Black Christmas (2019) Dec 15, 2019 14:15:22 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Dec 15, 2019 14:15:22 GMT -5
Black Christmas (2019)
Directed by: Sophia Takal
Directed by: Sophia Takal
Who would've thought after all the Twitter hoopla about Sophia Takal's Black Christmas and its socially conscious angle that the most likable thing about the film is indeed its subtext? Takal's film has some strong ideas, and its climax is a satisfying and lightly optimistic sequence that figuratively and literally shows the destruction of a boys club by women looking for revenge. You can say this film bleeds for a cause, but it's unfortunately forbidden from showing much of the bloodshed thanks to a neutered PG-13 rating.
A modern #MeToo tale to say the least, the film revolves around Riley (Imogen Poots in a solid, reactive performance), a senior at the fictional Hawthorne College. Trying to enjoy her senior year with her sorority sisters, she's still haunted by the night she was drugged and raped by a caddish frat boy during a party. During a week of pledge initiations, Riley and her friends begin receiving threatening text messages from an account sharing the name of the founder of Hawthorne, whose bust has just been removed from the campus library due to an outcry from students. Riley's friend, Kris (Aleyse Shannon), was the driving force behind the move after digging up the founder's racist history, and now she's trying to oust a misogynistic English professor (the always suave Cary Elwes) from campus too. Overtime, Riley's other friends, Marty (Lily Donoghue), Jess (Brittany O’Grady), and Helena (Madeleine Adams) begin receiving the messages as well, which then escalate to attacks and murders, leaving the only option for Riley to confront the contemptible frat boys.
The violent war between the men and women of Hawthorne progresses when Riley and her sisters infiltrate the frat house and appear to perform a rendition of "Up on the Housetop" before their peers, most of them male. They bait-and-switch them, however, and alter the lyrics to condemn frat culture and draw attention to Riley's rape and the college's subsequent poor handling of the situation. The song, "Up in the Frat House," is quite a riot: "Up in the frat house, there's one true fact/and that is that I got attacked," the girls harmonize, later adding the crackling line, "cause up in the frat house, click, click, click/you slipped me a roofie and then your dick."
Takal and cowriter April Wolfe (a damn-good film critic, I might add) do a great job of upholding my belief that frats are nothing but self-serving cults with a long-documented history of drinking, drugging, and raping. Horror has long political and social subtext that people are either unwilling to recognize or so wrapped up in nostalgia when it comes to their favorite classics — perhaps because they saw them at a young, impressionable age — that they refuse to recognize it. It's laudable to see Takal and Wolfe bravely tackle a subject that still needs attention, and from a thematic angle, Black Christmas is rock solid.
Unfortunately, that's about where the praise starts and stops for the film. Black Christmas can't assemble a compelling band of characters to go along with its topical subject. The sorority sisters lack any and all chemistry with each other; just from the way they banter, they sound more like cranky students who have been forced to share a floor together as opposed to a group bound by connotative sisterhood. Poots does a nice job being a personality against a faceless gaggle of young adults, yet she feels like a shell of a character defined only by her trauma.
It also doesn't help that every male character in the film is a witless caricature. If they're not committing unforgivable microaggressions (saying "not all men are rapists" or telling their girlfriends to "calm down"), they're rotten to the core or easily persuaded into the cult of frat boys — another aspect of the film that is meaty but feels underdeveloped. There are far too many caricatured female characters in horror films; this is something I would hope most of us recognize. But having the opposite problem doesn't do any favors, and only inspires the kind of vitriolic response that makes the movie's message lost in a mudslinging skirmish of words.
Why Takal — who has starred in some interesting independent features, from All the Light in the Sky to Gayby — didn't opt to make this an original piece of IP as opposed to using the "Black Christmas" name is a total mystery to me. Bob Clark's Black Christmas, released in 1974, has earned its place in the storied history of the horror genre thanks to its influence on many slasher films that would follow. The Glen Morgan remake in 2006 was a nasty little chiller that made the story more intense and gruesome, but was effective enough that it still holds up to this day. Takal's Black Christmas — the second remake, if you're keeping track at home — takes aim at a culture that permits men to be absolved of their misgivings, and in doing so, creates a strong sense of purpose that admittedly the first remake lacked. Yet, given there's no mention of the series' main villain, Billy Lenz, and the focus here is entirely shifted, using the coattails of a preexisting property ostensibly as a springboard to make more money is a wholly questionable move.
At its core, Takal's Black Christmas is about the destruction of long-held sexist, elitist institutions that turn women into submissive, unequal playthings with an inferior voice. Making this setting an Ivy League school is great, and the framework is in place to be biting. But between the rating, which limits so much of the possibilities in terms of what slasher films can do, faceless characters who speak in an uneven combination of quippy dialog and emotional platitudes, the subtext is swimming upstream against a number of shortcomings.
NOTE: For a bonus, some of my thoughts on Black Christmas (2006) on Letterboxd: letterboxd.com/stevepulaski/film/black-christmas-2006/
Starring: Imogen Poots, Lily Donoghue, Aleyse Shannon, Brittany O'Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, and Cary Elwes. Directed by: Sophia Takal.