Black Christmas (2019)

*. First thing to say is that this isn’t a remake of the pioneering slasher flick Black Christmas (1974). Yes, if you stand a few steps back and tilt your head on an angle and squint a bit you can see some similarities. There’s a sorority being terrorized by a serial killer over the Christmas holidays. Some of the kills follow in the same sort of order, and the obscene phone calls have been replaced by less obscene text messages. But the plot is totally different and it takes a very contemporary slant.
*. It was not well received by critics and audiences, though it still made a bit of money (I think Blumhouse movies are designed to always turn a profit). The reasons for this negative reaction I’ve already adverted to. Horror fans looking for a remake or homage to Bob Clark’s Black Christmas were disappointed (or outraged), while people not wanting to be served a political message with their popcorn entertainment were put off (or offended).
*. I didn’t take exception to either of these directions the movie takes. I don’t see the point of overly faithful remakes (Psycho, The Omen) and think that any way you can change things up is usually for the better just to keep the audience guessing. I also don’t mind filmmakers adding a political message, especially in genres where you’re not really expecting it. Having said that . . .
*. The new direction taken here makes the plot of this Black Christmas even less interesting than the original, which I scarcely thought possible (which is not to knock Clark’s film, only its storyline). I guess you can see the cult of demonically-possessed frat boys as sort of like a male version of the coven of witches in Suspiria, but, that point made, it doesn’t get you very far.
*. What’s worse is that director Sophia Takal doesn’t seem to be that interested in scaring us. Some of this may be the effect of making a PG-13 horror film — just think of the godawful Prom Night remake — but I don’t think the absence of gore (there’s no blood but only a black ichor being spilled) and bad language (no fucks to give, and even the word “clit” in the line “suck my clit” was deleted) necessarily hamstrings a horror film. There are plenty of ways to be scary and smart without resorting to extreme violence. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Takal knows any of them.
*. Suspense, like comedy, is all a matter of timing. You can’t let the audience get too far out ahead of you. But two scenes stuck out for me here for how telegraphed they were. The first is a kill that is an homage (or steal) from the famous nurse scene in The Exorcist III. I guessed this was coming as soon as the initial shot was framed. Then there’s another scene in the attic as one of the girls tries to find a set of working Christmas lights. You’d be a dull viewer indeed if you didn’t guess the punchline for that one.
*. Actually there are no surprises, or even jump scares, anywhere here. When it came out there were complaints that the trailer gave too much away, but I think it was so obvious what was going on from the beginning there was no need to worry about spoilers.
*. So as horror this Black Christmas is kind of slack. But then there’s the message. Again, I had nothing against this. Takal wanted to make as feminist a film as possible, and had apparently even expressed interest in yet another entry in the I Spit on Your Grave franchise (a series that had already, with whatever degree of sincerity, been marketed as feminist manifestoes). And when it comes to the slasher genre, the resourceful last girl who triumphs at the end is another trope that has always been seen as scoring at least some points for female empowerment. So was this approach new?
*. Not new, and cruder. This is a #MeToo film that’s all about the oppressiveness of the patriarchy and rape culture and cancel culture and toxic masculinity (symbolized by the black goo that turns clean-cut kids into alpha male monsters). I don’t think this was a bad idea, but it just gets laid on so thick that you start to feel that it’s the movie’s whole reason for being. Apparently the Cary Elwes character was supposedly modeled off of Jordan Peterson. “You’re all insane,” Poots says to him at the end. “No, no, not insane Ms. Stone,” he replies. “Simply men.” Meanwhile there’s one decent guy thrown into the mix (he just “wants to help”) who’s only there to show that not all men are shit. Which is something.
*. Here’s an example of how the feminist angle is worked into the film in a way that adds absolutely nothing. The masks worn by the Cult of Toxic Bros are apparently based on some version of the medieval or early modern scold’s bridle. I’d heard about these, but didn’t recognize them here. I don’t think many people would, without listening to the commentary. So it’s a point that probably went over everyone’s head. But there are two further problems with it. In the first place, it’s not a very distinguished or iconic look. It just looks like a generic black mask. So it doesn’t add anything to the story. Second: why would the men be wearing bridles? Because, according to Takal, they are instruments of control as well. I guess, but it still doesn’t seem right. They’re supposed to be the kings of the new world order. They shouldn’t be wearing the facial equivalent of chastity belts.
*. Something good still might have come of this. I remember thinking I’d probably seen the last of Imogen Poots in 28 Weeks Later, but she’s really very good here. I look forward to seeing more of her. And Aleyse Shannon is also great. She has a fierceness in her eyes in the second half of the movie that made me think of Samuel L. Jackson getting ready to open a can of whoop-ass.
*. But I guess the whole project was somewhat rushed, and launched (not for the first time for a Blumhouse production) without a script in hand. The story really breaks down in the second half and I had no idea what the frat’s endgame was. Also, the snow may be the worst fake snow I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. It looks like sand.
*. So not as bad as I had been led to expect by the reviews. But at the same time nothing special. I don’t see where it really does anything new or interesting with the genre, aside from including the timely references of the kind I’ve mentioned. But as is the case with most timely films I don’t suspect it will last. Those scarves are already looking a bit expired. Like the 2006 edition of Black Christmas, this one will soon be forgotten. Leaving us with a movie from 1974 that has now outlived two remakes.
*. It’s fine for a remake to take an old story and make it more up-to-date, but it would be nice if they’d put as much effort into trying to make the old movie better, at least in some way. Otherwise I’m for leaving well enough alone.

3 thoughts on “Black Christmas (2019)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Found this one an easy one to walk out of in the cinema, and beautifully written as it is, this review won’t tempt a second look. The original is great, and this is just a lousy Christmas slasher movie with the same title. Bah, Humbug!

    Reply

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