Give Black Christmas director Sophia Takal and screenwriter April Wolfe credit. Instead of remaking Bob Clark’s 1974 cult slasher flick frame by frame, they tried something different, a reimagining of the film to reflect the #MeToo era. At times, the film swings for the fences and misses drastically, especially in the rushed final act, but at other times, as the protagonist’s backstory of sexual assault unfolds, the film hits the mark. At its best, the film builds tension well and offers good characterization, but at its worst, it has some cringe-worthy dialogue and an ending that is so outlandish it nearly overpowers the stronger first half.
The basic premise of the remake is the same as the original. A group of Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority sisters at Hawthorne College are stalked and picked off one by one, sometimes within their own house. There are some nice nods to Clark’s masterpiece, including a plastic bag, a wooden chair in the attic, and innovative uses of Christmas lights. To dive into those scenes much more would give too much away. The movie continues a string of successful remakes.
Takal’s intent, however, is not to create what’s already been done. In an interview with EW, she made that clear, stating, “You know, this movie, even though it’s very, very loosely based on Black Christmas, I’d say the plot is extremely different. It’s more inspired by the feeling that Black Christmas made me feel watching it, this idea of misogyny always being out there and never totally eradicable…. I’d compare it more to how Luca Guadagnino remade Suspiria than to a straight-ahead remake.”
The comparison to last year’s Suspiria is a fair point. Both films take the basic gist of the original films but reenvision the story. In Takal’s version, there is no Billy the killer, but rather everyday misogyny that the women have to confront and overcome.
The film begins with a quote from Hawthorne College’s sexist founder that lingers on the screen before the start of an actual scene. In short, the quote praises male strength, and this idea looms over everything that happens at the college, especially the behavior of the Founders Fraternity, who generally serve as the antagonists. One of their past presidents, Brian Huntley (Ryan McIntyre), sexually assaulted protagonist Riley (Imogen Poots) at a party early in her college career. When he returns to campus to initiate new pledges, this triggers Riley’s trauma.
Riley’s story is one of the film’s highlights, as she’s forced to confront her abuser at a talent show and reckon with the past. The moment she sees him, she stumbles and freezes on stage. The camera zooms in on her distraught face. Riley is a sympathetic, yet powerful female lead, especially when she faces Brian for the first time in years, and with the help of her sorority sisters, performs a retooled version of “Up on the Rooftop” that calls out rape culture. A viewer would be hard-pressed not to cheer for Riley when she finds her confidence in that moment and walks off the stage feeling newly empowered.
Despite its PG-13 rating, the film is not without some decent scares and high tension. One of the most nail-biting scenes features sorority sister Lindsay (Lucy Currey), who receives a DM on an app from someone claiming to be the college’s 19th Century founder. The threatening message causes her to look over her shoulder, as a male stares at his phone, walking in close proximity. This is a good fake-out, one that most likely captures the anxiety women have felt walking alone at night. The rest of the kills mostly occur within the sorority house, which mirrors the original film. Gore hounds may be disappointed at the lack of blood and guts, however. Takal did the best she could with the rating.
The rest of the film explores other contemporary issues. For instance, when Riley is distressed and turns to campus security for help, the male cop is largely dismissive of her story, even when she shows him the threatening messages. This is reflective of her past trauma and the frat’s unwillingness to believe that Brian raped her. There’s also a small plot thread involving a male professor, Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes), who excludes non-white writers from his syllabus. Riley’s best friend and staunch feminist, Kris (Aleyse Shannon), launches a petition and often steals most of the scenes she’s in. To add, not every male in the film is a villain. Landon, played by Caleb Eberhadt, is one of the most endearing characters. He’s understanding and even asks Riley what he can do. Her stunned look makes it clear that very few people, if any, have asked her that.
The film works well when it focuses on Riley’s story and some of her interactions with Kris, who encourages her sister not to retreat inward and reminds her that she “used to be a fighter.” Yet, the final act involves an absurd supernatural conspiracy regarding the Founds Fraternity and a few lines of corny dialogue that sound like protest slogans. Unfortunately, this ending really drags the movie down and overshadows much of the work that was spent building these characters. In that same EW interview, Takal mentions that the film was presented to her with no script, and she adds it moved way faster than anything she’s done prior. Perhaps that explains the ending.
Overall, Black Christmas is not without some effective scares, and its primary story about surviving sexual assault is especially relevant as the effects of the #MeToo Movement and Brett Kavanaugh hearings still loom so large in our culture. Furthermore, it does a fine job capturing the current debates occurring on college campuses. There are moments of rich character interactions and general unease and dread when Riley and her friends are stalked. The ending, however, is so over the top and one-dimensional that it overshadows the film’s decent first half. It will be interesting to see what Takal does next, especially when she lands a project that isn’t so rushed.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.