The idea of pairing a traditional slasher film with a feminist slant is neither new nor ill-advised. From Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) — yes, it’s essentially a space-set slasher — to Amy Holden Jones’ The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) to Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011), the sub-genre is rife with possibility and variety when it comes to empowering women and enabling them to respond effectively to men’s worst behaviors. Bob Clark’s 1974 classic Black Christmas, arguably the film that started the slasher sub-genre, features a main character choosing to have an abortion despite the protestations of her possessive boyfriend, and the film never judges her for it even as it becomes a possible motive for murder. The second thread connecting these films, though, and the reason why we’re still talking about them so many years later, is their focus on story, character, and entertaining thrills. And that’s where the new Black Christmas unfortunately parts ways with them all.
It’s winter break at Hawthorne College, and while most of the student body is heading home for the holidays a handful of self-described “orphans” are sticking it out. Riley (Imogen Poots) is a senior still recuperating emotionally and mentally from a sexual assault that occurred when she was a freshman, but after taking part in a performance designed to subvert sexy expectations while slamming date rape culture in frat houses she’s feeling a bit more herself. It’s short-lived, though, as a missing sorority sister and ominous text messages suggest someone has grim plans for the evening. Angry young men, incompetent campus police, and strange goings on at the frat house where all of Riley’s troubles began combine for a night of “bloodshed” and terror.
This second “remake” of Clark’s Black Christmas moves even further from that original than Glen Morgan’s bonkers 2006 effort did, but that in and of itself isn’t a problem. The best remakes find their own voice rather than merely regurgitating what came before, and no one can accuse director/co-writer Sophia Takal and co-writer April Wolfe of playing it familiar and safe. No spoilers here, but their film takes an epic turn in its third act that is as boldly unexpected as they come, and while it absolutely, 100% does not work, it’s such a wild swing for the fences that you can’t help but respect it. The film succeeds early on with its drama about close friends facing off against male egos on campus, but the slasher elements — arguably the central point of a Black Christmas film — all fail to one degree or another.
That third-act reveal comes out of nowhere without narrative, in-movie logic, or explanation to support it, but the film’s horror issues start far earlier. Horror films don’t need an R-rating to be effective, and there are an abundance of fantastic PG-13 horror movies to prove it, but slashers in general arguably do. Takal’s film is filled with loud, Blumhouse-approved stingers meant to enhance jump scares, but the actual kills are bloodless, empty, and mostly off screen. Again and again we get a brief cat and mouse game, the masked killer appears, and just as he approaches a victim the film cuts away leaving little variety aside from an attempted homage to one of the greatest scares in horror history that’s fumbled in its brevity and execution. It feels very much like a movie working hard to stay safe, and whether it was done while shooting or in the editing room the result is the same. (The abundance of ADR work suggests the latter.) It lacks the atmosphere, tension, and scares of Clark’s original and the memorably gory set-pieces of the first remake, and it replaces them all with #metoo jingo-isms and “girl power” mantras.
These beats should be inspiring, and there’s no doubting their importance, but they instead prove empty as the young women show no sign of being any smarter or more aware than your average slasher fodder. They make dumb choices, they constantly separate, and they fail to work together until a finale that lacks conviction in its belated attempt to make a point. Men are bad — not all men, just the obvious ones, except for when even the good guys are overruled by their “true alpha” nature — and the women are forced to fight their way through this male dominated world. The idea is sadly sound, but while Black Christmas never attacks it as aggressively as the recent Assassination Nation (2018) it still approaches dialogue overkill in such an otherwise flat film.
What makes all of this so damn frustrating is that the film’s first half succeeds in setting up the friendships and characters at its core. Riley is an engaging character still finding her strength, and both the script and Poots’ performance give her an emotional depth. Her close friends are given less detail, but their bond is clear with each revealing their characters well through conversations and observations. Aleyse Shannon and Brittany O’Grady are two highlights here with memorable supporting turns as close friends caught up in the madness. The horror elements are such a let down, though, that they threaten to drag these characters down too. The men are less well represented, deservedly so for the film’s intention, and the result is a series of mere placeholders in the form of a creepy professor (Cary Elwes), a suspicious nice guy (Caleb Eberhardt), and a moody boyfriend (Simon Mead).
Black Christmas is ultimately a missed opportunity and simply another in a long line of studio-approved PG-13 horror films for teens. There’s a need for that, both as a gateway into more adult horror and as a way to give voice to young women — but the result here lacks any kind of bite in its horror or commentary. It’s enough to make you wish Takal and Wolfe had applied their talents in one direction or the other — either towards a compelling drama/comedy about modern young women or towards making a kick-ass horror film. A blend of the two is certainly possible, but this attempt at doing both unfortunately succeeds at doing neither.