Way back in 1974, when your parents (or grandparents) were youngsters, living care-free lives and seeking out movies that wouldn’t distract them from making out at the back of the theater, horror movies were the perfect place to do just that. What could possibly be scarier for stupid, young kids than a slasher violently killing stupid, young kids? When Black Christmas opened, it seemed like the perfect storm of premise and timing. It did quite well.
Flash forward to 45 years later and college women have enough to worry about, particularly the often lecherous nature of that nearby frathouse on campus. Regardless, Blumhouse Productions decided they could do for Black Christmas what they did for 2018’s Halloween, getting Sophia Takal, the director of a number of cool indie thrillers and the “New Year New You” episode of the Blumhouse/Hulu series Into the Dark, to direct. On paper, it sounds just dandy.
To insure you realize the film’s source material, the intro shows a sorority sister at the esteemed formerly-all-male Hawthorne University being stabbed with an icicle, a holiday gimmick taken directly from the original film. This is unbeknownst to her sorority sisters, some going home and others staying behind for the annual “orphans’ dinner.” One of the latter is Imogen Poots’ Riley, still getting over her sexual abuse by a fratboy three years earlier. On Christmas Eve, she and her friends decide to perform a Christmas ditty at the frathouse where said abuse took place calling out her assailant’s behavior. Soon after, Riley and her friends start receiving threatening texts, seemingly from the long-dead university founder, and some start vanishing. Of course, they think the humiliated frathouse is responsible, seeking revenge.
Instead of comparing Takal’s film to the original Black Christmas, it might be more apropos to compare it to other Blumhouse offerings, maybe not Halloween, as much as something like the Happy Death Day movies, which also had a slasher element but used far more cleverly. Those movies also have a far more charismatic lead in Jessica Rothe. Imogen Poots has played a lot of interesting roles, some better than others, but she seems miscast as the lead in this one and not just due to her age.
This isn’t Ms. Poots’ fault, because few of the characters are particularly well-rounded, especially the male ones. Cary Elwes from The Princess Bride plays a creepy, egotistical Professor Gelson who is already the target for some of the more woke women on campus, particularly Riley’s sorority sister Kris (Aleyse Shannon). There’s also Caleb Eberhardt as Riley’s dorky love interest, who somehow survives the movie despite his horrid jokes that make you want to see him killed off in an equally horrible way.
Black Christmas’ biggest issue is that, like the original, it’s an easy to sell premise now set in a horror genre that feels quite passé. In a world where women are regularly being preyed upon or even just talked down to by men, a movie in which ambitious young women are hunted and killed by men just doesn’t seem like a particularly good take. The late Wes Craven, arguably the master of this genre, already put the nail in said genre with his “Scream” movies, so trying to make a straight-up slasher flick, even one with feminist leanings such as this, just feels ill-timed.
A bigger issue is that there’s very little actual tension when a horror movie somehow forgets to be even remotely scary. (There is one very lame jump scare, complete with mandatory music hit.) The movie’s PG-13 also guarantees any gore is right out, as Tamal’s camera immediately cuts away right at the moment of any kill. Since the girls in the sorority are relatively likable, there’s no real desire to see any of them being hurt or killed, unlike so many other movies of this genre where characters tend to be so annoying, you find yourself rooting for the killer.
If you watch Black Christmas and can’t immediately figure out who is doing the killing, you really deserve the movie’s ridiculous last act – the filmmakers don’t even bother to try to throw you off with a red herring or two. What really throws the movie right into the dumpster is WHY the killer(s) are killing that involves such a ludicrous supernatural plot device, it makes it even harder to appreciate when the women of Hawthorne start fighting back*.
It’s a bit of a shame, since I know that Takal is a terrific filmmaker from her previous work, but something about Black Christmas feels like it was rushed to get it done in time for its holiday release, and filmmakers really should be given more time even when it’s something somewhat misguided, as this is.
The sad fact is that Black Christmas isn’t a very good horror movie more due to its lack of actual horror than the message it may have been trying to convey.
*I did give the movie a half-point back for the girl brandishing a Menorah during the final battle. It amused me.