‘Black Christmas’: A Slasher-Film Remake Updates Its Premise and Strikes Back
There’s a distinct daughters-of-Carol-Clover vibe in the new remake of Black Christmas that hits you almost immediately — a kind of knowingness with a serrated edge that’s different from the meta-winks of something like Scream, or the in-joke camaraderie that happens when horror franchise entries start getting into the double digits. It’s not just that its creators are familiar with the 1974 original, a proto-slasher flick involving a sorority house, a masked killer, the holiday season and a body count. (This vintage exploitation gem is also the answer to the question: What movie connects the director of Porky’s, an SCTV alumna, one of 2001‘s astronauts and Lois Lane?) Or that they’ve taken a few key moments from this landmark scary movie — like, say, a murder involving a plastic bag — and ingeniously referenced them in a way that the 2006 cover version of B.C. couldn’t be bothered with.
No, the sensation here is that director Sophia Takal (Always Shine) and screenwriter/film critic April Wolfe (who, full disclosure, has been a Rolling Stone contributor) are not just schooled in the history of horror movies but in the way these films work. They are aware of the pleasures of sitting in the dark and being terrified, and the pitfalls of codifying a genre around the evergreen notion of vulnerable females being systematically, brutally murdered. You can imagine them trading trivia over favorite kill scenes, and discussing the merits of The Slumber Party Massacre, the 1982 Golden-Age-of-Slasherdom classic directed and written by Amy Jones and Rita Mae Brown, over stiff drinks. And you can picture the beaming lightbulb that appeared over their heads when, in the midst of one of the most blatantly misogynistic moments of American public life, these fans first hit upon the notion of using an often misogynistic type of horror movie to strike back.
So join us, won’t you, as we enter the campus of the fictional Hawthorne University, your typically tony East Coast college full of tweed-jacketed professors and jacked-up fratboys. Riley (Green Room‘s Imogen Poots) is, unlike many of her fellow Mu Kappa Epsilon sisters, sticking around for the Christmas break. She’s also a little wary over participating in the annual holiday talent show at their sibling fraternity, however, given that one of the brothers drugged and sexually assaulted her the year before, and no one believed her story. Revenge comes in the form of a tweaked carol that calls the attacker out, which doesn’t sit well with the dudes.
Soon, a figure in a black robe and mask — the same guy we saw kill a young woman in the snow in a pre-credits sequence — starts knocking off the remaining Kappas. Riley is also getting threatening texts saying she’s next. And what’s up with the weird hazing ritual she witnessed happening at the Deke house, which involved new pledges, inky forehead marks and the bust of Hawthorne’s founder?
Etiquette dictates that we don’t lay out the particulars regarding the who, what and why of Black Christmas from here on out, except to say that Riley and her fellow females-in-peril Kris (Aleyse Shannon) and Marty (Lily Donoghue) prove to be resourceful when the time comes to defend themselves, and that something much bigger may be going on here. It also bears mentioning that folks who seem like allies maybe aren’t — but isn’t that always the case? — and that while it’s true that not all men [cough, cough] are creeps, there may be an inner creep just waiting to be awakened. Gorehounds will bemoan the fact that almost every time someone is skewered, the movie cuts away (pun unintended), but Caro syrup isn’t really on the menu this time. Other fans will undoubtedly take the internet and decry that this particular B.C. politicizes their beloved subgenre to death, as if horror and slasher movies (including the ’74 version!) haven’t been effectively commenting on the world outside the theater forever. They’re welcome to rewatch their favorite movies again and ignore everything but the stab wounds. They’re also invited to go fuck themselves.
You could, however, accuse this Black Christmas of elevating the subtext of decades’ worth of slasher flicks to the point that the text itself starts to take a backseat, or that its third-act reveal may be trying a tad too hard to grab the social-thriller brass ring. You would not necessarily be wrong. But the best part about Takal and Wolfe’s take on the material is that it’s angry — righteously, deservedly, properly enraged about the shit that many people, but one gender in particular, have had to put up with for way, way too long. Listen to the way one belligerent dude familiarly says, “I like beer.” Note how a character talks about filling the world with bad men who’d just as soon see women “in their proper place,” or even dead — why, we’ll even put them in Congress. Grok how a victim of rape is dismissed or has her name dragged through the mud, then is later told to smile. And then try not to cheer when the patriarchy finally gets what’s coming to it.