By Preston Wilder
Lots of talking-points in the new Black Christmas, not a lot of scary moments – though I guess it depends on your definition of ‘scary’. It’s tempting to say that every age gets the Black Christmas it deserves, except that the previous version (in 2006) wasn’t really much of anything – whereas this angry broadside at ‘toxic masculinity’ is going to be remembered, love it or hate it, if only as a sign of the times. The original (in 1974) is great, of course, a superb slasher movie which also made a big deal of its heroines being strong women and wanting control over their lives (abortion gets mentioned). This new version isn’t really a slasher movie, though. It’s more like The Handmaid’s Tale, only with a hooded figure slaughtering college girls.
“Men, banding together, invented culture as a defence against female nature,” says creepy Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes), quoting Camille Paglia – and the gender wars are raging on this college campus, as they are on many US campuses. Kris (Aleyse Shannon) is circulating a petition to get Gelson fired, in protest at the “rampant misogyny” of his curriculum (apparently it includes a lot of dead white male writers). Kris’s friend Riley (Imogen Poots) remains traumatised after being raped by a fellow student and disbelieved by the college authorities. The girls (sorry, ‘women’) sing a song at the annual Christmas show, all wearing Santa hats – only it’s not about goodwill to all men, quite the opposite. “Don’t say it was all my fault / ’Cause what you did is called assault!” they chant, aiming the lyrics at the fraternity boys in attendance. This cannot end well.
To slightly paraphrase Captain Kurtz: “The horror? The horror?”. There’s some horror too, to be sure; there’s a killer – or more than one killer? – on the loose, with even a few ironic seasonal touches to the murders. One dying victim makes inadvertent snow angels as she writhes on the ground; murder weapons include an icicle and a row of Christmas lights. Yet Black Christmas doesn’t really make the grade as a horror movie. For a start, despite the ‘18’ rating, it’s entirely bloodless – but director Sophia Takal also doesn’t stage the action very imaginatively, leaning hard on the ‘false alarm… surprise!’ cliché (a girl thinks she sees/hears the killer; it seems she was wrong; then the killer turns up out of nowhere!). There’s one good idea, one of Riley’s friends getting threatening texts while also being followed by a random man who seems to be texting. The effect is effectively sinister – but alas, it’s just a tease.
Speaking of teases brings us to the girls themselves – at least as defined by the cartoonishly toxic males ranged against them: “You bitches are all the same! You act like you want it, but you’re all a bunch of teases!” fumes one. Kris and Co. have a right to be angry – though you also wonder how effective horror can be when its victims are angry. This genre works in a particular way. A slasher’s prey are invariably young, carefree, weak (at least at first; they grow stronger later); in a word, vulnerable. There are thrillers with macho guys as victims, to be sure (Southern Comfort, say) – but even those guys are initially complacent, which is why they (and we) are shocked when the horror arrives. The women here, on the other hand, are tense and spiky from the start; you might say they’re too aware of being ‘victims’ to be good victims. Or have we just been conditioned to see things that way?
Like I said, a lot of talking-points – but not many slasher-movie thrills, which may be why Black Christmas stops being a slasher movie in the final act, turning into… well, I won’t spoil it, but it definitely goes to some weird places (the headaches “drawing out your true alpha” win the prize for Most Bizarre Detail, but it’s close). Despite that left turn, followed of course by an empowering climax – “You messed with the wrong sisters!” – it’s hard to recommend this unusually activist movie. As already mentioned, the 70s original also touched on gender roles, and the patriarchal pressure on women to be ‘good girls’ – yet it also gripped like a vise, and contained at least one image (the rocking chair!) that still resonates 45 years later; it’s hard to see this politically fiery, cinematically tame new version resonating much, once the current gender tempest has calmed down and its various references (even a brief nod to Brett Kavanaugh, if I’m not mistaken) are no longer topical. It’s righteously angry but not, in the end, much fun. Maybe every age does gets the Black Christmas it deserves, after all.
Black Christmas **
DIRECTED BY Sophia Takal
STARRING Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Cary Elwes
US 2019 92 mins.