Despite what Joe Bob Briggs says, horror movies have always been about more than just the horror. Political allegory, stands on morality, and reflections of society are often amongst the foundational building blocks of the horror films we remember today. Of course, being political does not, in and of itself, guarantee a good film. So how does this version of BLACK CHRISTMAS, promised to be explicitly about toxic masculinity and rape culture, fare?
The Idea Behind BLACK CHRISTMAS
Christmas Break is here and students at Hawthorne College are rushing home. In the quick change from class to break, most fail to notice that particularly political sorority members are going missing. Someone, or some people, it seems do not appreciate these outspoken women of the student body.
One sorority puts themselves front and center when they perform during the “Deke” Fraternity Talent Show. Presenting as kind of homage to the sexy Santas scene from MEAN GIRLS, it quickly morphs “Santa Baby” into an accusation of the rape culture the Dekes have pretended doesn’t exist. As Riley Stone (Imogen Poots), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue), and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) leave the stage, a video recording captures Stone reiterating how former Deke President Brian Huntley (Ryan McIntyre) sexually assaulted her last year. No one believed her then and now, now it attracts the ire of the Dekes past and present including Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes).
But are they behind the increasingly threatening text messages Riley and her friends are getting? The notable change’s in Marty’s boyfriend’s Nate’s (Simon Mead) behavior? The disappearance of Riley’s “little sister” Helena (Madeleine Adams)? Or might Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), the guy with an obvious crush on Riley, have something to do with it?
Before long, hood and mask wearing men invade the house with weapons. Things stand revealed as far more complex and supernatural than expected after that.
Writing BLACK CHRISTMAS
Director Sophia Takal collaborated on the script with April Wolfe and ended up with a very loose remake of the slasher classic. Instead the random terror of the original, this BLACK CHRISTMAS traffics in the kind of personal intimate violence that we now know is far more likely than 1974’s random mentally ill man killer.
At times, one imagines they can feel the spots where the script might have been hindered by cuts to reach the PG-13 rating and the 90-minute running time. There are not gaping holes by any means, just moments where it feels like the script is holding back a little.
Nonetheless, it is a gutty script, one unapologetic about putting its politics on front street and calling out not just a killer but a culture.
Things get muddled though as others not in the frat seem drawn into the toxic masculinity. I like the idea of toxic masculinity as a kind of virus, something that men spread to each other. It is a nice literalization of how gender norm indoctrination works. However, the movie confounds the process by having other men seemingly affected without exposure to the mystical maguffin in question. By making the means of spread muddled, it causing unnecessary confusion. Is it locational, sonic, mystical? It seems like the movie has a specific idea in mind but the extraneous details muddy the waters.
Casting the BLACK CHRISTMAS Leads
Imogen Poots plays the coping with PTSD Riley adeptly. She nicely captures how one can walk around with the disorder and be asymptomatic 95% of the time and then immediately be intensely frozen or overwhelmed by it. Making PTSD feel ever present without making it the whole of the character is a hard tightrope to walk but I think Poots does well with it.
Aleyse Shannon has an arguably even harder part. She has to make Kris feel like something more than the straw woman she might be in other movies. Shannon makes her righteous and self-righteous at once. A character who does the right thing but often fails to notice how her hunger for that might be pushing the people she cares for too far and too fast. It is a 3-dimensionally written part and she lives in it well.
Casting the Rest of the Callsheet
The other sorority sisters are mostly archetypal as is the case in these sorts of movies, but it doesn’t feel stale. Nathalie Morris is especially striking in a fairly small role as Fran. She gives Fran this overly comfortable energy that thrives amongst neighbors and roommates in college. It adds nicely to the organic feelings of Hawthorne as a location.
Since the movie is not really set up as a mystery even if it does feature a third act revelation. Thus, the fact that Cary Elwes’s professor is always a disconcerting presence does not really derail anything. I might have liked a bit more ambiguity from the character in the early going. Given what the movie wants from the character, though, Elwes finds the perfect tone. Superficially gentlemanly with a deep baked sense of entitlement and a reflective kind of bullying.
The frat brothers are even more archetypal than the sisters but this fits with both the plot and intentions of the movie. It does, however, mean that there is not a lot to discuss with any particular member of the Dekes.
Directing BLACK CHRISTMAS
Sophia Takal’s previous two directorial efforts, ALWAYS SHINE and the Hulu/Blumhouse film NEW YEAR, NEW YOU, were wicked horror films that well grasped the darkness and resentment that can live inside long-term friendships. It follows that she has a deft hand in realizing these complicated although not nearly as dangerous friendships.
However, she also proved very good at her sense of film geography and how to use it to choreograph scares. Here though that sense of space and movement is lacking. There are some frights, but they seem weaker, less well laid out. The sorority house should be a great location to build suspense, but it does work that way in practice. Instead of using the multiple floors and rooms to create tension, they break up the action, draining what should race the heart.
The killer have a striking visual design with their medieval masks and long dark robes. The rituals of frats feel close enough to accurate that the extra layer of dread integrated into them does not break the world of the movie. But on the fear side of things, the movie just cannot seem to stick the landing.
That’s A Wrap
There’s plenty to like about BLACK CHRISTMAS from a writing and performance perspective. The visuals, generally, work well. However, horror fans may find the movie lacking in teeth after the very well-done opening kill.
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