Review: Black Christmas (2019)

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Director: Sophia Takal

Writers: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe

Composers: Brooke Blair, Will Blair

Starring: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes

Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller

 Black Christmas is the third film based off the original 1974 Canadian slasher of the same name, though it would be remiss to call this a franchise. 2006’s Black X-Mas was a remake, while this latest iteration is a re-imagining, featuring only one character in common with the previous two films. Considering the original was an obscure cult classic, and the remake was critically panned, it might be a good thing that this 2019 movie works as a standalone. With a story that has been updated to reflect the times, it’s seemingly Black Christmas in name only, which means it’s light on homework for newcomers, but could potentially be a colossal disappointment for fans desiring a faithful remake.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Considering this is a horror film, very little is actually shown. Characters are stabbed, but the camera is quick to cutaway from the action. A black substance is seen instead of blood. Characters are sliced with a knife – small wounds seen. A character is hit with an arrow, another with an axe. Strangling, physical and sexual assault are present. There are several jump scares.

Language/Crude Humor: The s-word is said several times, along with b*tch, and more minor swears. God and Jesus are said as exclamations. Both men and women use slurs against each other, or language that otherwise degrades the other gender. There is a discussion about whether it’s lady-like to talk about “taking dumps”. Periods are spoken about – one character unzips her jeans, grabs a DivaCup and inserts it in front of her female friend, remaining fully clothed in the process.   

Drug/Alcohol References: College-aged students drink alcohol at parties. One character drinks too much and is later seen vomiting. 

Sexual Content: A character is date raped – this is a significant event in the film, told through flashbacks. No nudity, with the act only suggested through editing, not shown in full. Characters frequently talk about sex and sexual assault. One woman interrupts a couple that are about to have intercourse, as she correctly suspects the act is non-consensual. Several women wear sexy Santa outfits.

Spiritual Content: Characters call upon the powers of an evil, sinister higher being, with rituals reminiscent of demon worship. 

Other Negative Content: Misogynistic and misandrist opinions present throughout the film. The protagonists often decide to resort to vigilantism instead of going to the proper authorities.

Positive Content: The film instils the message that sexual assault should never be condoned or tolerated, damning perpetrators and encouraging victims to stay strong. The story promotes the idea of sisterhood.  

Review

If there was any film in 2019 that was a clear by-product of its era, then it’s Black Christmas. It takes the current socio-political issues, such as the MeToo movement, and uses them to address the misogynistic values commonly seen in slasher horror flicks. It’s timely, and the concept is somewhat inspired. Though like a knife-wielding madman’s attack towards the protagonist, it’s a swing and a miss. 

Enter Riley and Kris. Riley is a shy women, combatting the trauma of being date raped a few years ago by the most obnoxious, privileged jock on campus. Then there’s Kris, Riley’s bestie. She’s a self-proclaimed fighter against the patriarchy, who is currently petitioning against her Literature Studies teacher, accusing him of being misogynistic as he only lectures on the writings of white male authors. While Riley is the protagonist of the piece, and despite her backstory touching upon serious real world issues, it’s Kris’ perspective on the world (and men) that hogs the spotlight. It’s a shame as Kris is practically a caricature of the group she is representing, and sadly the depth of these female characters are sorely left untapped as their given circumstances feel extremely cliché.  

Black Christmas takes the ideology behind the modern day gender wars and turns it into a literal battle between the sexes. It is an amusing concept to see these women having their suspicions of the existence of a blatantly misogynistic cult being validated. It’s the type of allegorical plot that could easily be picked up by the likes of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and turned into an episode of South Park.

Yet the film never achieves the outlandishness the narrative demands. While it features highly stereotypical characters, the movie still gives the impression that their dialogue is to be taken seriously. Black Christmas is therefore stuck in the no man’s land between serious social commentary and parody.

Usually when a character has a staunch, narrow viewpoint, they are placed in a situation where they are forced to confront their own ridiculousness. This is how humor is created in a parody. There are several moments when the movie sheds light on a different perspective, though they appear rarely and are quickly dismissed by the main characters. This behavior is almost a joke in itself, yet Black Christmas’ sense of self-awareness is always unclear. As far as their ideology goes, the characters never have their beliefs properly challenged; they don’t grow in this way, and in fact their homogeneous worldview is only vindicated.

In many ways, South Park would have handled this narrative better. In amongst the vast array of cardboard cut-out characters fighting each other to the death, at least Stan and Kyle would be there to tell the audience what they have learned for that day. Black Christmas merely raises all the arguments that are being tossed around in the social sphere, but never actually contributes anything meaningful to the conversation. The film’s message hardly elevates itself above the complexity of one of Mr Mackey’s lessons, reminding us all that sexual assault is bad m’kay.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the movie’s target demographic. It appears to be preaching to the choir when it comes to women. Yes, it’s always empowering to see a person fight back against their attackers, yet considering this happens in the vast majority of films in the slasher subgenre, Black Christmas therefore offers nothing new.

