Dec 14, 2019

Black Christmas [2019] [15]

Dir: Sophia Takal
Bad movies are most often bad by dint of being fundamentally uninteresting, whether that comes from the cast, the script, the direction or a combination of those factors, tedium and a lack of inspiration tends to be what unites bad movies. That’s - surprisingly given that it’s the second remake of Bob Clark’s 1974 grandfather of the slasher movie - not the case with Black Christmas.

Make no mistake, Black Christmas 2019 is a bad movie in all the ways that matter, but it is at least interesting and ambitious in its badness. The 2006 remake of Clark’s film copied the original while needlessly and ineptly expanding its backstory but director Sophia Takal and her co-writer April Wolfe treat this iteration as a remake in name only, with just one or two moments that nod to the original. Clark’s film is perhaps neither as well known nor as well rated as it should be, and is more thematically interesting than one might expect of a mid 70s slasher. Particularly notable, especially given that at the time of its release the procedure had only been legal in Canada for five years and the US for one, is a storyline that has the main character (played by Olivia Hussey) being pregnant and determined that she is going to have an abortion, against the wishes of her boyfriend. This feminist slant is what Takal and Wolfe grab on to in their source material. In updating it, they zero in on a story taking in many of the recent concerns on college campuses: date rape, courses dominated by a focus on white male writers, feminist activism and (generally white) men’s rights crybabies who see themselves as rebels in a culture war. It’s not a bad idea. Incels and MRAs are genuinely scary; a real world threat that it’s easy to see as the villains of a horror movie, and yet the film utterly fails to capitalise on it.

It’s great that Black Christmas has ideas, it’s a quality scarcer than I’d like these days, especially in remakes, but how it deploys those ideas matters. At a fundamental level, this is a horror film, a slasher, the film should be feeding its ideas through that form, but the two feel almost entirely independent of each other. We need to identify with and care about at least some of these characters so that we can be scared for them, and we really don’t, because they are largely as interchangeable as the women in any B grade slasher you care to name. They’re not taking gratuitous showers, so it’s less icky, but fundamentally Riley (Imogen Poots) is a total cipher, Kris (Aleyse Shannon) little more than a mouthpiece for the screenplay’s politics (politics I agree wholeheartedly with, but that’s not the point) and the others blend into the background, barely distinguishable. The guys fare little better, with only Cary Elwes’ Jordan Peterson analogue professor and Caleb Eberhardt as a blandly nice, kind of nervous, guy who’s into Riley being anything more than stereotypical frat guy cutouts. 

The characters baldly state the screenplay’s politics. There is little to no shading, little to no discernible attempt to make the ideas sound different in each character’s mouth. It ends up feeling less like a screenplay than a collection of buzzworthy words and phrases. The intent is admirable, the message inarguably a good and timely one, but the delivery is so hamfisted and so undermines everything else the film should be attempting to be that it falls flat.

It’s evident that Takal was most focused on what she wanted to say with this film, to the point that she completely botches the horror elements. At times it seems that she’s simply not interested in them. The opening sequence trades on mouldy clich├ęs of masked killers creeping around making a young woman feel vulnerable; he’s behind you… oh he’s gone… and now he’s in front of you. These sequences can be unnerving in a way that is fun as a horror fan, but Takal leans exclusively on the familiar beats. On the plus side, this sequence does contain the film’s sole memorable image; a murder victim making a snow angel as she dies. At least that is a full horror sequence, hackneyed as it is, it has some kind of structure to it. That is not true of the rest of the film’s kills, at least up until the third act. I understand, particularly given the overarching message, not wanting to dwell in violence against women, but Takal’s continual cutting away from any impact or blood and her lack of much build up to those moments neuter any atmosphere of horror. This might be compensated for if she and Wolfe built some more existential horror, a feeling of dread, but just as that possibility presents itself they opt for a calamitously stupid and poorly executed turn that makes even the politics less chilling. Again it’s clear what the intent is; to say something about the way in which insidious politics take root and grow, but it’s lost among sub X Files silliness.

It’s a genuine shame that Black Christmas doesn’t work, because there is the ghost of a truly impressive and perhaps rather groundbreaking film here. Credit is definitely due to Takal and her team for going all out with the idea of a truly modern heavily politicised slasher, but ultimately everything is undercooked. The screenplay needs work; to give the characters dimension, to cut through the declamatory dialogue and give it life and to find real scares and unease in the horror sequences. Whether the quest for a PG13 rating is responsible or it was always the intention to make a film this bloodless and free of visceral impact, that decision was a disaster as it only serves to shine a light on the film’s other flaws. On the whole, intent is important, but execution matters more, and that’s where Black Christmas misses the mark by a wide margin.   
★½

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