Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas is a horror movie, of course, but at its core is the bond between college sorority sisters Riley Stone (Imogen Poots) and Kris Waterson (Aleyse Shannon), who are endlessly supportive of each other but also not hesitant to call each other out if necessary. These two women represent two sides of Takal’s artistic voice in Black Christmas, which is a loose remake of Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher classic of the same name — and it’s this relationship that makes the 2019 film something special. Both Takal’s film (co-written by April Wolfe) and Clark’s original spring from the same basic premise, with sorority sisters stalked by a mysterious killer over winter break on a college campus.
Neither critics nor audiences responded well to the remake at the time of its December 2019 release, rejecting it for not hewing closely enough to the original, or for leaning too hard on its woke politics. But it’s the ways that Takal deviates from the earlier film, grounding her story in the present moment, that make it vital and strong, rather than just another stale, PG-13 horror remake. In her two main characters, Takal embodies the dichotomy of life as a woman on a college campus in 2019.
Riley is still traumatized by a sexual assault three years earlier at the hands of an unrepentant DKO frat bro, and by the subsequent non-response from authorities who didn’t believe her reports of the crime. She prefers to stay in the background, even when she and her MKE sorority sisters plot a prank on the DKO guys, donning sexy Santa outfits for a musical performance protesting campus rape culture.
Riley thought the cheeky, slightly coy song would be enough. The more brash, assertive Kris knows that if you don’t directly accuse people who engage in unacceptable behavior, they’ll think they got away with it. As the movie goes on, it further embraces Kris’ perspective that cute, subtle references are not enough. You could call Black Christmas blunt, or heavy-handed, or you could call it a bold, clear statement, a movie that isn’t content with just chuckling and making puns about serious issues like sexual assault.
The toxic masculinity in this movie is literal toxic sludge, a black substance that infects the pledges at DKO and turns them into misogyny-fueled killers, murdering any women who won’t go along with the fraternity’s patriarchal agenda (and then murdering even the most subservient women, too, if that’s necessary to serve their purposes).
Clark worked feminist issues into his 1974 movie as well, with a subplot about the main character, Jess (Olivia Hussey), planning to have an abortion. Clark and screenwriter A. Roy Moore demonstrated that there was nothing wrong with Jess’ plan to end her pregnancy, and Takal carries that progressive spirit into her film, whose messages feel increasingly vital even just a year after its initial release.
In 2006, Glen Morgan remade Black Christmas in a more narratively faithful but thematically bland way, bringing back original co-star Andrea Martin to play the sorority’s house mother, but not making any effort to engage with what it means to be a woman in college in 2006. Takal strays further from the original story, especially when her movie takes a supernatural turn in its final act, but she honors the daring, independent vision of the original, taking the social commentary as seriously as the horror. No one expects a slasher movie to be subdued in its kills, and that goes double for a Christmas slasher movie, in which characters are stabbed with icicles and strangled by Christmas lights. So why should Takal back off when it comes to making her larger points?
As clear as Black Christmas is about its messages, it’s far from a dry lecture. Takal generates considerable suspense as Riley’s MKE sisters are picked off one by one, by hooded figures lurking in the background. Poots gives Riley a mix of casual confidence and weary cynicism that makes her easy to root for, and the camaraderie among the sisters feels genuine, even as it’s established quickly so that the movie can get to the killing. Some of these women may be introduced giggling at a Secret Santa pajama party in the opening scene, but Takal never underestimates them or condescends to them. The movie (and Riley herself) comes around to Kris’ confrontational activist point of view, but that doesn’t mean that Riley’s legitimate concerns are diminished or belittled. She’s a fully realized character, not a mouthpiece for a political agenda.
The movie is funny, too, sometimes bitterly so, as when one MKE member’s boyfriend is infected by some of the alpha male-inducing goo discovered by the DKO brothers. He turns into a parody of a chauvinist, demanding a beer, refusing to help in the kitchen, even going on a “not all men” rant. The characters’ exuberant solidarity never wavers, even when they’re mad at each other, and Takal turns the final violent confrontation between sorority sisters and possessed frat boys into a cathartic triumph against campus oppression, although that victory may turn out to be limited and short-lived.
“They always do,” Riley says bitterly, early in the movie, when Kris argues that by not speaking up, they’re letting men get away with everything. In the 1974 Black Christmas, the killer is never revealed or caught, and Jess is left vulnerable and unaware. The man has gotten away with everything. Forty-five years later, the DKO house burns with every frat member inside. Riley has redirected her anger away from her friend and toward the people truly responsible for hurting her, and Takal has followed. In this movie, at least, the men are held accountable.
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