The terrific 1974 slasher Black Christmas doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It arrived in cinemas with bloodthirsty relish several years before John Carpenter’s equally impressive Halloween, but it’s Carpenter’s film that gets the credit for launching the slasher movie as a bona fide sub-genre. Bob Clark’s festive frightfest has already been remade once, in 2006, and has now been given a fresh garland of tinsel by the reliable folks over at Blumhouse. The result is a ferocious feminist slasher with fire in its veins.
Riley (Imogen Poots) is a sorority sister who has become somewhat withdrawn since suffering a horrific sexual assault at the hands of frat boy Brian (Ryan McIntyre). He happens to be back in town for the frat’s Christmas party, at which Riley and her sisters perform a song about the insidious issue of campus rape. Sample lyric: “You slipped me a roofie, and then your dick”. Soon after, the women all begin receiving messages from an account named after Caleb Hawthorne – the notoriously misogynist founder of their college, who allegedly dabbled in black magic. When a hooded figure enters the sorority house, violence is inevitable.
This new twist on Black Christmas is far from subtle in its messaging, framed as a takedown of the sexist world of college frats – a microcosm of misogyny in wider society. There are references to numerous hot-button issues, with a slightly slimy professor (Cary Elwes) the subject of a petition regarding the lack of female writers in his syllabus and a bust of the aforementioned founder has recently been removed from the main campus after a campaign. These ideas are in-your-face and broad but, when your argument is “raping people is bad”, you probably don’t need to lean too heavily on subtext. You’re already on the right side of history.
Essentially, Black Christmas 2019 takes the arguments about sexist micro-aggressions and the right of women to control their own bodies that were present in the original film and filters them through an angrier lens after more than 40 years of the issue still festering. Writer-director Sophia Takal’s acid-tipped script is rightly furious that these arguments are still having to be made, and so she shouts them louder. As a result, this is a raucous slasher movie that bristles with righteous fury as it lands punch after punch on the hegemonic dominance of the white, male system.
At the centre of it all is Imogen Poots, who brilliantly conveys the turmoil of the protagonist – a clear victim of the frat boy patriarchy at the college. We meet her as a woman struggling to piece herself back together in a world that never allows her to feel safe and leave her as a fighter – a final girl worth following through every moment of vulnerability and every moment of defiance. The audience sees the college through her eyes, confronting us with a building of washed-out sadness coloured only in black and grey as if the architect were Bruce Wayne. The Lego version.
Takal also helms the action with flair, crafting inventive slasher sequences that succeed despite the film’s PG-13 rating (a 15 certificate in the UK). Icicles are jammed into sternums and fairy lights become a noose, so there’s plenty for the horror fans to get their teeth into even without gallons of blood sloshing around. It’s fair to say this isn’t the tensest or most expertly crafted spookfest ever made, but the thematic elements create an atmosphere of danger that feels as potent as a Hitchockian bomb under the table.
It would be wrong to laud Black Christmas as a modern horror classic in the vein of The Babadook or Midsommar, but that’s not really the arena this film wants to play in. This is a broad romp that plays to the cheap seats in an enjoyable, fast-paced way, but it’s also a movie that serves as a vicious attack on a culture of tradition which allows machismo to flourish at the expense of women. Blumhouse has finally realised that female filmmakers exist, and that’s a good thing for everyone.
Dir: Sophia Takal
Scr: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe
Prd: Jason Blum, Ben Cosgrove, Adam Hendricks
DOP: Mark Schwartzbard
Music: Brooke Blair, Will Blair
Run time: 92 mins
Black Christmas is in UK cinemas now.