Black Christmas is a slasher movie that faithfully delivers familiar tropes whilst also trying to drag the genre into the 21st century. It looks and walks like a slasher film but talks like a thoughtful look at the world today through a genre darkly. The result is a unique thing that pokes and rattles the audience.
Sophia Takal, along with co-writer April Wolfe, are not shy about their beliefs. More than most, they understand the very specific language and terminology that college students use when discussing these social issues. They avoid the pitfalls of writing the argument instead of writing the characters.
Black Christmas is one of the few remakes to actually live up to the term remake. The original often lauded as one of, if not the first, slasher films where a group of sorority girls is stalked by a masked killer. One of the things that separate the original from all the other slasher flicks was its textured characterizations.
The new incarnation takes the basic set up and discards the rest. Takal creates a new world every bit as textured and sinister as the original. Much like the original, she draws from the real world for much of the film’s sinister and creepy undertones.
Takal and Wolfe’s script follow in the original’s footsteps by giving us nuanced characters. The girls of Mu Kappa Epsilon (MKE) are annoying, bright, talkative, shy, nosy, private, in other words, multifaceted layered characters. The script isn’t aiming to make the girls likable so much as more realized than the average slasher film and it succeeds.
Black Christmas doesn’t move like other slasher movies. It has a singular internal rhythm that keeps us off balance. It has the requisite genre beats, a friend leaves the group in search of something only to be killed, the race and struggled to get inside a locked car while the killer slowly catches up to them, the local authorities who brush off the very real danger only to show up and prove themselves ineffectual-it’s all there. But Takal and Wolfe go the extra mile to take the cheezy fun and mutate it into a very real uneasy creepiness that pervades the film.
Part of what makes the film so unsettling is how nakedly the threat of rape exists in the universe. I’m not saying Black Christmas is exploitative so much as rape exists in the world and is discussed in the matter of fact way, that weed or sex usually is. The main character Riley (Imogen Poots) is even a survivor and her experience is front and center of the narrative.
Riley’s attacker Brian (Ryan McIntyre), is the former President of MKE’’s brother frat Delta Kappa Omicron (DKO). Ever since the attack, relationships between the two houses have been strained to say least. Not in the least because many in DKO believe Riley is lying.
Black Christmas mines the unease and discomfort Riley feels on campus and uses it to make us squirm. Takal puts us inside Riley’s headspace, putting much of the film from her point of view. Riley’s indecision and crippling doubt and anxiety fuel the scenes in which she is attacked by the killer. For once the violence and terror aren’t exploitative but empathetic and incisive.
I appreciated how Black Christmas revels in its world, slowly killing off each sorority girl one by one before Riley and her friends, Kris (Aleyse Shannon) and Marty (Lily Donoghue) begin to catch on to what’s going on. When the ladies do begin to figure it out the film switches gears and if you’re not along for the ride already you’re most likely be left behind.
Takal has a way of creating dread and tension seemingly out of thin air. Black Christmas has a way of keeping us off balance but there are times when it feels as if the tension has been ratcheted up and I found myself stunned by how effortlessly and easily she had manipulated me. I was reminded of Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods in that Takal’s tight smooth direction had a way of catching you off guard.
A perfect example is a scene in the attic. Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) has gone to the attic to get Christmas lights. The room is dark, the only light being from the full moon. She digs through the basket where the lights are kept and periodically crosses the room to plug the string of lights in to see if they work.
Mark Schwartzbard’s camera follows her with a smooth glide as she goes back and forth across the room. The area behind Jesse as she kneels to plug in the lights is pitch black. So whenever Jesse goes to plug in the lights, our practiced eyes go to the area of impenetrable darkness, waiting for the killer to jump out. That Takal cuts back and forth between Jesse testing the lights and the brewing argument downstairs only further demonstrates how she, and her editor Jeff Beancourt, can create mood and tension from situations baked into the story.
The Christmas lights provide a sort of cold callous atmosphere, a symbol of normalcy as the world begins to slowly slide out of control. Takal and Schwartzbard use the symbols and trappings of the holiday to highlight the loneliness of the characters as well as to contrast the brutal violence experienced by the victims.
Schwartzbard’s camera movement is fluid and it’s placement immaculate. Takal and Schwartzbard make Black Christmas a warm gorgeous soft blanket of unease and anxiety. At the same time, they can’t help but put their tongue in their cheek, such as the murder at the beginning of the film. A sorority sister is stabbed with an icicle. As she struggles with the killer her arms in throes of death make a snow angel. Schwartzbard’s camera hangs over the woman as she is dragged off, the camera hovering over the snow angel with a sort of demented grin behind the lens.
