REVIEW – ‘Black Christmas’ beleaguers its timely message to the point of exhaustion

Way back in 1974, an unassuming Canadian horror film essentially defined an entirely new subsection of the genre and went on to inspire horror filmmakers for the next few decades, notably John Carpenter and his opus Halloween. While it’s far from the greatest horror film of all time, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas is one of the earliest examples of the slasher film, making it a landmark moment for horror cinema and rightly earned the film cult status amongst cinema fans.

A remake came and went back in 2006, ramping up the gore (torture porn was all the rage back then) to create a misguided and disastrous reimagining few people saw and even fewer can remember. Adding to the exhausting list of 2019 remakes, co-writer/director Sophia Takal offers a genuine reimagining of the tale with a decidedly feminist twist to fit the current #MeToo/Time’s Up movement.

With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Black Christmas beleaguers its timely message to the point of exhaustion, as it tackles toxic masculinity head-on and challenges its viewer to do the same. While it’s an admirable effort to offer something more than just blood and death, as all the best horror movies do, the messy end result feels like a terribly wasted opportunity, beset by dreadful pacing, a lacklustre screenplay, and a twist that’s ridiculously absurd.

After the obligatory opening sequence where a poor sorority girl meets her maker while walking home alone, Black Christmas introduces us to a group of sorority girls of Hawthorne College who mostly break the tired typical ditzy college girl stereotype. Kris (Aleyse Shannon) is currently leading a crusade to have conservative Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes) fired over his misogynistic literary classes, drawing the ire of the school’s fratboys. Riley (Imogen Poots) is still facing backlash over her accusations one of those fratboys sexually assaulted her one year earlier. And fellow sorority sisters Jess (Brittany O’Grady), Marty (Lily Donoghue), Helena (Madeleine Adams), and Fran (Nathalie Morris) are really just there to add to the potential body count.

When Riley learns her rapist (who was found not guilty, of course) will be returning to the campus to attend the upcoming Christmas talent show, she seizes the opportunity as her moment to face her aggressor and call him out in front of her fellow students. Banding together with her sisters, they perform a Mean Girls-esque Christmas song with biting lyrics about the state of rape culture on campus.

Naturally, this does not go down well with the dudebros, and, soon enough, the girls begin to fall victim to a cloaked killer who despatches with them in fittingly Christmas-themed ways. While each girl’s disappearance is initially dismissed, given most of the college has journeyed home for the holidays, Riley’s phone is soon lighting up with mysterious, threatening Instagram DMs from someone claiming to be the long-dead Professor Hawthorne. And “he” is not happy with her tarnishing the school’s hallowed image.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know precisely what transpires from here, in one of the year’s worst examples of marketing entirely ruining a film’s potential surprises. But the film’s ultimate reveal and explanation for the killings falls flat on its face, as we journey into a mess of nonsensical and absurd gobblygook (namely involving black goo) that’s impossible to discuss without throwing more spoilers your way. Suffice to say, the finale deviates into an entirely different genre of horror that ruins the realistic elements which precede it, especially given how seriously this film takes itself before throwing it all out the window.

In a rather bizarre move, Black Christmas is an incredibly slow-burn of a horror film that takes an exhaustive time to truly get going and then wraps up just as things are becoming interesting. It’s clear Takal wants to focus more on her characters before launching into the mayhem, but that only works if those characters are worth your time. Thankfully, our protagonist Riley keeps you invested, with a wonderfully impressive performance from Poots. Riley’s traumatic past is still crippling her present and Takal handles Riley’s sexual assault with deft care. This allows Poots to deliver a layered performance that’s the film’s true highlight. She captures the frustration and pain of rightfully speaking out and essentially being ignored, which, sadly, many female viewers will relate to.

With a tame M rating (PG-13 for U.S. readers), Black Christmas is a film barren of elements many horror fans clammer for. That’s not to suggest a horror film needs to be overflowing with blood and gore to be successful. But you can’t help but feel frustrated to witness a film of this nature present almost all of its deaths off-screen with barely a drop of blood spilt when we are actually shown such moments. Again, this ultimately damages the film’s realism, creating a final product that can’t decide if it’s a horror film or a blaring political piece.

While Takal holds back on the blood, her social commentary is as deafeningly loud as cinema gets. A blunt, vicious, and necessary attack on patriarchy and an admirable portrait of modern, intelligent women, Black Christmas tries achingly hard to say something important. The issues this film is tackling are unbelievably timely and entirely significant. And it’s phenomenal to see cinema portraying the modern experience of young women. But the writing simply isn’t there to back it all up.

This remake is teaming with woeful dialogue, ridiculous narrative decisions, and thinly-drawn characters, all of which damage its overall intent. There’s obviously some basis in reality for the male characters (we’ve all met men like this), but they’re all portrayed as such oafish, one-dimensional villains, all of which is particularly undone when we learn the truth behind their motivations.  In fact, the men’s actions are almost excused by the film’s muddled conclusion, sending a very confusing message to an audience. If Black Christmas had pulled back the reigns and grounded its explanation in reality, the result could have been something rather extraordinary.

Instead, we’re left with a confusing mess of a film that reaches for a social message it can’t quite deliver, no matter how hard it relentlessly pushes it. We need cinema like this, particularly given how television is showing exactly how to craft an anti-establishment piece with something as bold as Dear White People. It seems undeniable Takal has taken inspiration from Justin Simien’s underrated series (seek it out on Netflix immediately), but the finesse in the writing is just not there.

When all is said and done, Black Christmas has the absolute best of intentions at heart and it must be commended for seeking to highlight an incredibly serious and relevant societal issue. But, for all its earnest agenda-pushing, it fails to truly leave any impact. This entire conceit would have succeeded if it just knew how to stick its landing. In the end, it’s a disappointing and confounding piece of cinema that has plenty to loudly say but without the means to leave it ringing in your ears.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Imogen Poots, Cary Elwes, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Aleyse Shannon, Lucy Currey, Madeleine Adams, Simon Mead, Ben Black, Caleb Eberhardt
Director: Sophia Takal
Producers: Jason Blum, Ben Cosgrove, Adam Hendricks
Screenplay: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe
Cinematography: Mark Schwartzbard
Production Design: Mark Robins
Music: Will Blair, Brooke Blair

Editing: Jeff Betancourt
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Date: 12th December 2019 (Australia)