There’s a curious dichotomy within slasher movies, a subgenre that both punishes and rewards its female characters. While many of the women are being slaughtered, in variously graphic ways, a storied tradition of “final girls” are being empowered, surviving and ultimately triumphing over masked killers. At times, there has even been room for knife-edge commentary on the extreme dangers of misogyny and slut-shaming, most memorably in the crowd-pleasing finale of Scream where two women bring down a pair of murderous incels. But there remains an understandably conflicted relationship between gender and slashers which makes the arrival of one aiming to do something with this seem like an enticing proposition.
The behemoth-like production company that is Blumhouse, behind hits such as Get Out, The Purge, Happy Death Day, Split and last year’s Halloween revival, has come under fire for its lack of female directors, a fact made even worse by head honcho Jason Blum’s ill-advised comments last year. “There are not a lot of female directors, period, and even less who are inclined to do horror,” he said before swiftly being reminded that yes, women do like horror films too. Soon after, he hired rising indie actor-director Sophia Takal for an instalment in his Hulu-based horror series Into the Dark called New Year, New You, an intriguing, often insightful, attempt to satirise the dark side of self-care. She has been brought back for a revamp of Black Christmas, an often underappreciated slasher from 1974, preceding Halloween by four years, a film thought of by many horror fans as the first true example of the formula.
Announced in June, with production starting later that month, and now out just under six months later, there’s an inescapable, palpable sense of hurry throughout the 2019 iteration. It’s quick, cheap-looking and entirely devoid of suspense, atmosphere and dramatic tension, so inept at times that it makes 2006’s questionable remake suddenly seem like a misremembered masterwork. What’s most surprising, and initially intriguing, about round three is that it’s ultimately less of a horror film and more of a thinkpiece, a hodgepodge of buzzwords and ideas, aiming high but crashing into the snow.
There’s the kernel of a good idea in a script co-written by Takal and former film critic April Wolfe, which attempts to place the loose setup of sorority sisters at risk in a believably contemporary campus setting. Our final girl is Riley (Imogen Poots), a withdrawn sophomore struggling with the fallout from a horrifying sexual assault inflicted by an ex-student belonging to an aggressive fraternity. In the last few days of the fall semester, tensions rise at the college with a petition to dethrone a classics professor (Cary Elwes) for his curriculum, which doesn’t include enough diversity, and a prank played by Riley and her sisters aimed at calling out toxic masculinity among their male peers. There’s also the small problem of a masked, hooded killer.
Repeating its mission statement ad nauseam via dry, box-ticking dialogue, Black Christmas wants you to know what it’s doing and how clever it is for doing it. But using terms like “white supremacist patriarchy” in every other line of dialogue isn’t enough by itself and the film fails to support its superficially progressive thesis with a smart enough plot, trucking ahead with speed but without ingenuity. The PG-13 death scenes are rushed and ineffective, the characters are anonymous and interchangeable and as the film takes a supernatural turn, it becomes clear that Wolfe and Takal seem to think they’re making the new Get Out but for women. But while Jordan Peele’s devious game-changer was able to neatly inject racial politics into an increasingly fantastical horror film, the creaks here are deafening.
It’s an unwieldy and messy thing, drearily directed and boringly written, taking its agenda seriously yet not providing a robust enough framework to surround it. It’s a film that urges us to believe women yet shows female characters not believing the legitimate concerns of their female friend. It reminds us of the importance of queer and trans voices yet includes an entirely straight cast of characters. The odious sexual violence of straight frat culture is a perfect jumping-off point for any horror film, especially given how one notable example of it is currently serving on the supreme court. But as Wolfe and Takal lean harder into the goofy specifics of their conceit, the real-world horror disappears from view.
The intention of Black Christmas, to bring a more pronounced feminism and female agency to the slasher film, is one to be applauded and somewhere in the universe there’s an intelligent, self-aware script capable of doing this, cleaning up dusty tropes and dragging them to the present day. This isn’t it.
Black Christmas is released on 13 December
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