Producers: Jason Blum, Ben Cosgrove and Adam Hendricks Director: Sophia Takal Screenplay: Sophia Takal and April Wolfe Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt. Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Ryan McIntyre, Lucy Currey and Madeleine Adams Distributor: Universal Pictures
The second remake of Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher movie (Glen Morgan’s 2006 version is generally dismissed as a complete bomb) resuscitates the plot about a bunch of sorority sisters imperiled by a mad killer at holiday time. But Sophia Takal and April Wolfe aren’t content to offer up just another exercise in dumb splatter. They’ve added a spin intended to resonate with today’s Me Too attitudes about female empowerment and toxic masculinity. The idea of a “Black Christmas” as sharp and socially conscious as “Get Out” is a great one. Too bad they’ve flubbed it.
The heroine, though not at all your conventional last girl standing, is Riley Stone (Imogen Poots), who’s among the “orphans” at the Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority at Hawthorne College—the sisters who will be remaining during winter break, others being her pals Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue) and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady), along with Riley’s “little sister” Helena (Madeleine Adams). Riley is still traumatized after being sexually assaulted by Brian (Ryan McIntyre), the former president of the Delta Kappa Omicron fraternity (pronounce it Dick-O—Delta Kappa Sigma would have been even more appropriate), who was forced to leave campus after the accusation though few other than her friends believed Riley’s account.
Kris, meanwhile, is the activist of the bunch. She’s already succeeded in getting a statue of the college’s founder Caleb Hawthorne—a slave-owning misogynist—removed from campus, and has now embarked on a campaign to get smarmy Lit Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes) fired, partly because his syllabus proudly includes works by only dead white males. One senses, of course, that his bigotry includes lots of ethnic groups too.
Things are not well at Hawthorne. One girl (Lucy Currey) has already been murdered by a robed and hooded figure while walking home—and after receiving threatening text messages from Caleb Hawthorne. Now, after performing a song-and-dance routine at a Delta Kappa Omicron talent show explicitly accusing the frat of embodying a rape culture, Riley, Kris, Marty and Jesse are threatened at the sorority house by not one but three robed and hooded figures, and after deaths and scuffles the survivors identify the attackers as fraternity pledges.
From this point the plot devolves into nonsense about black magic and brainwashing as Takal and Wolfe try to tie everything up in a screed against men going to any lengths to restore women to a properly subservient role and punish those who refuse to comply with this “natural” order. The targeted women don’t take it lying down, of course; despite some waffling, they not only stand their ground but take the fight to their oppressors, willing to literally burn down the house of patriarchal oppression.
While one might admire the ambition of this new “Black Christmas,” the premise is unfortunately let down by the execution. What’s needed is a darkly comic tone, but except for a few moments, the script lacks the satirical edge that’s needed. That’s obvious in the depiction of most of the male characters. With a couple of exceptions—Marty’s boyfriend Nate (Simon Mead) and sweet DJ Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), who are at least half-woke—the guys are just stereotypes of sneering uber-masculinity. As for women who decide to submit to them, they find out the hard way that they’ve made the wrong choice.
But even worse is the depiction of the non-submissive women. Simply put, they’re pretty dense, from Riley on down, and spend a good deal of their time simply running helplessly away from their tormentors and, when finally roused to fight back, don’t do very well. Consider Riley—she’s repeatedly throttled and saved from being strangled to death by the intervention of a third party, and by the time of the big final confrontation she’s so slow to destroy the magical item that’s causing all the trouble that she’s betrayed, conked out and trussed up like a typical damsel-in-distress. Takal and Wolfe want to depict the sisters as strong, self-confident and powerful, but at the same time defer to the conventions of the older “Black Christmas” movies (and the multitude of others with simpering female victims). The result feels conflicted, coming across as only half-heartedly revisionist.
And as director Takal doesn’t stage the suspense sequences particularly well. The best is certainly the opening prologue with Currey, with its incongruous closing image of a snow angel; later scenes of the girls being stalked are mostly limp and confused, despite some atmospheric work from production designer Mark Robins, cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard and editor Jeff Betancourt. And the final confrontation back at the fraternity house is close to being a complete mess. The young cast do their best with the material, Poots going beyond the pale in an effort to give Riley some depth. But Elwes chews the scenery for all it’s worth as the creepy professor.
One can appreciates what Takal, Wolfe and company were attempting in their new version of “Black Christmas.” But the result doesn’t follow through on the promise; it’s neither scary nor clever enough to work as either horror movie or social satire. That makes it doubly disappointing.
By the way, this might not be the greatest date movie.