Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Black Christmas (2019)

Directed by: Sophia Takal
Notable cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donahue, Cary Elwes

Remakes are always a tricky business. I say this as one who’s generally more favorable to them than most. In theory, you have to serve the twin masters of appeasing the original fans and thrilling new ones or focus on one or the other, often alienating the unserved audience. There are certainly decent examples of all three and terrible examples as well, but it is a conflict all remakes share. The new version of Black Christmas largely focuses on the “thrilling new take” angle, and I think that it may have unlocked the true potential of this story’s concept, while admittedly walking into a few pitfalls of the genre as well.

Maintaining the basic conceit of sorority girls staying on campus during the holiday season and then being taunted by phone, stalked, and killed, it’s the only real callback to either previous version of this story. The original Black Christmas was very much an exploration of the “killer is calling from within the house” campfire story archetype, while this new one is a pure slasher focused through a lens of modern feminism. I think there are a lot of good ideas in play, although I do think the narrative fails the concept here.

We open on Riley (Imogen Poots, having recently come off of another exploration of male fragility, The Art Of Self-Defense) and her sorority sisters saying goodbye to people leaving for the holidays while preparing for a talent show being held by one of the frat houses. This opening very rapidly lays it politics on the table by having a girl enter the room looking for a diva cup, and directly challenging the audience to be uncomfortable with it. Daring them. It’s fine and not as shocking as they’re hoping although it will probably upset the people it specifically intends to. Actually, to expand on that parenthetical sub-thought, a lot of the overt feminism in this movie seems intended to make that aforementioned group uncomfortable more than pushing an agenda per se, especially as a lot of the actual messaging in the movie is a touch subtler. Not much though, this is very much a slasher movie in all ways with all the traditional foibles, just one for the current era of social progression. That is to say, it is occasionally and obnoxiously in your face, but I strongly feel the need to temper that critique and double down on this point. It’s not obnoxiously in your face because of its politics or feminism. It’s obnoxiously in your face because it is a teen slasher movie.

After using their time at the talent show to sing a song calling out the frat for general sexual assault and specifically Riley’s at the hands of the former chapter president, the story hits its stride with the women remaining on campus receiving threatening messages via a social media profile claiming to be the school's founder, the night devolves into the expected violence and chaos.

 There are things that are very well done here, most notably Cary Elwes as a professor on the verge of being fired due to a student petition, and it is used to great effect. He uses his authority and some overt double-talk to intimidate Riley at every turn, and this film stares straight into the eyes of college campus sexual assault. It’s even brazen enough to have our main character be assaulted and not believed when she reported it. An uncomfortable reality and one the movie doesn’t shy away from.

Why, then, is Black Christmas not getting an especially high grade from me at the end of the day? Everything else. The plot falls apart around the time supernatural elements are unnecessarily introduced and there is always going to be a severe uphill climb for a PG-13 horror movie. It’s immediately forgettable, but I do think it bears mention that this movie’s failings are the expected problems with a PG-13 studio slasher. I do think, on the other hand, that a generic movie from an interesting perspective is something worth celebrating, because that’s how they get refined until we get a real standout genre film from an interesting perspective. With that in mind, it’s impossible to recommend this movie theatrically, however, it is worth a watch and definitely worth keeping an eye on Sophia Takal’s career moving forward.

Written By Sean Caylor

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