The offbeat rhythm of Black Christmas is off-putting by design. Part of it is how much fun the film seems to be having despite its heady themes. Some may find it silly or dorky but I couldn’t help but smile at the film’s version of text messaging, an app called YipYap.
Takal is out to move the slasher genre forward. Or, the very least, she’s trying to get it to budge one way or the other. One of the many tropes of the genre is that of “the final girl”. Carol J. Clover came up with the term in her book “Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film”.
This trope refers to the last girl, or woman, standing to face off against the killer alone. The Final Girl is often the one telling the story or left alive to tell the story. It caught on and filmmakers continued to utilize this trope, often with a knowing wink to the audience. Except few have done anything with the trope, so much as used it as an excuse to have only one woman standing.
Takal and Wolfe use the trope to interrogate the lone woman, the lone survivor. Riley is a survivor but she is by no means alone, she has Kris and Marty. The women are asking, why after all these years, has no one challenged the trope. It seems once it was named most filmmakers, mostly men, took it as a license to live up to it as opposed to challenge it or subvert it in any way.
Among all this, it must be said Takal’s work with her actors allows for actual performances as opposed to stereotypes. It doesn’t hurt that Riley is played by Imogen Poots, of all people, and she creates an effortless charm as the shy nervous girl attempting to reclaim her identity and confidence after her attack.
I was shocked to see Carey Elwes as Professor Gelson, the sexist arrogant English teacher who doesn’t understand the call for progress. Elwes’s usual charm is used to highlight Gelson’s pandering paternalism. There’s a savage rage behind the smarmy smile.
Gelson utters one of the film’s most chilling lines. Talking to Riley he mentioned her friend Kris, the campus “SJW” of sorts, who is also Black. Kris is trying to petition to have Gelson removed for his failure to be inclusive, a fact that many of the frat boys, all white, seem as baffled as Gelson by. “Between this and her petition against me, it seems Miss Waterson’s passion for equality cannot be bridled.” The implication of course is that it should be. The line and how Elwes delivers it eerily recalls “You can’t ever satisfy them.”
In creating characters with dimensions they allow for characters to be radical in their own way. Each character has a definite and textured peronsality. Takal and Wolfe’s script shows us the myriad of nuanced ways in which women express their views and beliefs.
Earlier I mentioned the scene in the attic and how it cut back to the trio fighting. The argument between the three is a remarkable piece of writing and staging as we can see it coming but are helpless to do anything about it. Emotions are flaring, tempers are running hot, and the argument bursts open but if you listen carefully you’ll notice that the three aren’t arguing. They’re venting, expressing themselves.
Marty’s boyfriend, Nate (Simon Mead) tries to calm everyone down and inject “reason” into the argument and mistakes yelling for disagreement. He inadvertently turns it into an argument. The scene is sublime in its emotional understanding, as well as just great blocking and staging as a way to intensify the mood.
It’s here that Kris and Donoghue, along with O’Grady shine. The conversation leading up to the argument seems tender and revealing, making the emotional eruption, all the tenser as we can see Riley, pacing in the background. The four actors here are impeccable as they juggle dialogue and characterization without so much as a missed beat.
The only real misstep in the entire movie is the moment in which Kris tells Riley they should go to the cops. Perhaps it’s 2020 talking but I have trouble believing a black woman would ever suggest going to the cops. I understand the reason behind the scene. Riley refuses because as a survivor, she knows how useless the cops are. Again taking a trope and putting in a different context, we can’t trust authority because we’ve never been able to trust them.
It’s impossible to watch Black Christmas and not notice little things like how normal the ladies dress. Takal and Wolfe, both being women, means the sorority sisters dress and talk like college co-eds, not ideas of college co-eds. Hairbands and Diva Cups, as well as a myriad of other issues, are mentioned because those are things women in college talk about.
I will be honest I found the back and forth about Diva Cups a tad jarring. But only because I realized I had seen countless slasher movies where the women were magically never on their period. Something I’m sure I’ve heard joked about before but never truly grasped the weirdness of the absence.
Takal doesn’t want to merely lance misogyny, she wants to burn it to the ground. In the final act, she very nearly does, figuratively speaking. But Takal and Wolfe, while they may delight in the flames of destruction, know that this is not the end.
Schwartzbard’s camera on Poot’s face as her grin begins to vanish is a terrific closing shot. The realization that the battle has been won, but the war is far from over. The boys of DKO are dead and the danger has passed. But the outside world is more dangerous and violent than Frat life, and Riley’s realization of that fact is a haunting sadness.
Black Christmas wears its anger gleefully on its sleeve. It has no shame in expressing its outrage towards rape culture, patriarchy, and white supremacy. For some, it may be “too PC” but if they can’t handle Black Christmas then they may be too overly sensitive for slasher movies.
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Image courtesy of Universal Pictures