I tried my damndest to love Black Christmas. It’s packed to the brim with takedowns of rape culture and fraternity life, conversations about feminism, and a general sense of righteous indignation. It shouts its themes from the rooftop, turning to the camera with a glaring “fuck you.” But when you’re limited by a PG-13 rating, “fuck you” feels a lot more like “f*** you.”
Black Christmas is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name, though, from a quick read through the 1974 plot summary, is less a direct remake and more a modern reinterpretation. The plot is vastly different, but the feminist iconography remains. Riley (Imogen Poots) and her sorority sisters struggle to overcome systemic sexism, rape, and, eventually, a literal cult of masculinity. Riley is still dealing with the fallout from her rape account falling on deaf ears, Kris (Aleyse Shannon) is pushing back on outdated teaching practices from Professor Gelson (Carey Elwes) and worked to get the bust of Calvin Hawthorne, the colleges sexist, racist founder relocated from the main hall to the DKE fraternity house. Even early on, the movie proudly tells you what it’s about.
But after Riley and Kris, joined by sisters Marty (Lily Donoghue) and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady), attend the DKE Holiday Talent Show and their singsong takedown of frat bro rape culture ends up online, the movie begins to question its own identity. Riley begins to push back against some of Kris’s more radical efforts, worried about the blowback. It’s a fight that eventually falls in Kris’s favor, but Riley’s self-doubt casts a dark reflection over the movie. In a film that wants to unflinchingly stare down a cult of toxic masculinity, this feels like a flinch.
But Black Christmas isn’t just a commentary piece. True to its source, it also lives in the space of a slasher film. Sorority members start disappearing, taken by robed figures with distorted masks. As more of Riley’s friends fail to make it home for the holidays, she starts to get nervous. Campus police offer no help, barely mustering up the will to half-heartedly check on her story. The night of the Orphan Dinner, a gathering of the students left at Hawthorne College over the winter break, the figures responsible for the missing women arrive at the sorority house in force. The following game of hide-n-seek is less than tense, due in no small part to uninteresting cinematography and clichéd tropes. The brusque pace at which the movie blows past kills doesn’t give adequate breathing room for the situation to settle.
The lack of tension should not have been a problem. As the sisters start to get the upper hand, the killings of cult members should have been bloody and cathartic. The sins of the previous scenes would have been erased, replaced by a torrent of blood and release. But rather than a cavalcade of viscera, we get a dribbling of black goo leaving a sense of dissatisfaction and a desire for more.
There’s a magical element to the cult, replacing R-rated blood with PG-13 goo and creating a strange loophole that allows for some wiggle room when it comes to culpability. There’s undeniably a sect of the cult that is guilty as hell, but when the source of the magic can turn people to the cult’s side, it gives members a way to say “Nah, it wasn’t me, that’s not who I am,” which doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the movies desire to place blame on those responsible.
Black Christmas is so close to being the horror touchstone it so achingly wants to be. Its ideas are eternally relevant, and you can feel the genuine emotion that sits behind the screen. But its lackluster horror and PG-13 attitude remove a lot of the bite and some poor third act story beats undermine what could have been the next feminist horror masterpiece.