one, every male character is an SNL-style caricature of Brett Kavanaugh, even down to having a throwaway line of dialogue that references his “I like beer” tirade. And the singular male character who is not an overt misogynist is the quintessential “nice guy”, the nerd with glasses, completely void of any rough or crude edge. But like every other man, he is not a character outside of the role he needs to fill.
You can make a movie about how males inherently benefit from the patriarchy without making every male the most extreme misogynist you can imagine. Examine how they also suffer under this system, don’t just go for the laziest depiction of evil, sexist men.
The most tone-deaf scene in the whole film, perhaps, is the song and dance performed by the sorority girls at the frat party, before the killings really start. Riley, though not originally meant to perform, ends up filling in for one of her sorority sisters in the last minute. And it’s confusing whether or not what happens was intentional on the girls’ part, or if it was all meant to be perfectly improvised, but either way, their Mean Girls-style rendition of “Up on the Housetop” switches gears into becoming an anti-frat, anti-rape empowerment anthem.
In a film that was embarrassing but otherwise relatively harmless up until this point, this was the moment that it dawned on me that I had paid $5 to watch this, and there was no going back. This was the jumping-the-shark moment.
The next time we see Riley, one of the dozens of expendable girls in the sorority reassures her that by doing that song and dance, she “won” over Brian, and that notion baffles me.
Null the ending, Brian never faces any lasting consequence for alleged rape; nobody outside the sorority ever believes Riley about the rape, and it’s only because Brian now leads a sexist murder cult that he ends up getting comeuppance by the film’s end. But Riley “wins”, because she was coerced into performing when she wasn’t comfortable doing so, because she was put in a situation that deeply triggered her, and because she re-exposed herself to her rapist when she did not have to.
Black Christmas treats the rape trauma of the main protagonist the same way a high school drama treats a messy breakup, and it’s fascinating to watch. Giving a lyrical middle finger to a guy makes sense if he wronged you in a way that was vaguely petty; I cannot think of a single person who would look at a situation where she was placed in a room with her rapist and would respond like “yeah, an “Up on the Housetop” cover feels appropriate here”.
What the movie does, see, is ties together Riley’s rape with the slasher plot, and that’s when the implications go from Really Stupid And Tone Deaf But Ultimately Harmless to Legitimately Awful. In a way that is more “tell” than it is “show”, the movie indicates that Riley has been turning inwards after the rape, “allowing” it to continue to rule and ruin her life. Her best friend is insistent that she continue to fight against the patriarchy and the system that allowed Brian to escape genuine consequence, while Riley accuses her of using this as a personal project to inspire women without any regard for Riley herself.
Which, Riley’s right. Her best friend is the biggest example of that previously mentioned “feeding-Woke-Twitter-into-an-AI” writing, and she seems to care more about the importance of inspiring other women through Riley than she does how Riley feels about all of it.
But according to Black Christmas, Riley is wrong. Because during the climactic final battle (of course this movie has an action sequence in it), she’s put into a similar position with Brian as she was during her rape. And this time, because she’s Fighting The System, she’s able to get Brian off of her and win the battle. Which creates this weird implication that she is now Too Strong To Be Raped, either in a metaphorical or literal sense, because strong feminists are capable of defeating any man who tries to lay a hand on her.
The concept of taking a literal fight and tying it to the metaphorical fight against the patriarchy is not inherently bad, but Takal very clearly did not know how to properly convey this. There’s no way she realized the implications the final scenes conveyed.
This December brought us a lot of movies that ended up being bad on an insane level. Black Christmas is the one we’re all most likely to forget about.
The most memorable thing about this movie is Cary Elwes as the sexist professor and ultimate leader of the crazy murder cult. Every second he’s onscreen it’s like the movie finally has some life and fun about it; Elwes in this is chewing the scenery so hard he’s this close to taking real, physical bites out of the set. If he’d had a mustache, he’d have been twirling it. It’s a miracle of hamminess not seen outside of earnest parody, and for it to appear in what was supposed to be a serious message movie is hysterical to me.
Ultimately, despite the now two remakes attached on like leeches, Bob Clark’s original Black Christmas is not going to suffer under their abysmal quality. The 1974 film is solidified in its status as a cult classic. It’s beautiful, drenched in winter and holiday aesthetic, and delivers a progressive message on abortion without preaching senselessly to the audience. Clark knew how to balance overt horror with subtlety, and that’s why his film as endured where the other two are more than likely going to fade into relative obscurity.
If you’re looking for horror in the tail end of this holiday season, don’t waste your time on 2019’s Black Christmas. The 1974 film is better in nearly any way, and you don’t even need to spend money on it — open YouTube and, in a genuinely good quality in comparison to most movies dumped onto the platform, enjoy a perfectly enjoyable slasher.