'Black Christmas': Film Review

Ineffective both as a thriller and as violent feminist wish-fulfillment.
12/13/2019

Sophia Takal directs the second remake of a thriller pitting sorority members against fratboys and a mysterious killer.

The second remake of a 1974 sorority-themed slasher pic whose director Bob Clark is more famous for a very different kind of holiday film (the singular A Christmas Story), Sophia Takal's Black Christmas sets its sleigh-bell slayings on a small college campus and pits sorority girls against fratboys. Hiring Takal to co-write and direct was a no-brainer for producer Jason Blum and company: Familiar with the territory where thoughtful indie cinema overlaps with genre fare, she recently helmed a thriller, Always Shine, that mixed Lynchian creepiness with a complex feminist take on its protagonists' friendship.

Unfortunately, Takal's Black Christmas is far more ordinary, a blunt object in a fight demanding either sharp knives or explosives. Initially a sluggish stalker flick whose undergraduate moral debates are tiresome instead of provocative, it eventually transforms into a patriarchy metaphor as obvious as, well, all those Greek-lettered paddles that decorate both the frat's and the sorority's clubhouses. Like Daniel Robbins' Pledge, released earlier this year, it manages to make the culture of privilege, secrecy and misogyny that intertwines with frat culture ("Not all frats!," someone wails desperately in the background) less upsetting than it is in real life.

As students at Hawthorne College head home for the holidays, a few remain on campus, most planning to attend a talent show at the Delta Kappa Epsilon house (the frat to which college founder Calvin Hawthorne belonged) before arranging small celebrations with friends who don't have families to go home to. The party is especially fraught for the women of Mu Kappa Epsilon, since one of theirs, Riley (Imogen Poots), was assaulted by a Deke last year.

The rapist was never punished, and certainly wasn't disowned by his bros, which begs the question: Why are Riley and her friends going to the party? There's a reason, though not a convincing one. Four of the sisters intend to dress in sexy-Santa costumes and coo onstage, Marilyn Monroe-style, as they deliver what turns out to be a little ditty about sexual assault. The song is clever; the sentiment, dead-on; the scene, nearly impossible to believe.

In between all this social drama, we're watching other female students get hunted by a man in a cloak who seems to disappear and materialize elsewhere at will. He will, say, send a woman some stalk-y DMs while she walks alone at night; get her solidly freaked out; then stab her with an icicle as her flailing arms make an angel in the snow.

Though the cloaked man starts off at a neighboring sorority, soon he's sneaking around the MKE house, and when Riley's "little sister" Helena (Madeleine Adams) doesn't show up at her family's house, Riley quickly concludes something sinister's afoot. She shares her concern with a campus cop, who fails to see the connection between some vaguely threatening text messages and a friend's being late getting home. In the scene, Poots needs hardly two seconds to show exactly what it feels like to have an authority figure refuse to see what's right in front of him. It's an excellent piece of acting, but it belongs in a more serious drama, in a scene with a cop who's being a lot more blind than this one is.

Perhaps not trusting that multiplex audiences are as smart as the art house patrons who saw Always Shine, Takal and co-writer April Wolfe beat the movie's themes into the ground in both dialogue and characterization. One student, the sketchily conceived Kris (Aleyse Shannon), is the designated protester, always hectoring peers to sign her petition of the moment. Recently, she managed to get the school to remove its bust of Hawthorne from public display. (It's now deep within the DKE lair, playing a part in creepy rituals Riley witnesses.) Now, her target is an English professor whose syllabus is stuffed with dead white guys: Cary Elwes projects maximum WASPy condescension as Professor Gelson, who insists on teaching "the proper classics" and secretly harbors retrograde ideas about the place of women in society.

These many threads of menace and misogyny will eventually lead to a climax where myths of masculine primacy manifest as an overt cult. But first, there's a very long standoff in which the cloaked killer traps our heroines in their own home and hunts them with a bow and arrow. (Nice as a phallic symbol, maybe, but not the most credible choice for indoor slaughter.) The script contorts itself to keep this sequence's survivors from going to the cops — because police didn't believe Riley was roofied last year, she thinks they won't accept corpses and destruction as proof the women are being hunted.

But that's what's needed to get Riley trapped in the heart of darkness, where men will come out and say the things we've always suspected they believe. Even thoroughly decent men fall under the spell here — a horrifying idea the movie doesn't do justice to. But this black magic is nothing that can't be fixed if you know what symbols of oppression to smash, provided you do so while spouting the right platitudes about sisterhood and defiance.

Production company: BH Productions
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O'Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Madeleine Adams
Director: Sophia Takal
Screenwriters: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe
Producers: Jason Blum, Ben Cosgrove, Adam Hendricks
Executive producers: Greg Gilreath, Zac Locke
Director of photography: Mark Schwartzbard
Production designer: Mark Robins
Costume designer: Jaindra Watson
Editor: Jeff Betancourt
Composers: Brooke Blair, Will Blair
Casting director: Sarah Domeier Lindo

Rated PG-13, 92 minutes