Directed by Bob Clark, 1974’s Black Christmas is a horror genre landmark. The kills, the themes, and of course the politics of the film, cemented it is not just a cult classic, but where discussions of slashers draw its starting point – along with Halloween. In 2006, a remake of the film was met with ire by the horror community and honestly, it’s better left undiscussed. Outside of its skin cookies, the film missed the mark of what made the original special. So, when I hear about the 2019’s take on the horror staple of the same name, I’ll admit, I rolled my eyes. And, I wasn’t alone. While the film received its fair share of sexism, many in the community were skeptical of yet another remake.
Directed by director Sophia Takal and co-written by Takal and April Wolfe, Black Christmas aims to subvert the slasher genre while also using the fears women face on college campuses as the foundation of its narrative. With Hawthorne College quieting down for the holidays, sorority girls on campus are being killed by a stalker. Centering on one sorority house and four of its sisters Riley (Imogen Poots), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue), and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady), we learn that the stalking killer isn’t the only thing striking fear.
Light spoilers for Black Christmas (2019) below this line.
Taking place on a college campus, the strength of the film comes from its social horror foundation. While the film uses the trappings of a slasher, Black Christmas stands as a solid rape-revenge story that focuses entirely on the women as they each find their agency. In fact for the first two-thirds of the film, Wolfe’s dialogue maps out the very real fear that women face on campus, down to walking home alone at night. It’s all so familiar to women in the audience. Walking home alone, putting keys in your fist when you think someone is following you, and of course, dealing with the reality of sexual assault.
I was in school for seven years, four in undergrad and another three in grad school. Over the course of that time, I knew two women who were survivors of sexual assault. While one of them reported it, the other transferred schools and never spoke to anyone from the college again. Both of these actions are valid and Black Christmas wants to take a stance that shows the importance of allowing the survivors in your life to make their own decisions on how to handle their experience. But instead, it falters, using Kris as yet another antagonist in Riley’s life, a friend who forced her to confront her trauma and then shared it with the world. But underneath that, the film uses moments of reality to showcase its themes and its welcome.
Then, the film takes a sharp turn, leaning into the dialogue that works when written out but definitely doesn’t when spoken out loud. Additionally, the film tries extremely hard to get its point across, which is explained both implicitly through real-world and academic issues. It is also explained explicitly through the dialogue. That dialogue in the last act is extremely jarring, creating an unbalanced story and moving away from the narrative building that Wolfe did early on. From nuanced explorations of rape culture to direct “smash the patriarchy,” Black Christmas feels part serious social horror and half camp-adjacent eccentricity, the delineation in where both sides occur hurts the overall film.
Now, Black Christmas is a remake, taking moments from the original film and simply remaking them almost shot for shot. But, once the action hits, the film seems like an original script that in order to get made attached the iconic title. There are a lot of heavy-handed Easter eggs that come in the shape of the point of view shots, Christmas decorations, a cat, clothing and hairstyles, and even some kills. Given the climax and twist of this version, it seems like a unique story. The film itself hits horror notes well and is more than strong enough to stand on its own outside of the shadow of the Black Christmas IP.
That said, We know exactly why the women are targets and there is no mystery to the “unknown caller” or in this case the “unknown DMer” and as the story diverges in the last act, we learn the entirety fo the plan. What made 1974’s film so iconic and terrifying was the unknown, a staple of good Slasher icons. Whether this is a critique of the marketing of the film, or Blumhouse, or the creatives behind it, I’ll let you be the judge.
That said, Black Christmas makes a few interesting choices that confront the trope of the Final Girl head-on. Not only are multiple women fighting back, but they all have been given androgynous names: Kris, Riley, Marty, and Jesse. While this may seem small, the fact that the women are pushing against patriarchal systems, masculinity, and gendered violence and expectations the entire film it fits. Additionally, when it comes to on-screen violence, the women get the gory glory.
With a solid PG-13 rating, Black Christmas is able to craft a couple of stunning visual kills. That being said, there issues with the way that the Riley and Kris are costumed after one of the pivotal action sequences. Blood spatter placement doesn’t make sense given the moment they just shared and as they hide, with a close-up on them, it’s more than noticeable. And there aren’t any truly shocking or absurd kills that mark the genre it’s going for.
Overall, Black Christmas is better by itself, detached from the long history of the original film or even the 2006 remake because, at the end of the day, the similarities stop once the third act kicks in. Additionally, the marketing for the film has been dismissive of the original film’s importance as one of the films used for feminist discourse in the genre, the subversive nature of including abortion as a main element of the plot, the politics of that film, and why Jess resonates with so many women today. With a line like, “But the killer is about to discover that this generation’s women aren’t willing to become hapless victims as they fight back” in the official synopsis, the subversion of the film needs to be on point, especially when erasing a long history of Final Girls who fought back.
But instead of being revolutionary, as its marketing suggests, it falters. And while I want to get into how the film’s feminism misses a dialogue about race despite Kris, one of the main characters, being a Black woman, that’s a piece for another day. But, what I will say is that the women of color that surround Riley are props for her story, even when playing into the activist stereotype.
Black Christmas isn’t bad because of its themes, it’s just above decent because of its attempt to present a film much more revolutionary than it is while ignoring and even erasing the feminism that has been in horror all along. While the film may work for those not well-versed in horror history or just genuinely new audiences, it would have served better severing ties with the existing horror film. Regardless of how much I think this could have been an original story, the empty callbacks to the 1974 film made it a challenge I couldn’t overcome.
Black Christmas is playing nationwide now.
Black Christmas (2019)
- Rating - 5/105/10
Black Christmas isn’t bad because of its themes, it’s just above decent because of its attempt to present a film much more revolutionary than it is while ignoring and even erasing the feminism that has been in horror all along.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.