Synopsis: Hawthorne College is quieting down for the holidays. One by one, sorority girls on campus are being killed by a stalker. But the killer is about to discover that this generation’s women aren’t willing to become hapless victims as they fight back.
Stars: Imogen Poots, Brittany O’Grady, Lily Donoghue, Aleyse Shannon, Cary Elwes, Caleb Eberhardt, Simon Mead, Madeleine Adams
Director: Sophia Takal
Running Length: 92 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: This hasn’t been a great year for remakes of horror films. Earlier this year, I suffered greatly at the hands of a hideous attempt to put a new spin on Child’s Play and the results are going to wind up on my list of worst movies of the year. I was especially worried about another remake of 1974’s classic slasher film Black Christmas because it had so much strange buzz surrounding it as the release date was drawing near. Though it had already been remade once in 2006 in a gory mess that strayed in parts from the original storyline, this new version appeared to diverge completely from Bob Clark’s plot of sorority girls menaced by a prank phone caller who turns deadly.
Then the trailer came out and from the looks of it gave away some rather large plot twists and soon after that it was revealed the film would be released with the more teen-friendly PG-13 rating…and that’s when the guts really hit the fan. Now, I’m not of the belief that horror needs to carry an R rating to be considered worthy but even I was surprised this was aiming to land in a softer place for audiences. The filmmakers at Blumhouse countered that it was always filmed with the intention it was to be released as a PG-13 film but that seems like an easy excuse…and from what I saw in the finished movie totally not true…but more on that later. The real kiss of death is when the studio didn’t screen the film for critics before its release – a strange thing to hold back on, especially considering the truly awful garbage Blumhouse has willingly previewed in advance. So there I was for the first showing on a Thursday night, the third person in the audience, prepared for the worst lump of cinema coal.
Guess what? This is a remake that doesn’t go on the naughty list.
Surprisingly, this is a sharp and conscientious horror film that’s very of the moment in this era we’re living in. Directed by Sophia Takal and written by Takal and April Wolfe, it’s a pro-female update to a property that hasn’t treated women as much more than objects that scream before they’re slaughtered horribly. There’s death and destruction in this remake but it’s not as easily-won as other similar genre titles and that creates some tension that was sorely lacking in the previous attempt. You have to wait your turn in Takal’s feminist take with men and their interests coming second to providing fully realized female characters that have personas, flaws, and passions of their own.
Opening with a kill that has a clever finish, we jump right into the final days of school at Hawthorne College before Christmas break. Sorority sisters Riley (Imogen Poots, Green Room), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue), and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) will be sticking around for the holiday and plan an evening dinner that is upstaged by ominous texts that begin to arrive from an account belonging to the problematic founder of the college. Said to have a past tied to black magic as well as slavery, the founder has ties to a popular fraternity on campus…a fraternity previously led by a person Riley has a traumatic history with. When he returns to initiate new pledges, it brings up bad memories for Riley and it’s also when a rash of killings begin.
If you’ve seen the preview (I’d advise you not to), you’ll already know most of what transpires next but there’s a few extra layers that Takal and Wolfe have held back for the final moments. At a trim 92 minutes (including credits) it’s a fast-moving film, given forward motion by some exceedingly good performances and smart use of creepy spaces to play around in. Takal and Wolfe get a tad lost in their resolution, trying to get a few too many ideas shoved into the final moments but they get a solid A for effort in their delivery of said finale. It’s a bold way to summarize not just the film but a lot of other things happening to woman’s voices and equality in the world today. I recently reviewed another feminist thriller, Knives and Skin, and it wasn’t able to get to its point in the succinct way Takal and Wolfe were…and Black Christmas was 30 minutes shorter.
Where the film feels like a letdown is in the lack of standard horror elements that appear to have been filmed but later removed. I don’t fully believe the movie was meant to be PG-13, there are too many well-shot sequences in the movie to excuse away the shoddy editing anytime a weapon makes contact with a head/body/appendage/etc . Also, you can tell there’s been looping done after the fact to tone down some language “jerk off” was mysteriously changed to “junk off”…why? These pulled punches start to add up in a frustrating fashion near the end, here’s hoping a fully uncut version is revealed at some point.
You get the impression Takal and Wolfe have watched a bunch of horror movies because while they borrow some elements from the masters (one jump scare is totally lifted from another film) they’ve seen enough to know what needed to change in their version of Black Christmas. This isn’t a meta, self-referential horror film like Scream but a movie that’s in touch with itself and its own emotions. There’s a lot of talk of sisterhood in here and it doesn’t come off as cornball or as some ‘down with men’ battle cry. Blumhouse has long been criticized for not hiring female directors and Black Christmas was their first opportunity to address those concerns – I’d say they made a smart choice.