Review: Black Christmas (2019)

This Black Christmas remake doesn’t have much in common with the original, save for one crucial detail: just like the original, it is specifically and unapologetically about a patriarchal power structure that attempts to control a woman’s anatomy and the way in which women have to operate within a world that hates them. While Bob Clark’s original was released a year after Roe v Wade and features a pregnant final girl who openly has a discussion about having an abortion, this remake attempts to update its premise and is implicitly about rape culture, and how young men who rape have futures while young women aren’t believed when they speak up.

It is about that sense of powerlessness that comes with not being believed, exploring this idea that a man strips you of your power when he rapes you, and then the system is complicit in doing the same when it fails to believe you. Like a form of gaslighting, when so many people fail to believe you, then maybe it didn’t happen the way you think it did? This remake is just as upfront about what it’s saying. The issue, however, arises when the filmmaking and the writing don’t come to play as hard as the ideas couched within its 92 minutes runtime. 

Outside of being about these explicitly feminist ideas and revolutionizing the horror genre by being what is considered the first slasher, the original Black Christmas is also just an expertly crafted thriller about a group of sorority sisters being stalked by a ruthless killer, taking on this voyeuristic sensibility as we never see who the killer is, but we do see the killer stalk his victims from his own perspective, so it almost feels like we are complicit in his actions. The movie is grimy and grotesque, while also minimalistic in many respects, and even if we don’t spend a lot of time with all of the victims, they all still feel distinguished in their characteristics and sensibilities. We get a sense of who they are, so as they are killed, there is a sense of tragedy every single time. And then the movie ends, and we realize that the killer is still in the house, and that thought lingers in the mind. Simply put, an excellent film.

The remake does have a good story locked inside somewhere, but it takes twists and turns and overcomplicates itself, getting lost in the minutiae of plot machinations that sound like a better idea on paper than in execution. 

The remake, on the other hand, is just not well put together. It is too well lit in the vein of similar 2000s slashers, adding an aura of gloss and superficiality to the aesthetic, with a shaky camera that has to edit around the violence since this is PG-13, so during these moments of violence, it is impossible to tell what is happening. There is a scene where a woman gets shot with a bow and arrow, and the camera is so antsy that it was impossible to tell where she had been wounded, and then as they regroup, I still couldn’t tell which part of her body the arrow had scratched. It is a horror movie without any thought put into the horror. 

The plot involves a fraternity using their pledges to stalk and kill these MKE sorority sisters in order to assert male dominance and remind them of their subservient place in life. It gets a lot more complicated than that with a supernatural angle that could have been interesting, but the movie is too short to be this complicated when it could have addressed its same themes with a lot less plot. The movie does have a good story locked in there somewhere, but it takes twists and turns and overcomplicates itself, getting lost in the minutiae of plot machinations that sound like a better idea on paper than in execution. It ends with a final shot that is meant as a ‘fuck you’ to the patriarchy, but the movie leading up to that moment was so half-hazard that it didn’t leave much of an impact.

With that being said, Imogen Poots as Riley is the saving grace, giving what is a performance that speaks towards what this movie could have been had they gone over the script one or two more times and really isolated the things that worked while tossing out the things that didn’t. Riley was raped 3 years ago by DKO fraternity alum Brian Huntley, and Riley is still trying to manage in everyday life knowing that nobody, outside of her sorority sisters believed her. To make matters worse, she has to perform this musical number with her sisters at the frat house, as is tradition before departing for the holidays. In what is one of the best moments in the movie Riley and her sisters repurpose “Up on the Housetop” as a rape-culture callout in a moment that has an improvisational spirit yet also a biting truth behind it that feels at once empowering and sickening. As Riley details her experience on stage we become privy to a perspective we may not share. It is a moment that cuts right through the artifice and into the heart of the matter. And as the movie rolls on, we realize that Riley is really the only character that the movie has any interest in exploring, and even though her arc becomes problematic towards the end, it was still a journey worth taking. 

As the movie rolls on, we realize that these sisters have been getting these odd DM’s from a Calvin Hawthorne, the school’s founder who is now dead, and then the killings start. While in the original movie the girls received these grotesque phone calls that left us feeling sick and disturbed, this movie updates that to direct messages, which while don’t have the same effect, still are an effective enough tool to add a sense of dread as we wait for the inevitable. 

