Christmas and horror are the peanut butter and chocolate of movie genres. They’re two completely distinct flavors that shouldn’t go well together in theory, but when they do, it’s usually a recipe for success. Black Christmas is certainly a film reveling in these two flavors, but someone must have accidentally added a lump of coal to the mix.
This is the second attempt at remaking Bob Clark’s tight, claustrophobic Black Christmas, a touchstone of prototypical slasher movies released in 1974, years before John Carpenter’s Halloween would boost the profile of the budding genre. The 2006 remake was a self-inflicted misfire due to poor marketing, despite a solid effort from director Glen Morgan to remix the material into a deeper mythology for the killer. Like its predecessors, 2019’s Black Christmas from director Sophia Takal and screenwriter April Wolfe will likely fail to make an impact in the here and now, but live on as a cult classic due to its sheer audacity and boldness as a political satire dressed in forgettably dark clothing.
Set in the present day, a group of sorority sisters are spending the holiday break together instead of heading home, but as classes at Hawthorne College come to an end, one of the sisters (played by Imogen Poots) is haunted by the trauma of a sexual assault from years prior, especially once the perpetrator makes a surprise visit to his testosterone-heavy fraternity in order to initiate some new pledges.
After inflicting a humiliating prank on the frat boys, the sorority sisters begin receiving threatening phone messages from someone who claims to be the founder of Hawthorne College, someone now reviled by the feminists on campus who have pointed out his blatant misogyny and how it persists within the school’s current culture. It’s not long before the threats manifest into real danger, as hooded killers begin to terrorize these women in their own home with seemingly supernatural powers.
The ideas of Black Christmas are potent and easy to find engaging if they align with your own sense of what’s wrong with society today. It’s a classic example of a film punching up at established power structures currently in dominance, and this is understood and made clear from the get go without any trickery or misdirection. It’s just a shame that the film itself never quite lives up to its own promise of serving up something new and different. The actual scenes depicting these slashers are anemic exercises in tired, yet somehow rushed suspense, devoid of the fresh perspective and unique execution one would expect from a story this concerned with genre subversion until the very end, when Black Christmas resolves into a bombastic series of action moments.
But even its climactic scene, thrilling as it tries to be, comes off as hollow as its central statue, the symbolic object these characters ultimately fight over both literally and figuratively. So much of Black Christmas is spent ranting about the ills of patriarchy with few moments where this message crystallizes into compelling focus, the rare exception being a scene where the “nice guy” character explodes to his girlfriend like a sentient Twitter thread, showing his true colors and displaying something close to nuance and metaphor about how toxic masculinity is learned, not necessarily inevitable.
By contrast, the true monsters of Black Christmas are far less frightening because they’re too simplistic, too cartoonish and easy to separate from honest self-reflection, which is perhaps the intention because the filmmakers do see these villains as cartoonish and pure evil. The problem is that it allows the viewers who don’t see themselves as villains in their own story to write off their actual flaws as “not that bad” compared to the caricatures they see onscreen. There are other seemingly good characters who do succumb to the spell of these killers, but by taking choice out of the equation, it practically absolves them, presenting a muddled message at best.
For many, Black Christmas will likely go down as a beloved guilty pleasure horror for many holidays to come, because it does offer a rare fist bump for viewers craving dramatic catharsis from the slasher genre. But unlike last year’s Revenge—a payback film with similar thematic promises—Black Christmas doesn’t have the undeniable verve needed to allow for full investment from a fickle audience. Its politics are bizarrely heavy-handed without being clear enough when it comes to drawing its final conclusions. But if you’re ready to walk out of a slasher film feeling slightly better about how you already feel when it comes to these issues, then Black Christmas just might give you a temporary sugar high.