Released: 13th December
Seen: 14th December
When we look back at the history of the horror genre and specifically the modern American slasher film we end up having a few early films that could claim ownership of being the first of that subgenre. Black Christmas, a 1974 film by director Bob Clark, is regularly cited as one of the earliest slasher films and a major influence on everyone who followed. It was notable for having a cast of almost all women and for never showing the face of the killer, known only as ‘Billy’. While it was only a modest box office success at the time it’s gone on to get the accolades it deserves for its genuinely groundbreaking narrative and aesthetic… and then someone remade it in 2006, sucked out every bit of subtlety and intelligence from the film and made something that’s almost emblematic of what not to do with a slasher movie remake. So naturally, when another remake of Black Christmas was announced, people were sceptical… and then they announced it would include lots of feminism and the people on the internet who like to claim they know about horror movies but clearly never saw the original Black Christmas lost their freaking minds for all the wrong reasons when they should’ve waited to see the film and lose their minds because it’s just not that good.
Black Christmas (2019) is set at Hawthorne College just before the holiday break. Riley (Imogen Poots) is hanging around her sorority house, still trying to adjust to life on campus after she was raped by a frat bro and no one believed her story. To try and cheer her up her sorority sisters Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue), Jesse (Brittany O’Grady), and Helena (Madeleine Adams) try to get her to perform with them at a talent show being thrown at the very frat that Riley was raped in because she would totally go in that place without her life literally depending upon it. They get her to perform a song with them that calls out the frat house rape culture and soon this gaggle of friends are getting a series of obscene DMs, seemingly from the long-dead founder of the college. They also slowly start vanishing one by one until they realise that they are being murdered and fight back and then things get stupendously stupid and the movie ends on the image of a cat licking the black liquid that this PG-13 horror movie used to substitute for blood because that’s how you do a film.
So, this movie isn’t good and not because of the messaging. Honestly, I tend to believe that horror films should be used to talk about heavy topics and the history of horror films being used as political sledgehammers is as old as horror films themselves. Politics in films is fine, and having a horror film set in a college starring women being about rape culture and the MeToo movement is absolutely fine. It actually leads to some interesting ideas that ground the film in something resembling reality. Even as a guy, I know what it means when a woman grabs her keys and holds them between her fingers like a set of claws so when they did that in this film I was on board. I was on board with the main character’s conflict being about trying to deal with not only her rape but the entire college not believing her. That’s a disturbing part of reality, handled here surprisingly effectively and it also doubles as a way to have the main characters go “Well, the cops didn’t believe us when that happened so why would they believe that there’s a killer after us?”. All the political stuff that this film does is mostly fine and fits with the genre and the original story pretty effectively… the problem is everything else.
The film isn’t scary, it suffers from being a PG-13 slasher movie. Like many PG-13 slasher movies, they desperately want to shock you but since they can’t show any of the red stuff they settle for loud noises and sharp edits without any actual tension being built. Also, they can’t show anything that could remotely be visually interesting. There’s a fight scene between two characters where one of them gets an axe in the gut and I swear it took me a minute to realise that there was an axe in the characters’ gut because the axe is almost surgically cut out of the frame. Another character apparently gets an elaborate brutal death that we never see because they cut away before we get a glimpse of whatever the special effects people put together. I’m not saying you need to show something on an early Tom Savini level of gore, hell the original film isn’t known for gore either but it knew how to make the most out of what it had. It showed you what it needed to show you but it also was artistic enough to make it work. This film isn’t doing artistic editing between someone being stabbed and a choir singing carols, it’s just quick cutting away before it has to show something that could get an R rating. If it was doing something artsy and creative visually with these moments then it might work, but in practice, it feels like they were trying to get a PG-13 rating and get a bigger audience which is fine, but you made your film less interesting in order to achieve that… and it didn’t need help being less interesting with the bland characters you’ve given it.
Out of the entire cast, only the main four girls have a personality of any kind and all of them are one-note. There’s Riley, the victim who eventually fights back, Kris, the most extreme version of an SJW you could ever imagine, Marty, the one who has a boyfriend and exists and Jesse, the one who will die before the third act that no one cares about. Then we move onto the men and there’s Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes) who is memorable because it’s Cary Elwes and there’s a guy named Landon (Caleb Eberhardt) who I think we’re meant to like but he’s such a nothing character that he only stands out because he’s the only male character that isn’t white. Every other guy in the frat is some white brown-haired bastard with resting ‘I worked for Abercrombie and Fitch’ face and they are so emotionless and so similar that I couldn’t tell which one of them was the guy who raped the main character and which one was a featured extra who got hired to stand in the background. It’s a little hard to care about the main characters arc regarding her assault if I know nothing about the guy who assaulted her. Maybe that’s the point, maybe it’s meant to show that a rapist could be anyone and that’s a fine message to try and send but when it means I lose track of one of the main antagonists of the film, you’ve done it wrong. By the way, the only reason I can even name these characters is I have the Wikipedia page open and can kind of remember who did what because there is nothing about these people that makes them stand out in any way because no one was giving anything resembling a memorable performance.
When the film isn’t failing at being scary, it’s just not being interesting. It certainly tries and there are glimpses of something that could be done, some potential the film could reach… and then the third act happens and someone lines up a shark, puts the film on a bike and has the film jump the shark so hard that it crashes into a wall. I won’t reveal that twist but it’s so dumb and basically allows the villains off the hook. They almost did something clever with the film (even with them not being good at actual scares) and then they ruin it by giving the bad guys a chance to get off the hook. It also provides a gloriously dumb explanation for why the characters are covered in black ink instead of blood… you know, outside of the real world reason which is that black ink is used instead of red blood in PG-13 horror movies because it’s easier to get past the rating board, it’s why you’ll notice the R rated films have much brighter red blood and the PG-13 films have much darker, almost black blood. This film actually has an in-universe reason for the characters to bleed black blood and it’s bloody stupid.
The problem with Black Christmas (2019) isn’t its politics, all films have politics and Black Christmas has always been a feminist film about women growing up with certain expectations and how they are treated by men. The problems with this film come down to it not handling that message well, not having any real characters for us to grab onto as an audience and for just not being scary. Don’t hate this film because it tried to be political, films in general are political all the time and it shouldn’t matter… this film is just boring and is another film to put on the list of examples we can give when we scream “Stop remaking early slasher films unless you’re sure you can do something better than the original people did”. Shame, I wanted to like this one.
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