The Lack of Subtlety in Sophia Takal's Black Christmas

Trigger warning: sexual assault

Black Christmas is a remake of Bob Clark’s 1974 film of the same name. The original is considered one of the first slasher films and served as inspiration for John Carpenter’s Halloween. However, while the remake does gesture to the original and both contain much social commentary about sexism, the differences in the films’ plots make them completely different. While the original has clear social commentary about the devaluation of women’s feelings and wants, the remake makes it the sole focus of the film and consequently comes off as preachy.

By no means am I opposed to the film’s message about feminism, but I question whether the film will actually achieve anything. Those paying to see this film likely already agree with its message, and those who don’t already understand the film’s message will either not watch the film or walk out of the theater as soon as the first few scenes have passed. Also, there is nothing new being said in the film. All it does is exaggerate the current discourse around sexism without adding anything new to the conversation.

The film focuses on Riley, played by Imogen Poots, who is struggling with PTSD after being sexually assaulted and then having the police not believe her when she tried to file charges against her rapist. This is what prompts her and her sorority sisters to change the lyrics to “Up on the Housetop” while performing at a Christmas party at the fraternity where she was raped to draw attention to the rampant sexual assault in fraternities on college campuses. The altered lyrics tell a story of a woman being drugged and then raped at a frat house. This scene is where one of my main issues with the film comes in.

After finishing the song, Riley and her sisters rush off the stage through the crowd of booing frat brothers, and Riley says, “That will show Brian not to rape another girl!” This seemed extremely out of character and unrealistic for her to say. It was clearly very difficult and traumatic for her to see Brian in the crowd, and she struggled to start singing the song, and this just seemed like a strange shift in emotion. Also, I just can’t see how anyone would think that singing a song about sexual assault would stop a rapist. Yes, they did not have many courses of action since the police did not listen to Riley, but that line just seemed really unrealistic and out of character.

While the killer was already at large prior to the performance, the changes to the song seem to provoke the masked killer. Riley and her sisters then start receiving ominous messages, before they are eventually attacked by several cloaked figures.

One thing I liked about this film was that it was much more clear about the fact that sexism is a systemic problem rather than an issue of individuals. In the original film, the antagonist was one creep who was hiding in the sorority house attic, but in the remake, this is spread out over multiple men to show how sexism is a systemic issue rather than perpetrated by a few bad actors. The police do not adequately investigate any of the women’s concerns, but are rather dismissive and make sexist remarks. There’s also a racist and sexist classics professor, and one of the sorority sisters actually makes a petition to have him removed from the school.

An issue with the film as an addition to the horror genre was the fact that it was not scary. The original film was frightening because the killer was literally in their attic and audiences never see his face. The phone calls the girls receive are actually quite disturbing, and the text messages in the remake simply do not have the same impact. It’s also just frightening in general to think that the killer could have been in your house, the place you generally associate with safety, all along. In the remake, the killer simply isn’t frightening other than cheap jump scares, which wouldn’t have even been scary if it weren’t for the fact that the woman behind me let out a high-pitched scream every time he appeared on screen.

The film was generally enjoyable, and there were portions of the film that were genuinely satisfying. While it’s often more focused on political discourse than on being a horror film, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the film isn’t good; it’s just aimed at a different audience. This film reminds me of The Purge: Election Year, in which there is a large focus on politics that can feel preachy or overdone at times, and while the political message may not be wrong, it generally isn’t what someone wants to focus on when they pay to see a horror film. There are many moviegoers who enjoy very political films though; just look at the success of the God’s Not Dead films (not that I think that feminists and evangelical christians are the same crowd).

Overall, this film is paced quite slowly, and while generally enjoyable to watch, it doesn’t add anything new to the discourse around feminism today. Its focus on social commentary often comes off as too preachy, and it ultimately gets in the way of the film’s horror elements.