You better watch out. You better not cry, because it’s not Santa that’s breaking in this yuletide. Black Christmas is back with another remake and a ferociously feminist take on this seasonal slasher story, courtesy of writer April Wolfe and Always Shine director Sophia Takal.Inspired by the 1974 cult classic, Black Christmas stars Imogen Poots as a college senior who’s spending winter break with her sorority sisters in their cozy campus housing. They have big plans for a celebratory feast and to shake-up the festivities of a notorious fraternity’s talent show. But their reveries are ruined once a hooded figure breaks in and starts murdering off co-eds one by one.
This is all pretty close to the original film’s premise. However, it’s just a jumping-off point for Wolfe and Takal’s script, which folds in a more complicated narrative than “mysterious creeper lurks in the attic.” To save from spoilers, I’ll tip only that it involves a frat’s special hazing ritual. Thankfully, things don’t get convoluted like in the 2006 remake, which gave its killer a backstory rife with tragedy, incest, and cannibalism. Instead, these female filmmakers considered what might motivate someone to harass, stalk, and kill a band of sorority sisters. This pretty naturally dovetails with issues of the #MeToo movement, like institutional sexism, sexual harassment, date rape, and misogynistic violence. From there, Takal and Wolfe offer horror that hits frightfully close to common fears among women.
The first scene of slaughter is a great example. A girl walks home alone at night. She’s just gotten off the phone with a friend, who knows where she’s headed and her ETA. Then, she starts getting menacing text messages. Are they from the man walking behind her? He’s on his phone, chuckling, and a bit too close for comfort. So, she takes out her keys, placing them quickly between her knuckles like DIY Wolverine claws, just in case. She’s taken precautions. But walking down a well-lit street, telling her friends where she’ll be, being alert, and arming herself won’t save her.
The attack is horrifying yet wickedly clever. Folded in are festive details that are brutal yet beautiful, like an icicle used as a dagger and her dragged corpse leaving behind a sinister snow angel. Other sequences have a similar seasonal flare, pulling from Black Christmas kills of the past while presenting new spins on them. But the kills are not the scariest bits of this home-invasion holiday horror. The kills are inevitable. After all, this is a slasher flick, and these are sorority girls. We all know the rules of this subgenre by now: spirited young women must die, save for maybe one Final Girl.
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Where Black Christmas really shines is in the dread Takal brews in between attack scenes. A long shot lingers on a hallway in which the voice of a lone sister echoes as she calls out for her missing cat. We witness and wonder, ‘Who else can hear her?’ In a dark attic, another sister seeks Christmas lights that work. She plugs one dud set in after another, and with each, we feel our breath tightening, worrying what their illumination might reveal. Suspecting that someone is watching turns these seemingly empty spaces as scary as hell.
A while back, some horror fans were incensed when it was announced that unlike its R-rated predecessors, this Black Christmas would be rated PG-13. The fear was that the film would lose its edge if it was barred from the level of gore and onscreen violence that an ‘R’ allows. If you’re really looking for what might have been trimmed for the PG-13 cut, you may notice how quickly a grisly corpse is cut away from, or that the penetration of a knife into flesh is kept off-frame, though its wound is clear in the next shot.
Regardless, I didn’t miss the eye-popping gore of the Black Christmas that came before. For one thing, we already have that from the 2006 version. For another, Takal and Wolfe’s focus on fear is enhanced by the lack of garish gruesomeness. Often in horror movies, the reveals of cut-up cadavers give us an easy place to scream, thereby relieving the tension that’s been brewing in goosebumps and spine-tingles. With less graphic violence on display, this Black Christmas keeps us in this state of entranced anxiety. Then, the film throws us in a climax lit up with violence and mayhem, just without buckets of blood.