It’s amazing when a word or phrase can elicit two polar reactions. For some, when you mention the name Black Christmas it might harken to the Bob Clark-directed, 1974 slasher which is one of the most effective horror movies ever made. For others, it may conjure memories to one of 2019’s worst films, a total calamity that is so bold and idealistic in what it wants to be that it briefly flirts with “so bad it’s good” eccentricity before swinging all the way back to “so bad it’s bad” toothlessness.
The basic premise is an update from the original. Rather than having a killer set up shop inside a sorority house, here the entire campus is the death trap. An interesting update full of potential, but don’t worry – the movie will squander it in due time. The main character here is Riley (Imogen Poots), a seemingly typical student attending Hawthorne College, with a far too common backstory. She was sexually assaulted by another student, but no one believes her story except her friends and sorority sisters. I’ll be honest, I didn’t care to research what the sorority was called, so we’ll just call it Si Kappa Jamma. That sounds like a thing, right?
She even gets some side-eye from her teacher, Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes, who they somehow tricked into being in this) a creepy jackass who forces sexist ideologies into his students’ heads. He’s fighting a petition to have him fired due to these very practices, and the fact that such an awful human being is allowed such great power is probably the most plausible idea in the film.
Meanwhile, there’s a killer targeting young women around campus. Their modus operandi is to target the victims via text while impersonating Caleb Hawthorne – the founder of the school, whose own sexist ideals are admired by much of the school’s douchier student body. Making matters worse later is a holiday-themed talent show, in which Riley and her friends put on a Mean Girls-esque dance routine that turns into an anti-assault anthem, as Riley calls our her attacker in attendance. It’s not long before Riley and the rest of Si Kappa Jamma become the target of the killer, presumably as retaliation.
Black Christmas plays with the typical toolbox of the slasher genre, but clearly yearns to be something more. Director Sophia Takal has placed a lot of pressure on her film’s shoulders to adequately rebuke some of the unpleasant trends of the genre. Namely, that the women not only refuse the role of victim, but are explicitly aware of the unbalanced power dynamics between them and their male counterparts. For the screenplay’s credit, the characters are intelligent, even if they’re a little obnoxious. And unlike many films where the characters appear too young to espouse the type of references that were clearly thought up for them by a 40-year-old writer, here it makes sense for college students who feel disenfranchised by their own university to consistently reference the voices of female authors.
The issue is the movie is way too dumb to justify all the pontificating. This is still a film that features scene after scene of young women getting slaughtered just like all the slashers that this film is a response to, with nary any creativity or surprises in how those scenes are depicted. There’s also the same lame setups for kills, one in which involves a woman having to go get Christmas lights which so happen to be stored in a dark room that looks like no one has entered in 17 years. But as silly as the trappings are, it doesn’t approach the over the top plot reveals.
This is all clearly satire, a nightmarish vision of how awful men can be at their worse. Although it’s not completely one-sided, as a few men get a few arguments in as to how the female characters may be going too far with their vitriol. I would be on board with a satiric slasher movie, but the film is neither scary nor funny (well, not intentionally funny). In the opening scene, we see a young woman cornered before awkwardly jogging away from the killer. Not a good start if you want us to even pretend to be scared (although there is one kill that is heightened due to a zoom shot, we needed more moments like that).
Overall, this is a silly exercise in crassness that is more fun for how bad it is rather how fun it could have been for seeing the themes and set pieces melded together. The plot is bizarre, the female characters are one-note, and the one redeemable male is a doofus. There is nothing particularly clever about the setups, or how the themes are dramatized. In fact, the film mostly settles for just monologuing at the audience. As a cherry on top, there’s a rallying cry during the climax where one character exclaims “You messed with the wrong Sisters!!!” On paper, this probably looked as cathartic as the Portals scene in Avengers: Endgame. But then, also, it probably didn’t look like that. Which is disappointing – the slasher genre is ripe for takes on gender inequality and rallying against sexual assault. But this is not the film to do it. Perhaps Carol J. Clover could mine an intelligent take on what this film wants to say about it’s genre and the current climate of our world. I don’t have her credentials, so I’ll sum up Black Christmas with a thought that matches the IQ of the film: oof.