BLACK CHRISTMAS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Sophia Takal

Stars: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’GRady, Madeleine Adams, Cary Elwes, Caleb Eberhardt, Simon Mead.

Lucy Currey, Zoë Robins, Brittany O'Grady, Lily Donoghue, and Aleyse Shannon in Black Christmas (2019)

This is a remake of Bob Clark’s classic and influential slasher film from 1974 in which a group of sorority girls were stalked by a serial killer. There was an inferior remake of Black Christmas in 2006. And now we get this totally unnecessary and problematic  remake which mixes the tropes of the genre with an aggressively feminist polemic that addresses gender politics, misogyny, the rape culture of many US college campuses, the patriarchal nature of society, issues of female empowerment, toxic masculinity and even suggests that all men are rapists.

The film is set in the fictitious Hawthorne College, a venerable and bucolic 200 year old institution in New England that has lately been caught up in some minor controversies surrounding the school’s founder, who apparently had little time for women, regarding them as inferior and subservient to men.

It is the Christmas holidays and most students have gone home. At the Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority house, a few so-called “orphans”, those who have nowhere to go, plan to celebrate the holidays.

Riley Stone (Imogen Poots, from Green Room, etc) is still a little uncomfortable and withdrawn. A year earlier she was raped by the popular head of the Deke fraternity house, and incident that has left her traumatised and wary, particularly as the authorities didn’t believe her story. Kris (Aleyse Shannon, in her film debut) is the outspoken member of the sorority, criticising much of the school’s outdated and sexist curriculum. She has recently been circulating a petition calling for the dismissal of Gelson (Cary Elwes), the classics teacher who is supposedly sexist. Rounding out the group of sorority sisters are Marty (Lily Donoghue, also making her film debut here) and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady).

But after one of their friends goes missing after leaving a party, the girls suddenly find themselves targeted by a mysterious masked stalker who sends out a text message before striking. Riley discovers a link between the aggressive behaviour of the Deke fraternity house and a bust of the school’s founder which leaks a strange thick black liquid that gives the males supernatural powers.

This is a very different beast from Clark’s original film, although the script contains the basic elements of that film. The fairly preposterous plot comes from April Wolfe (a former journalist and critic who wrote for Rolling Stone) and director Sophia Takal (Green, etc). Takal obviously knows her horror films, but she and Wolfe also use the horror genre to explore a number of important themes that are close to her heart. There is a distinct lack of subtlety to the material here as Black Christmas uses the cachet of the familiar title to push its angry message and tap into the contemporary #MeToo movement.

This is the latest production from Blumhouse, the studio that specialises in low budget horror films, and, like the studio’s earlier Get Out, it mixes familiar horror tropes with an exploration of troubling contemporary social issues.

Poots has made a couple of tense and intense horror films in the past couple of years, and she brings a touch of vulnerability, pain and resilience to her performance as the reserved Riley, who slowly emerges from her shell to become the heroine of the piece. Elwes, who has starred in films like the timeless classic fantasy The Princess Bride and Days Of Thunder, seems uncomfortable here as the slightly creepy and sexist professor. The remainder of the largely unknown cast do what they can with the material.

Black Christmas was filmed in New Zealand and has been atmospherically shot by cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard (veteran of tv series like Love, etc), who gives the material a suitably dark and claustrophobic feel.

Ultimately though the film comes across as an angry feminist polemic which will not sit well with genuine horror fans. Apart from a couple of sympathetic male characters, nearly all the men here are one dimensional nasty pieces of work. And for a slasher/horror film Black Christmas is cliched and unoriginal, noticeably bloodless and lacking in genuine scares. Most of the deaths occur off screen. Furthermore, much of the action is badly edited, which makes key scenes almost unwatchable.

★★

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