But what about male audiences? Considering that women are typically infuriated by the presence of misogynistic content mixed in with their entertainment, it’s only reasonable to assume that men are likewise not going to take too kindly to misandry. Ninety percent of the men featured in this movie are shallow representations of toxic masculinity. Combined with the story’s overtly simplistic themes that are delivered with the hefty dullness of a sledgehammer, it wouldn’t be surprising if some viewers found Black Christmas to be patronizing.

Enter Landon. He is the tokenistic “good guy” – the exception to the rule that stops Black Christmas from tumbling completely into a man-hating abyss. Like the other actors, Caleb Eberhardt provides a decent performance, despite the clichéd script that turns him into a sweet-but-shy bumbling homage to Hugh Grant. His presence makes the story tolerable, even though he appears unevenly throughout the film’s runtime. Yet there is a moment where he could have been given more agency – a shift in the film’s final events that would’ve symbolically offered an olive branch between the two sexes and forged a better ending. It’s not taken; Landon is merely an ornament amongst the girls’ path to vengeance. The film’s conclusion feels nauseatingly biased and unbalanced as a result.

In case you can’t tell by now, social politics take up a good portion of the film. It’s a social commentary first, horror second. The subject matter might be mind-numbingly irritating, but what about the scares? Unfortunately Black Christmas fails to deliver on that front.

Oddly it’s the editing which cripples the film. The camera is quick to shy away from the story’s bloodiest moments. This isn’t to say that a horror movie needs to be gory – Alfred Hitchcock’s works expertly demonstrate that sometimes less is more. Rather Black Christmas feels like it has already been edited for a prime time slot on free-to-air television. The transitions are too swift and clunky. The house – where most of the action is set – lacks geography, making action sequences disorientating.

There is little to no set up before someone’s untimely demise. The film doesn’t slow down enough for the audience to naturally develop any level of anxiety, suspense or uneasy feeling. The murders are evenly spaced throughout the story, though they are emotionally dead, the moments bland and uninspired. The jump scares work only because they provide a random loud noise in an otherwise quiet setting; it’s not a real or rewarding moment of terror. It does feel like entire sequences were cut, especially when the characters tout the importance of sisterhood, constantly promising the image of a core group of friends facing adversity, though it never eventuates. Yet it’s embarrassing when 47 Meters Down: Uncaged provides deeper character development and emotional attachment to their cannon fodder cast.

One might suspect that these poor directorial decisions stem from the hypocritical nature of the project itself. It’s a film that adopts the slasher subgenre to exaggerate the latent misogynistic values in society, and yet in itself it derives its entertainment from such aforementioned activities. The audience partakes in what the film is trying to combat and condemn. Utilizing this perspective, it therefore makes sense that the camera forbids the audience from indulging too much in the violence against women. Yet the lack of commitment makes for a boring horror film nonetheless. Black Christmas may therefore have been better as more of a mystery, though the film’s biggest twist is its horrid predictability. Simply put, it’s a below average horror film.

However, can Black Christmas function as one of those anti-Christmas films, alongside Die Hard, Gremlins, and Batman Returns? Well, that entirely depends on your definition of what makes a movie a Christmas flick. Despite the title, Black Christmas is actually set in the days leading up to the holiday, where campus life is inching to a crawl due to most students choosing to head back home to their families. Yet the streets are lined with snow, the characters attend a Christmas party, they purchase a pine tree, and the sets are decorated for the occasion. If a film merely has to be Christmas themed, then this film qualifies. However it’s not as though the story incorporates the message or spirit of the holiday – it’s merely the setting.

Despite all of the movie’s flaws, there’s still enough to maintain the viewer’s interest. It’s decently paced, and its short runtime certainly works in its favor. While the film is ultimately a disappointment, there is still some fun to be had during the journey. It’s not as morally bankrupt as The Haunting of Sharon Tate, nor is it as painfully boring as The Wind, and its vision is clearer than Wounds. However just because there are worse entries in the horror genre this year, that doesn’t mean Black Christmas is a good film. It’s not worth battling the crowds of Christmas shoppers to see this movie in theaters, but it’s not so horrible to avoid giving it a look when it becomes available on streaming services. You never know; the debate over whether Black Christmas is really a parody may eventually turn it into yet another cult classic.

Positives

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The Bottom Line

 

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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