The scariest thing about BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019), the new horror movie about sorority girls being terrorized by a supernatural killer, is its subtext— that men prey on women and get away with it.
It’s the scariest part because it’s largely true. You don’t have to look far to realize this, from who’s president of the United States in 2019, to the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court Justice hearings. BLACK CHRISTMAS is driven by the overwhelming frustration women feel in the battle with abusive men.
It’s also the scariest part because the horror elements in the movie really don’t work all that well.
But its subtext works and works well, in spite of the fact that the film hits you over the head with its theme time and time again, to the point where it’s so blatantly obvious it almost defeats its purpose. Almost. It doesn’t because, as I said, it’s based on truth, and truth works.
BLACK CHRISTMAS is a remake, the second remake actually of the 1974 movie BLACK CHRISTMAS, which was directed by Bob Clark, the man who also gave us the classic Christmas movie A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983). The original BLACK CHRISTMAS starred Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, and John Saxon, and is a highly regarded horror film, notable because as a “slasher” movie, it pre-dates John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) by four years, which is significant because HALLOWEEN is largely considered to be the movie which jettisoned the slasher movie genre.
The remake BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006) is not so highly regarded. Now comes the 2019 version, written and directed by Sophia Takai as a Me Too Movement horror movie. This new BLACK CHRISTMAS isn’t exactly getting lots of love, and I suspect a lot of that criticism is because of the film’s feminist angle rather than on its merits as a horror movie.
That being said, it’s not a great horror movie, but the point it is making is well taken, especially here in 2019. Just ten years ago the blatancy of this film would not have worked, but its raw take on the issue resonates in the here and now.
It’s just before Christmas break, and most college students are on their way home to spend time with their families, but some students remain on campus. Riley (Imogen Poots) and her sorority sisters Kris (Aleyse Shannon) and Marty (Lily Donoghue) are among those who are staying. While the girls prepare to perform a song at the big fraternity party on the last night before students leave, Riley is struggling emotionally because the young man who sexually assaulted her and got away with it because people didn’t believe her side of the story, will be at the party.
The girls perform their song, and it is a biting attack on the young men in the fraternity, especially towards the young man Riley accused of assaulting her. They are booed off the stage. Soon afterwards, they begin receiving obscure yet threatening text messages, and when some of their sisters disappear, they fear they are being targeted, perhaps by frat boys with a vendetta.
Now, there are many ways this story could have gone. The fact that it takes the most obvious and ridiculous path does not help its cause as a horror movie. See, in this story, the villains are those fraternity brothers who have somehow made a supernatural pact with the undying spirit of their sexist racist university founder, which as a result turns them into supernatural killers!
Yup. The plot is that ridiculous.
However, the subtext in this movie is not ridiculous, and that’s why it ultimately works. The lyrics to the sisters’ song at the party are spot on, and capture real frustrations and real pain.The idea that men treat women this way is not ludicrous. Men do treat women this way. Not all men, obviously, and the film covers this point by having some male characters who are above this sort of nonsense. In fact, one of them, Marty’s boyfriend, comes right out and tells them he’s offended that they would attack all men since he’s not like that, and that they’re not doing themselves any favors by doing so. He also points out that they were naive not to expect that the fraternity brothers wouldn’t target them after they performed such a humiliating song at the party. He is then promptly killed off. So much for the enlightened male!
Sure, I would have preferred a more clever plot, one that was more ambitious, where perhaps Riley and her sisters might find themselves working side by side with the frat brothers to fend off a common enemy, the supernatural killer, but that’s not really how things work in 2019, is it? You don’t see opposing sides coming together all that often. Again, the film’s take on this issue resonates.
BLACK CHRISTMAS attempts to do with sexism what GET OUT (2017) did with racism, that is, make a horror movie with a strong and relevant theme. BLACK CHRISTMAS is far less successful in this regard as its attempts to do so, while appreciated, are way too simplistic and over the top to be completely successful. Yet, somehow, it still works.
For example, in the climactic scene where the fraternity brothers finally get a hold of Riley, and they force her onto her knees, say some very humiliating things to her, and make her say some humiliating things, it’s all so over-the-top it strains credibility. Yet, it’s a very uncomfortable scene because in spite of the ridiculousness of the the sequence’s horror elements, the things said are not only awful, they’re real. I mean, these things are said about women.
And that’s ultimately why this movie worked for me. It speaks to an issue that is real.
I like Imogen Poots a lot, and she’s really good here in the lead role as Riley. She brings to life Riley’s deep pain, her fears, her insecurities, and ultimately her strength in rising up against her attackers.
The rest of the cast is fine, although screen veteran Cary Elwes is stuck playing the very one-sided Professor Gelson, who makes it no secret to the girls that he’s out to get them because of their petition to have him removed from the University for his insistence of teaching them literature only written by white males.
BLACK CHRISTMAS is not going to win any awards for being subtle, or for being a really good horror movie. But its presence here in 2019 is a good indicator of what a lot of women are feeling and of their need to strike back against threats they see as alive and well in the here and now.