WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS and mentions of sexual assault
Friday the 13th of December and the new “feminist” horror flick of the #MeToo era hit theaters today. That’s right, I’m talking about the reboot-in-name-only Black Christmas. Directed by Sophial Takal and co-written by Takal and April Wolfe, Black Christmas tells the story of a group of sorority sisters who are being hunted and killed by an evil fraternity that has discovered the power of black magic. The sisters band together and fight back against the frat bros in a timely and triumphant tale of girl power beating the powers at be.
At least, that is what they were trying to achieve. Writing this review is difficult because I really do admire that message and idea behind the film. I love the idea of a group of young women who have been dismissed, not believed and ridiculed (one of which is a victim of sexual assault), fighting back against the evils of a literal physical institution of the patriarchy. I love a good slasher. I love a good revenge horror (especially if the character getting revenge is a woman.) I even love a good PG-13 horror film who’s aim is being inclusive to a slightly younger audience (for example: Happy Death Day, A Quiet Place, Drag Me to Hell, etc). Unfortunately, Black Christmas fails to succeed at any of this.
The editing is shockingly bad. There are moments of dubbed in dialogue (to fill in plot holes during post-production I’m assuming) over shots where the actors are very clearly not moving their mouths. The fight scenes are sloppily choreographed and edited. Especially the end fight when all of the surviving sorority sisters band together to tackle the frat bros. What could have been an epic (think final season of Buffy when all of the future slayers get their powers to fight the uber vamps), battle becomes a chaotic and disappointing mess. And speaking of disappointing, the deaths. Part of the fun and thrill of a slasher is the death scenes. And while Black Christmas does manage to deliver a few good jump scares, the kills themselves are abrupt and usually off screen. This is due mainly to the fact that the film was originally written and shot to have an R-rating but during the editing process it was decided to bump it down to PG-13 to reach a potentially wider audience. Unfortunately the result is that every death scene cuts away right before the final blow (or stab, or strangle) and the bodies (another fun part), with a few exceptions, are almost never discovered.
My biggest issue however, was with the story, characters, and ultimately the real, underlying message of the film. The story is thin and the characters are one dimensional and underwritten. It was bizarre for me (an old millennial) to see sorority girls portrayed as crunchy feminist hipsters in mom jeans. Which, hey, maybe sorority girls have changed since I was in college! And I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because I am all about subverting expectations, except that they still fell into the same stereotypical character pitfalls. The main character Riley (Imogen Poots) is an orphan and the victim of sexaul assault. That’s all you learn about her. There’s Kris (Aleyse Shannon) the loud, angry activist (which is also problematic because they made one of the two main woc in the film into that unfortunate stereotype). Then there’s Marty (Lily Donoghue) who’s only personality trait is that she has a boyfriend that she fights with. Rounding out the main quartet is Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) – the Ditz with a capital D who is constantly forgotten and rarely speaks. Oh and Helena, (Madeleine Adams) Riley’s “Little” who also betrays them to the evil frat for no other reason than because it’s “easier this way.” Maybe if we knew anything else about this character it would make sense, but we are never given the chance so — eye roll.
The story is only “feminist” in that it’s a rape victim fighting back against the man (the former president of the evil fraternity) who assaulted her and because the dialogue is full of characters spouting off the hottest “woke” internet words of 2019 in place of actual conversations or character development. (Side note: There’s also a very odd scene in the beginning of the film where one doomed girl (in a “stop man-ologuing to me” shirt) borrows the main character’s diva cup (??????) and then unzips her pants and inserts it in front of her friend. Again, I might be aging myself here but I have literally never experienced anything like that with any of my many female friends or roommates. And I do burlesque. We are a weird naked bunch. And that was still out of left field to me.) There’s a scene where the main group of girls performs a sexy christmas song for the christmas party being thrown by the evil frat and when Riley sees her rapist in the audience she freezes and then starts singing new lyrics calling him, and frat/rape culture, out. It sounds cool but … Was this their original plan? Or did she somehow spontaneously come up with clever new anti-rape lyrics to “Up on the Roof Top” on the spot that her friends just magically also know the words to? Because it felt like the latter. Also, for a “feminist” #MeToo film, the character Kris is constantly trying to force Riley into speaking out/outing her in public as a victim – which is not only triggering to victims but also not ok because not all victims of assault want to come forward. And people should respect their choice either way.
My main problem with the film though is that it wields these buzzwords and story defensively. As a cudgel. It seems to be trying to shield itself from any possible critique by telling the audience “This movie is FEMINIST. If you’re a feminist you have to like it. And if you don’t that means you’re a misogynist and you’re canceled.” Which is actually what compelled me to write this review. As a feminist, I went in wanting to love this movie. I wanted to support a small budget horror film helmed by women about young women fighting back. I was even tempted to hold my tongue and not write a review if it was bad as a show of solidarity.
But then I realized two things: One, if female filmmakers are going to be taken seriously and given the platforms and opportunities they need, then we need to critique and analyze their films the same way (and at the same level) we would any other piece of art. Two, there is nothing more insulting (to me) than being told I HAVE to like something just because it’s X, Y, or Z. And even worse, if I am then told that if I don’t like it, it makes me a bad person. That makes me extremely cranky and ornery. And frankly, as a feminist who loves horror and wants to see more female driven horror films, I am incredibly offended by that threat looming throughout Black Christmas. Cary Elwes is still super hot though. It must be said.
Black Christmas is in theaters now.