Black Christmas (2019)

I watched and reviewed the original 1974 Black Christmas a full decade ago. You can click on that link if you want to, but I'll save you time by revealing the main two takeaways:

  1. I hated the original
  2. My reviews were crap back then

I've since read some pieces that make me think I should probably revisit it, that perhaps quite a bit went over my head. I'm still skeptical I'd enjoy it, but there's a chance I might appreciate it a lot more. 

I mainly bring that up to explain that while I'm familiar with the original, I'm in no way attached to it, which is probably for the best, since last year's film is less a remake than a complete reimagining of the premise. There are elements and ideas borrowed from the '70s film, but it's ultimately a new story.

The premise this time centers on a sorority at a college founded by a misogynist who studied the black arts. The main characters are a pair of sorority sisters trying to navigate a culture of sexist tradition and patriarchal power structures which protect men and subjugate women.

If you're reading that thinking it's lacking in subtlety, rest assured that's the point. The movie is very upfront about the obviousness of its metaphors, since the real-world culture it's critiquing is no more hidden. The misogyny is in plain sight for a reason.

Prior to the movie's start, students successfully petitioned to have a bust of the college's founder removed from public view, causing it to be relocated to the fraternity he created. Right before the start of Christmas break, the main characters humiliate that fraternity by participating in a talent show and accusing them (in song) of condoning a sexual assault that occurred there.

After this, sorority sisters start disappearing after receiving creepy messages ostensibly from the college's founder. The cast is quickly whittled down to the main characters, who manage to kill a few of the attackers, who have black ichor for blood and are supernaturally strong. It turns out the frat house discovered pagan rituals on the bust of the college's founder and used black magic to empower themselves and hunt down women they decided had forgotten their place.

The movie eventually culminates in a battle at the frat house. The women manage to destroy the idol, then lock the frat boys in a burning room. Rather than a formal resolution, the movie closes on the expression of women watching the building burn. There's a hint of resolution in their eyes, like they're ready to go burn down the structures of misogyny in the world at large.

It's a good ending to a mixed movie. To its credit, the metaphor is effective, and the movie is scarier than I expected, given its PG-13 rating.

But I think we need to talk about rating. I'm not a big fan of gore, but there were several key moments in this movie where that rating undercut important scenes. Before anyone takes that the wrong way, I want to be clear about something: I don't think this needed any additional time spent depicting violence against women. It was wise to pull those punches.

The scenes that felt timid to me were the ones showing the payback. In particular, there was a key scene where a woman kills one of the murderous frat boys by suffocating him with plastic in a clear callback to the most infamous murder in the original. Having the roles reversed should have been cathartic, but it was edited down to a point I'm still not clear how or why he died (she was only suffocating him ten seconds, and even that was mostly offscreen).

On top of that, there were a handful of scenes where it just wasn't clear what had happened. This really needed the freedom of an R rating to work. Apparently, it was originally supposed to be R, but got cut back in the hopes it would attract a wider teenage audience. That... didn't turn out so well at the box office. For what it's worth, if they ever release an extended cut, I'll gladly check it out.

There were a handful of other choices that didn't work for me. I know I just defended the movie's lack of subtlety in its use of metaphor, and I stand by that. What I was less keen on was a lack of subtlety in its storytelling, particularly in the first act. Too much backstory was communicated directly, rather than through subtext or having it unveiled naturally. The most blatant example was when the main character's history of being assaulted was spelled out awkwardly (a few times, in fact). If they'd saved that reveal for the performance, I think it would have had more of an impact.

I also felt like the use of magic was unnecessary and a bit distracting. The super-strength the men supposedly possessed was inconsistent, and the other element - a vague form of mind control - feels like a misstep. I get what they were going for - the dark magic left behind is supposed to mimic the influence of systemic sexism - but personally I think it would have been more effective to just have the frat boys be acting on their own.

On a similar note, the movie included one guy - sort of a love interest - who ultimately wasn't horrible (though he was briefly mind-controlled). His presence felt like a studio note insisting NOT ALL MEN be evil or useless, and... honestly... I think the movie would have been better if they'd just gone with, "yes, all men."

There were a handful of other things that didn't work for me (the big battle was kind of awkward, I wish a few of the villains had been more developed, etc.), but I think I've whined about the flaws enough. Particularly because, despite all that, I mostly enjoyed this.

The spin on the 1974 movie is clever, echoing ideas and situations while rebuilding the story from scratch. The transition from survivalist horror to a revenge thriller is both fun and timely. And while not every moment worked for me, on the whole, it was solid.

I can't quite recommend this unconditionally - there were a few too many flaws, and if the rating annoyed me, it'll seriously piss off actual horror fans. But if you know any teenage girls old enough for a movie that deals openly with themes of sexual assault, the blu-ray of this would make a hell of a good Christmas present.