Imogen Poots - Riley Stone
Aleyse Shannon - Kris Waterson
Lily Donoghue - Marty Coolidge
Brittany O’Grady - Jesse Donovan
Caleb Eberhardt - Landon
Cary Elwes - Professor Gelson
Madeleine Adams - Helena Rittenhouse
Genre - Mystery/Horror/Thriller/Slasher
Running Time - 92 Minutes
Hawthorne College is winding down for the holidays, yet one by one, sorority girls are being picked off. Riley Stone (Imogen Poots), a girl dealing with her own trauma, begins to notice and tries to save her friends before they too are picked off.
2019’s remake [if only by title] of the 1974 Bob Clark slasher classic BLACK CHRISTMAS is a film I had been avoiding since the announcement of its existence was made last year by Blumhouse. While another remake after the not-so-great 2006 version didn’t make me excited, most of my disinterest came from the trailer that pretty much revealed the entire film from beginning to end. Why would I want to pay fifteen dollars for a movie ticket for something I pretty much watched in two minutes for free? The negative reviews once it was released didn’t help interest either, as many disapproved of the film’s use of its feminist themes while criticizing the lack of horror throughout the movie.
Yet, I knew I was eventually going to watch this remake because I’m the kind of person who likes to see how much the premise of a 1970s movie is changed to remain relevant for a 2019 audience. I got a free digital code for BLACK CHRISTMAS earlier this year, but waited until the holiday season since it felt fitting. And while I don’t think this version of BLACK CHRISTMAS is the worst thing ever [like so many had claimed it was], it’s definitely a film I probably don’t plan on watching again due to its extremely flawed presentation in terms of narrative and even visually as a so-called horror movie.
Let me just get the good stuff out of the way since it’ll take the least time to put it all into words. I think the best thing about 2019’s BLACK CHRISTMAS is its cast. A lot of the actors don’t get a whole lot to do besides play archetypes and recite language to spread a message that I’ll get more into later. But the actors do give it their all and I appreciated that. Best actor is, without a doubt, Imogen Poots as Riley - a sorority sister who, after three years, is still struggling with being sexually assaulted by a frat brother who a lot of the college looks up to. Poots plays with the seriousness of this vicious act believably. She struggles with enjoying the activities her friends get up to because she’s still fractured. Poots convincingly shows fear and insecurity whenever she sees her attacker, struggling to find that inner strength to gain back her power and move on while making everyone know what a scumbag this one dude is. And she’s the only one really aware that there are strange things going on at her college, using all the knowledge she’s attained to make things happen and stop things from escalating to a point of no return. I really enjoyed Poots’ performance and while she had some choice dialogue I wasn’t a fan of, especially in the last act, she carried the film with her easy presence. She made you like her character enough to make you want Riley to get that justice. Aleyse Shannon had a sassy performance that I enjoyed whenever she appeared as Riley’s best friend, Kris. I’ll get more into her character in a bit, but I thought she acted it out in a believable way. And if there’s another actor that I liked, it was Cary Elwes as misogynist professor Gelson. He’s not in the film a whole lot, but his proper English accent reciting a bunch of sexist stuff was kind of a hoot. Elwes seemed to be having a blast playing a creep perpetuating what was going on at the school. It’s a nice cast that elevates this remake.
I also thought some of the visual shots by Sophia Takal were quite nice. The film looks polished. Some scenes do have a bit of much-needed tension. And there was one extreme long shot with a character returning to the dorm and looking for her cat [nice homage to the original film] where there’s action going on but the camera never moves. I thought that was a nice touch to build some suspense, knowing you’re watching something off. It also concludes with a scene that’s pretty much taken from a classic moment from 1990’s EXORCIST III, which I thought was cute.
As for the film’s message on feminism, female empowerment, the #metoo movement and so on - I respect the hell out of BLACK CHRISTMAS for focusing on these topical themes in a horror film like this. I’ve seen some reviews knocking the film for even presenting these issues, wishing that the filmmakers would keep social issues and politics out of their horror movies and just focus on scares and blood. Real horror fans wouldn’t even be saying these things because the genre has always been a hub for social and political topics. The film definitely wears its message on its sleeve. And while I may have issues with how it’s executed for the most part, at least this remake is about something. And I can definitely respect the filmmakers for wanting to make some sort of social statement about our current society and how it treats men different than women, especially in terms of power and status. I wouldn’t mind more films doing more of this, as long as they’re told the right way.
And that’s where BLACK CHRISTMAS fails - it’s so heavy handed with its message that it quickly loses its way towards the finale. It tries too hard to hammer its social themes to the point where it starts getting a bit preachy and annoying. The idea of feminism isn’t bad at all. The original 1974 film was pretty feminist in its own way when it came to its female characters. They were strong, opinionated, proactive and stood up for themselves when they weren’t being surprised by a crazed shadowy killer. When it came to the topic of abortion [even a more controversial issue in the 1970s], Jess was all about “my body, my choice” even when her strange boyfriend Peter was against it even when he was nowhere ready for a responsibility like that. Barb was a character who was open with her sexuality, alcoholism and even stood up to a crank caller tossing nasty slurs at her. And when a sorority sister goes missing, the women are the ones who force the male police officers to do something about it, even when they wrongfully suspect it’s just a situation where a desperate girl runs away with her boyfriend. These were independent women who had to defend for themselves, which is empowering. But unlike this new version, the women weren’t men haters and brought it up any chance they got.
