Most of us probably think of Jamie Lee Curtis as the original scream queen. But five years before Laurie Strode set the long-lasting slasher trend of the virginal final girl in Halloween, Black Christmas offered a different kind of horror heroine. In fact, Olivia Hussey’s Jess Bradford was not only sexually active but (spoiler alert) pregnant, with plans to undergo an abortion against her boyfriend’s wishes. In this year’s Blumhouse reboot of the Bob Clark original, director and writer Sophia Takal clearly takes inspiration from Jess by centering on a woman trying to reclaim her body in the face of angry, bigoted men. But instead of replicating the nuance of its 1974 source material, Takal’s Black Christmas delivers its message with all the subtlety of a snow shovel to the head—and not even in a fun way.
Black Christmas takes place at the fictional Hawthorne College, whose stately cobblestones and hipster quasi-intellectual attendees scream “public ivy.” Like in the original, a mysterious killer stalks the sorority sisters on campus at Christmastime. Unlike the original, however, these sisters are emblems of the #MeToo era, wielding petitions against gender imbalance in academia and staging public protests against rape culture. Riley Stone (Imogen Poots), still recovering from a prior trauma, struggles to be quite as outspoken as her friends. But when the murderer—assuming the identity of late college founder Calvin Hawthorne—targets Riley’s house, she’s forced to confront her past and realize its ties to the present.
Now, the next part I think I can spoil, because the trailer already has. There isn’t one killer but a whole cult of hooded frat boys, led by Hawthorne alum Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes, smug as ever). This unfortunate marketing pretty much gives everything away, showing Gelson and his minions performing some kind of dark magic while worshipping a Calvin Hawthorne bust and waxing poetic about sacrifice and tradition. As the film’s central group of women fight these men, they wind up in a literal war against toxic masculinity.
This premise is ridiculous, but it’s only a heightened version of our own reality—one where lots of men cling to their patriarchal power, especially in institutions like universities where that power is systematically upheld. It’s a timely story that could have been so many things: biting satire, campy good time, maybe even cult classic like its predecessor. I wish Black Christmas had taken any of these routes. Instead, this film feels sort of like a Gen Z feminist word cloud, stuffed with contemporary issues and buzzwords but detached from any real voice.
I don’t want to slam Takal or her co-writer April Wolfe. In fact, I deeply admire them both and plan on checking out their other work immediately. It’s just a shame that their authenticity is bogged down here by t-shirt slogan lines like “Ho ho ho bitch” and “You messed with the wrong sisters.” There’s a righteous attempt to portray women more realistically than most movies with some gags involving Diva Cups and vibrators, but those jokes ultimately join a long lineup of contrived girl power moments.
Despite having to make their way through awkward quips and expositional dialogue, the main cast of Black Christmas is pretty likable. Poots is especially phenomenal and makes her character feel like a real person you want to root for. Her pain is heavy and complex but doesn’t define her. Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, and Aleyse Shannon also deliver lively performances, with Shannon making me chuckle at one line (“Rebuild yourself, bitch”) I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Cary Elwes does exactly what he’s supposed to do. (Other line of the century: “We are not insane. We are merely men.”) Meanwhile, all the fraternity brothers look like they’ve wandered off a CW show, with faces and haircuts that only exist on network television… but I guess that’s what they’re supposed to do. However, I want to give some credit to Simon Mead, who plays a boyfriend named Nate and kind of nails the Nice Guy thing by going on a “not all men” rant that felt mostly true to life when it could have easily turned cringeworthy.
I have one final thought. While I applaud and appreciate the fortitude with which this movie tackles the topic of sexual assault—because it certainly needs to be talked about—I took issue with one part of the narrative. Black Christmas seems to view assault as something that you need to get over and move on from in order to restore your strength and identity. While I passionately believe that loved ones can and should support your healing process, nobody can tell you when or how to process traum. It’s something you deal with at your own pace and however you see fit. I’d be interested to hear how other people interpreted this aspect of the film.
Verdict: 1.5 out of 5 Stars
I wanted to like this movie, as it offers a promising story and captivating lead, and is generally nice to look at. However, it never reaches its full potential. It would have been enough for Black Christmas to be by women and about women, but somewhere along the way, I suspect the studio decided to make this movie “for women,” too… which, besides being absolutely meaningless, never works.