Black Christmas (2019)

DECEMBER 13, 2019


As the world's biggest (but not lone, as I've recently discovered! Was such a relief!) fan of 2006's Black Xmas, the only thing that annoyed me about another remake is that when Black Christmas (2019) was announced earlier this year, it was met with a lot of optimism and excitement that was never afforded the previous incarnation. Where were you all in 2006, when even Bob Clark's blessing couldn't keep horror fans from raising their pitchforks and torches about that one? So that irked me a bit, but then again, there's a big difference between this one and the other two: this time, women were writing and directing, which meant not only a different perspective on the usual story, but a timely one as well.

As with Glen Morgan's version, Sophia Takal, directing from a script she wrote with April Wolfe, wisely borrows only the basic concept of Bob Clark's original and changes just about everything else. So while yes, this is indeed the third version of a movie about a group of sorority sisters who stay on campus during their holiday break and are menaced by a killer, it's in many ways even more removed from Clark's film than Morgan's was, and that's a good thing. There's the usual animosity online about them "ruining" the story or whatever, but as always I feel this is the best way to go, as I can forget about the film(s) that I love and focus exclusively on this one, judging it on its own highs and lows instead of how it compares to the others. They don't even really reference the others that much; the cat's name is "Claudette" (a variation on the male "Claude" from the original), a sorority house's number is 1974 (heh), and some of the kills are influenced by the others (a plastic bag and - yes! - an icicle), but that's it. No house mother, no creepy phone calls (texts instead), no Billy or Agnes... it's its own thing.

Our hero this time around is Riley (Imogen Poots), who embodies the usual Final Girl template but with a grim addition: she was sexually assaulted as a freshman (she's a senior now), with the attacker more or less getting a slap on the wrist. So she's become not only a bit more hesitant than you'd expect from a sorority girl, but also protective of the younger women who have pledged since, hoping to keep the same thing from happening to them at the hands of fraternity brothers. It's not long before things start weirding her out, but at first she is unable to tell if it's just the frat guys messing with her for spreading rumors about their "bro", or if it's something more sinister and dangerous. Of course, we know it's the latter thanks to a (pretty solid) opening scene kill and another one later (which plays out as an homage to another horror "3"), so thankfully it doesn't take too long to get her up to speed with us.

In fact I was kind of surprised when the shit really hit the fan. Rather than follow the usual slasher template and pick everyone off one by one before our final girl is even aware that she is in immediate danger, the killer attacks all three of our main heroes at once at around the halfway mark or so, allowing them to work together and fight off their attacker. It'd be too spoilery to talk specifics, alas, so I'll just say that it's very satisfying to watch Poots, Aleyse Shannon, and Lily Donoghue take on the killer together as sisters, rather than bog the film down with pointless in-group bickering or backstabbing as so many modern films do (even the 2006 one had some of this, though thankfully not much). These women really care about each other and have each others' backs, and it's incredibly refreshing to see.

(ALERT! If you haven't seen the trailer yet, please skip the next three paragraphs!!!)

And I say that as a white man, i.e. the type of person being targeted by the script. As you've seen in the marketing, it's not just one or two killers this time - it's a whole group of dudes in masks and robes, and yes they are obviously part of a fraternity. The how's and why's I'll leave to your imagination until you see the movie for yourself, but I don't think anyone would deny that this film was written as a response to the Brett Kavanaughs of the world (just to make it clear, one of the film's male characters even plainly says "I like beer"). So naturally, as a man, it's not always a fun watch, being reminded repeatedly that I might be perceived as a threat by one of its makers should they happen to be walking past me at night or sharing an elevator or (name literally anything you do during the day and there's a woman who has been made to feel unsafe doing it).

There's a scene right at the beginning that hit home; one of the girls is walking alone at night when she starts to suspect the guy behind her is following her and meaning to do her harm. After a few tentative looks behind her she starts to panic, grabs her keys and holds them out as a claw, ready to strike, and then... the guy just walks across the street into a house, having no intentions for her and presumably having no idea she was even scared of him in the first place. It's something that's happened to me; I am a rather fast walker and one day while walking on an otherwise empty side street I noticed a woman in front of me noticeably tense up and repeatedly look over at the store front window parallel to us, presumably to see my reflection and gauge my intentions. I felt horrible about it - but I also wondered how many times I've been in that same situation but *didn't* notice that someone in front of me was terrified to hear my lumbering steps behind them. As I am not a killer or rapist, I naturally don't walk around with the slightest notion that anyone would have a reason to be afraid of me, but ever since that day I keep it in mind, and either intentionally slow down or sit down if necessary and let them get the distance they want (seems like a better solution than yelling "Don't worry, I'm just trying to get to the movies so I have time to order a hot pretzel!", which, let's be honest, accounts for roughly 75% of the times I am putting a little extra spring in my step).