The problem arises when the inevitable finally gets here, the horror is so poorly executed, that it all feels kind of inert and lifeless. There is no sense of geography to these scenes as the camera shakes and cuts with so much frequency that there really is no point in even trying to decipher what is happening, with predictability in its craftmanship that strips the movie of any sense of dread as we build up to these moments of violence. Whereas the original film played with the idea of this faceless killer and used the audience’s instincts in order to subvert our expectations, this remake just tends to shake the camera a lot and amp up the music to emulate a sense of dread, but it felt like a lame attempt at scaring us. This movie had a very clear idea of what it wanted to say with its premise and how it wanted to update the original for 2019, but it had no idea how to convey these ideas within the confines of an effective horror movie.

Nor does the movie doesn’t spend enough time with its characters to make them feel like actual human beings, so we don’t have the benefit of at the very least being worried about their safety. The movie even ends with this Avengers-style action sequence that is meant to inspire and be about these strong women fighting back against the patriarchy, except we were never properly introduced to any of the woman in that finale except for maybe two, so it didn’t mean anything, even if it was supposed to mean everything. 

Kris (played by Aleyse Shannon) is the only character outside of Riley who gets any sort of proper characterization, except she is only given one note to play, and she plays that note throughout the entire movie, lacking any sort of character arc or perspective outside of this outline. She is a character who is confrontational, starts petitions and is a genuine activist who doesn’t have time for your ignorance and indifference to things like racism and sexism that is still built into the very fiber of the human societal structure. Riley and Kris have these elongated argumentative scenes that really bring out a juxtaposition between these two characters, and these scenes are great at highlighting two vastly different perspectives, and they openly discuss their different positions and why they are who they are and what that means.

There is a vulnerability to Imogen Poots’ Riley as she has these little sparring matches, the vulnerability she shows outlines her anger and internalization of herself that feels like a gut punch. Contrasting her perspective is Kris who does have merit in the perspective she herself brings as a young black woman, and the uphill battle she’s fighting. Again, the movie strives to provide validity to both women without undermining either of their perspectives so to see it undone later in the film when Riley literally vocalizes to Kris how she should have been like her all along, even though we just saw Riley overcome her sense of powerlessness in order to fight off her abusers feels misguided. 

We understand how there is an undeniable strength within her that goes far beyond just this scenario but her needing to vocalize how she had been weak along and now needed to stand up for herself didn’t sit right with me. It is a very specific kind of message to send, a message that seems to exist solely on Twitter and not in the real world, where different kinds of women exist with different kinds of struggles who have their own way of battling trauma, and who have their own ways of fighting against the system that undermines them.

Getting to Twitter, let’s talk about that script, which feels like specific lines of dialogue and specific character moments were lifted directly from the bird app, which again, feels disingenuous to the ideas at this film’s core. Now, I understand that people on Twitter also exist in the real world and these same kinds of people are just as misogynistic and racist in the real world as well as on Twitter, but, at least from where I sit, it is pretty easy to tell when a conversation or an argument feels authentic and when it feels like a Twitter argument. At moments, it feels like this movie took twitter threads and directly translated them from desktop to screen, dialogue intact, and that kind of specific kind of language undermines the importance of the movie’s barrage of ideas. 

Earlier this year, a young woman was murdered at the school that I attend. Her crime? Failing to acknowledge a man who was catcalling her, so he followed her into a parking garage and killed her. Now, as a man, I know that when I walk back to my apartment at midnight, I never have to think twice about putting my headphones on. My parents never had to talk to me about how to protect myself and how I should always be acutely aware of my surroundings at all times. We have an abuser in the White House, and another one in the Supreme Court, Black Christmas is vital in its immediacy because of how it targets the societal structure that does hate women in a way that feels dehumanizing, and its abrasiveness is a breath of fresh air.

That aggression, however, can only take you so far, and when the horror trappings of this story feel so undercooked and inept in their construction. When the script takes shortcuts to get to these broad ideas rather than working to flesh them out properly, then that empowerment idea at this film’s center does not pay off in a way that feels satisfying.

Review: Black Christmas (2019)
Black Christmas (2019) has good intentions, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
Imogen Poots as Riley
Aggressive vitality and immediacy
Weak Script
Inert Direction and Cinematography
Misguided Character Arcs

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