[Review] 'Black Christmas': A Fresh, Timely Take on the Slasher Genre
From a hectic production schedule (as recently revealed by writer April Wolfe) to a seemingly spoiler-heavy trailer debut to a highly publicized decision to forgo an R-rating in favor of a PG-13 one, the road to Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas has been anything but smooth. But the film - which hits theaters today, Friday the 13th of December - is not at all the disaster the rocky roll-out would have you believe. Far from it. As it turns out, Black Christmas is a taught, tense, no-holds-barred thriller with a timely, important message and potentially star-making turns from its leads.
Bearing next-to-no similarities to the 1974 original or its 2006 remake, this iteration of Black Christmas revolves around Riley, a senior and sorority girl at the fictional Hawthorne College who is still reeling from the aftermath of a traumatic event involving a fraternity member. Surrounding herself with supportive sorority sisters and nice-guy/potential love interest Landon, Riley gears up for a relatively quiet few days of celebrating Christmas on a mostly empty campus but those plans are interrupted by a string of disappearances, all of which involve sorority girls.
Takal’s previous film, 2016’s Always Shine, was a bittersweet psychological exploration of the toxic side of female friendships. Here, Takal completely flips the script, choosing to focus on its empowering nature instead. From the very first scene of Riley and her sorority sisters preparing for a talent show performance, you can feel how much of a tight-knit family they are - a credit to actresses Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Brittany O’Grady and Lily Donoghue, who do such a good job at establishing the relationship between their characters in a way that feels tangible and authentic. Poots, in particular, is wonderful, portraying Riley’s tumultuous journey from a broken shell of a person to a woman reclaiming her power and independence in a sensitive, charming and wholly realistic way.
Much has been made of the writers’ decision to hone in on themes of misogyny, rape culture and gender roles – with even renowned horror B-movie critic Joe Bob Briggs commenting on an interview given by Wolfe about the film’s themes. But when you’re adapting a movie like Black Christmas, which itself carried a pro-choice message, for our current times, there really is no other way to approach it. With the United States Department of Justice estimating that one out of every four female college students will fall victim to sexual assault before graduating, campus rape culture is an epidemic that needs to be tackled and Black Christmas does it with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, all but beating viewers on their heads with its messages.
In the hands of any other director, Black Christmas could have been overbearing in its preachiness and unrealistic in its excessiveness but Takal skillfully paints a picture that would seem all too familiar to anyone who has stepped foot on a college campus. From the slimy, anti-PC (political correctness) professor, who is the subject of a petition to get him fired from his position (recalling shades of Jordan Peterson), played by a playfully wicked Cary Elwes, to the casual glorification of racist and sexist historical figures to the toxic masculinity perpetuated by fraternities and sometimes even college officials, Black Christmas is a perfect representation of the modern college experience.
While they don’t always land as the filmmakers may have intended, most of the jumpscares in Black Christmas are still mostly effective, with Takal finding new and inventive ways to scare viewers; a scene involving a sorority sister searching for her cat, shot mostly in a bird’s eye angle, had fellow cinemagoers anxiously searching for the antagonist only for them to appear where they least expected.
While originally written with an R-rating in mind, the film also ends up benefiting from its PG-13 rating, cutting away from scenes of violence against women instead of relishing in them as is typical of the genre, a move that only serves to strengthen and reinforce the film’s subject matter.
Where the film stumbles, though, is a ludicrous third-act twist that will leave viewers scratching their heads. Some of the truly baffling choices are better digested when looked at through a metaphorical lens – a method to bring out “Alpha traits” in men is clearly a stand-in for online echo chambers that indoctrinate and radicalize – but as the film reaches its conclusion, one can’t help but mourn the potential cult classic it could have been with a reconstructed third act.
Perplexing final sequence aside, Black Christmas is a fresh, unique and timely take on the slasher genre and proof that the horror industry sorely needs a diverse range of voices both behind and in front of the scenes.