The merits of remaking a movie are often called into question immediately by the masses. Be it staunch defenders of the source material, weary analysts of Hollywood’s “pool” of talent, or moviegoers just sick and tired of…garbage, it’s usually the first thing that happens when a remake is announced. It’s a regurgitation of the same old, paint-by-numbers nonsense that can somehow find its way onto massive screens across the world, into which millions of dollars and hard, honest work have been poured.
Welcome to Black Christmas.
A remake of the 1974 film of the same name, Black Christmas is a film so boldly horrible, so joyless in its execution, and so vapid in its content that I’m typing with fervor to recall the details before they all just fade to memory mere minutes after my screening. If you read one more sentence of this: Don’t see Black Christmas. But if you’re still here, let’s figure just why you shouldn’t do that.
Director: Sophia Takal
Release Date: December 13, 2019
Our premise is simple and ripe for the ho-ho-horror and sleigh bell-tinged slaying promised by such a title. On the snowy campus of Hawthorne College, a young woman is murdered by a shadowy assailant. The killing is unbeknownst to our characters, merely setting the stage for the audience. Our story, proper, follows sorority sisters Riley (Imogen Poots), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue), and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady). With Christmas around the corner and the campus increasingly deserted for the holidays, the tight-knit girls are celebrating and enjoying each other’s company.
Putting a damper on things is a local fraternity with a vicious and misogynistic streak, one of whose members Riley has a history of date rape with. The frat boys also have an odd habit of revering the college’s founder, a well-documented misogynist and patriarchal nut job. It doesn’t help that an eccentric and unpleasant professor (Cary Elwes) heads up the gang of meathead hazers, giving them some strong leadership. That in mind, the slayings of women continue, eventually hurtling our heroines into mortal combat with the shadowy killer.
This all probably sounds familiar, remake or not, and you’d be right. Black Christmas, from its opening scene in which we’re given the poor throwaway victim stalked by a stealthy murderer cloaked in black, is a cliche in progress. Each scene is the sort of scene one might imagine in a moment’s thought when one thinks “What happens in horror movies?” Our camera sets up predictable shocks and fake-outs; a character laboriously goes back and forth, plugging in dud Christmas lights not once, not twice, but three times just so the dark room in which she’s rummaging can be illuminated, revealing the killer in waiting. At 92 minutes long, Black Christmas is merciful. At 92 minutes long, Black Christmas is an hour-and-a-half long nightmare.
The beats Black Christmas hits are not only familiar staples of slasher and horror films, but play out in ways so laughably simplistic and downright asinine that you might be waiting for a curtain to be pulled back, some grand manipulation of the audience’s expectation revealed. From the skeptical, mayonnaise-loving campus security guard who pshaws at the terror expressed to him by Riley, to the convenient boyfriend/girlfriend argument that separates Marty just in time for the killer to appear now that she’s alone. Black Christmas is the kind of movie that would play on a television set in the background in another movie.
In its scene-to-scene construction, the film is familiar to the point of ineffectiveness. But there can be merit found in a conventional piece of genre film making, right? The performances in Black Christmas aren’t where we should turn. The actors spark zero chemistry (bet they failed that class!) in their banter, which is often chalked up as throwaway lines layered in the film’s soundtrack to bookend scenes of exposition.
If there were something pretty to look at, the drab dialogue might be something you could tune out. Sadly, Black Christmas isn’t simply a dull film, but a dull looking one as well. The Hawthorne campus comes off like a set, with our holiday parties and dorms looking like the cookie cutter homes used for testing nuclear detonations. There’s at least a consistent use of whip-zooms that are unintentionally-funny in a campy ’70s way, but make no mistake: Tarantino-like homage this is not.
A film doesn’t need to perform tricky camerawork or be filmed by candlelight, swathed in beauty. But what it does need to do is create a window for the audience to peer through and immerse themselves in. Between trite and simply unrealistic school functions (nobody sings as poorly as the sisters do in an early talent show scene and ends up ladled with compliments) to predictable camera setups, Black Christmas is a mess of poor production design and set-ups.
So, not enjoyable on its technical merits, Black Christmas raises important issues immediately with the strong presence of campus rape culture. Clearly with our leading ladies at the center of the terror and, ultimately, the forefront of any triumph the film might give us, this is a film to celebrate women. A genre founded on the prop blood-drenched “corpses” of many an actress should be getting a spin when the last girl fights back, but Black Christmas refuses to assert its characters in any meaningful way beyond “Ah! Psycho killer! I’ve gotta defend myself!” Riley’s history of rape playing into her character, overcoming that trauma, is predictable at best and offensive at worst.
This is a script that makes snarky allusion to social issues and neglects substantiating; a smug frat boy leers at a potential victim, threatening violence if she doesn’t submit. “Your body, your choice,” he insults her. The characters aren’t even well-written or acted enough to come across as vile; like the innocents slain, Black Christmas is cold, rigid, and lifeless.
The holidays are a time for spreading joy. After Thanksgiving, we’re meant to be grateful for the things we have, and the final month of the year is generally considered a time where we should make an effort to make ourselves and others happy. If you’ve just seen Black Christmas, you do have at least one reason to be happy: You’ve already seen the movie, and now know to never, ever go near it again.