But that is just scratching the surface of the shit women have to deal with on a daily basis, and naturally I'll never even begin to understand even half of it. Why do I bring this up in a slasher movie review? Well, because I think the filmmakers are tired of men not getting it, and using the slasher as a vessel to spell a few things out, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to make sure no one misses the point. In a genre filled with films that were read into (cue Carpenter laughing at Halloween having an anti-sex attitude), Sakal and Wolfe make it abundantly clear that this is about toxic masculinity, literally spelling it out in their own way (again, no specific spoilers beyond what's in the trailer), having grown tired of men like Kavanaugh getting away with what they do while women are harassed and labeled as "hysterical" when they call such men on their deplorable behavior. Ideally, the movie would be incredibly dated in ten years (sooner?) because these problems have finally been dealt with, but sadly I fear that it will continue to be relevant for a while.

Luckily, even if those issues are a thing of the past, it'll still largely work as a slasher, especially for younger crowds who might not be ready for the likes of Freddy or Jason just yet. Yes, it's a PG-13 film, but I rarely remembered that during my viewing, and in fact at one point the rating actually HELPS, as something happens off-screen that you might assume is because of its rating but ends up being a clever misdirect. The characters are all engaging, with no standard cliches - there's no "snotty girl" or "weird girl" or whatever; they're all just normal friends with believable, amiable chemistry. I wouldn't have minded more chase scenes, especially since they're not confined to the house (nor is the timeframe as compressed as the others - it takes place over several days), but they instead focus on moving things along and keeping the runtime from getting out of hand (it's barely over 90 minutes with credits, bless), so it's easily forgivable.

That said, I wouldn't have minded a little more time explaining, or at least building up to, the... thing. I can't say what it is, but you'll know exactly what I mean when you see the movie. It's admirably kind of an insane idea and introduces an element I certainly wasn't expecting (even from the spoiler-y trailers), but it's somewhat jarring in its execution; I liken it to watching Halloween and then skipping ahead to the final 15 minutes of Halloween 6, as it offers the same sort of "Wait, WHAT?" kind of reaction one might have if they were to do that. I assume it's part of the "let's skip being subtle" approach, and if so I can certainly appreciate the effort, but the idea itself just didn't really land for me. It's kind of like Us in that I'd rather know less, because once part of it is explained it opens the floodgates to other questions, ones for which there is no seeming answer. Plus, if they introduced it earlier, it'd give the chance a movie to get even weirder and more inventive - as it stands, there's so little left of the film it feels more like a deus ex machina. With the ads giving so much away, it's kind of the only surprise the movie had left, and there's not enough time to do it justice.

Otherwise, I, the white male enemy, enjoyed this new take on the basic story. I don't know if it'll be thrown into my Blu-ray player as often as the others, but I can easily recommend it to horror fans with open minds, and women who will appreciate the cathartic moments in the third act (in fact, this may be the only actual place where the PG-13 rating hampered the movie, as it would have been great to see the antagonists get gorier demises). The heavy handed way they go about delivering their message may be a turn off for some men (and self-loathing women, who are also represented here), but I found it fair game and very much justified - the last thing anyone should be complaining about is a modern horror movie with a point of view, especially one that differs from your own, as you should think of it as a fun way to maybe learn something. But even if you somehow are able to ignore its message, it's still an enjoyable holiday slasher; its missteps aren't enough to derail the whole thing, and its heart's in the right place, so overall I call it a win.

What say you?


  1. For me the movie felt so far removed from the original, and the remake, that I think I would have liked it better as a stand alone film with no association to the others. And frankly, other than sorority girls getting killed over holiday break, by the end of it the connection isn't really there at all in my opinion. But it's because of the connection, I think, that the end, "the thing" just felt so stupid and disappointing.
    I didn't mind the politics of it all, and thought some of that worked well to put some slasher tropes on their heads but I agree that it was really blatant throughout taking the fun out it a bit (which as you commented is part of the point). I enjoyed the performances of the leads but overall it sounds like you enjoyed it more than I did. It's probably a "c" for me and my least favorite of the three.

  2. Interesting review...when you talk about possibly being perceived as a threat, I couldn't help but think, that's the experience many African-American men have everyday for years and years.

  3. If you see a glass unicorn in the first act, someone will get stabbed with it in the third.

    I found this version unremarkable, and very preachy --- but I am an adult. I suspect that this film's politics, as well as its toned-down scares, were squarely aimed at a much younger crowd, for whom all of the film's various complaints might be a bit fresher. It is pretty ham-fisted, and seeing Cary Elwes' portrait hanging in the hall of the frat house was just painful, but I suppose if you were 13 years old there are worse films you could spend an evening on.


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