And that’s really a major narrative flaw with 2019’s BLACK CHRISTMAS. I’m all for strong, female characters who don’t need a man to run their lives and defend them. I actually love female characters who can take care of the situation themselves. But the way these female characters are written, I’m surprised anyone would want to root for them. I get that the men in this film are creeps and they, more than likely, probably did some sort of damage to them. But it’s as if the screenwriters are using the social topics of today to generalize the entire male gender as this evil half of society who want nothing more than to keep women in their supposed place and enjoy physically and mentally abusing them as a way to maintain power. Riley, as a rape victim, is more sympathetic in the way she’s afraid of this fraternity and how nonchalant they are about how they treat the opposite gender. She has more of a right to be negative towards these guys. But Kris hates men because she’s written as the token “angry black woman” who wants a professor fired because he’s teaching what’s been always been taught and not something more diverse that caters to her own personal wants. Why doesn’t she just take a different class that caters more to diversity? Or actually work with the school to make change happen rather than trying to fire someone for doing the job he’s assigned to do? There are actual people, both male and female, who are like this and their unwillingness to compromise and change things for everyone instead of themselves makes them pretty unlikable. Kris is also pretty pushy, especially during a dance number where she annoys Riley to the point of singing about her rape in front of the person who did it. Hey, I’m glad the character stands up for herself, but the empowering moment gets a bit lost when she’s pushed to do it to satisfy her “friend” - same friend who films and uploads the clip on the internet, not expecting any sort of push back and legalities from it. Riley deserves better as a struggling character. Hell, Kris deserves better to be nothing but a stereotype when she could just be written as a normal person with thoughts and opinions that push the message of “girl power” in a positive way rather than a way that will push both genders away.
And then we have the male characters in this film. Man, all of them are pretty pathetic in how they’re presented compared to the women. Most of them are jerks and deserve whatever is coming to them. One seems like a cool friend to the girls until he rightfully lashes out at them for all their man-hating and thinking he would just be okay with their generalization of his gender, which ends up pushing him away from the group. And we have another male character who is super nice and supportive, but is treated as beneath the women in terms of power and status. So instead of having a male character be as equal to the women, the men are either evil or weaker compared to the female characters. This is how people write when they don’t know what feminism really is. Toxic masculinity is a thing and more films should address and criticize it. But doing it in a one-sided way isn’t helping the situation and just comes across as sexist towards men, especially those who support strong women and want them to have equal benefits as they do.
The message gets murky during the film’s third act, when BLACK CHRISTMAS decides it wants to stop being a slasher and more of a supernatural feature where this black tar is turning all the men into women-hating jerks. Apparently, the villains use this substance to brainwash men into bringing back the old days where women were the weaker sex and were obedient to men in every way. They’ll leave obedient women alone, while target and kill women who stand up for themselves. So what is this film trying to tell me? Are men bad as a nature or nurture thing? Or are men bad because some alien goo is brainwashing them in wanting to keep strong women in line? I think a feminist horror film is a great idea. I think having a redo of the whole “pod people” concept is a great idea. But if you can balance the narrative and express either one correctly, you just a failure of a story. If you have a message you want to say to people, say it with confidence and take whatever praise or criticism comes your way. Adding a supernatural element to lessen the blow to make audiences possibly like the [now] convoluted message is a cop out. The supernatural aspect only takes the supposed evil men off the hook because we have no idea how they would have acted otherwise. It’s a script that wants it both ways without earning either one.
And while I liked the look and some of the shots by Sophia Takal, I think her handling of a PG horror film is really lacking here. I’m not sure if this was her doing, or if Blumhouse wanted her to tone it down for a bigger audience, but BLACK CHRISTMAS plays out more like a Freeform network drama and less of a scary movie that will be remembered for all the right reasons for years to come. People die, but we don’t see any of it play out on screen. We barely get a cool aftermath at times, which is a shame for a slasher. I think the moments leading to the kills in this movie are pretty well structured and have some level of momentum. And the action in the final confrontation has enough horror violence to please some people. But this film honestly feels like an edited television version of a violent horror film, saving all the nasty stuff for an unrated home release that never came. Considering how serious [maybe too serious for its own good] story is, the film could have really used more visible slasher and horror elements to boost the fun factor that’s seriously lacking.
THE FINAL HOWL
While 2019’s reboot of BLACK CHRISTMAS isn’t the “worst horror film ever made” that many claimed it to be last year, it’s still a troubled film that has its flawed heart in the right place. The actors are good. Some of the shots by director Sophia Takal are inspired at times. And I respect the film for trying to express is themes of feminism, toxic masculinity and female empowerment, considering these are topics that should be addressed in our modern society. The film is definitely about something important, which should be commended for a horror film.
But the film handles it all wrong, being way too heavy-handed for its own good and never having fun just being a horror movie. Films should have strong female characters, but not to the point where they’re unlikable and annoying because the script is more focused on the message rather than developing sympathetic characters we can stand with. It doesn’t help that the male characters are either evil, or just presented as weaker and more submissive than the women, presenting an antagonistic view towards half of the audience without really earning it. It doesn’t help when the film turns supernatural, pretty much destroying the message anyway, making BLACK CHRISTMAS almost moot in terms of what it wants to tell its audience. And honestly, the film just isn’t fun to watch since it takes itself so seriously as a college drama rather than a fun, slasher flick with an important message audiences can think about during and after the film is over. It’s sad because there’s a good film in here somewhere, but either the filmmakers or Blumhouse watered it down to please everyone- pretty much doing the opposite in the process. Stick with the original 1974 classic as it still holds up. And while I’m not the biggest fan on the 2006 remake, at least it’s a fun watch. This remake [in name only] is a missed opportunity for strong storytelling as both a social commentary and a horror film.