BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019)
Starring: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes
Written by: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe
Directed by: Sophia Takal
CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD
For my 55th birthday, I went to see one of the most divisive horror films since 2015’s It Follows. The division falls sharply along gender lines as the male viewers search for new ways to express their displeasure and the females champion its clear-eyed take on the difficulties of modern life. What has created this intense, boys-versus-girls shouting match on social media? It is director-writer Sophia Takal & co-screenwriter April Wolfe’s reimagining the 1974 slasher film Black Christmas as a polemic on toxic masculinity and female oppression. Due to its transgressive nature and unsubtle/over-the-top presentation, Black Christmas has ruined Christmas for many horror fans!
Its PG-13 rating makes it the perfect gateway movie for young people who don’t have access to R-rated films. Due to its gender-biased transgressive nature, which we will get to in a moment, it was important to Takal and Wolfe to make this film accessible to younger viewers. Wolfe wrote on social media:
“Here’s the deal: We wrote it with an R in mind … When they did the test screenings, [it] was clear that this movie needed to be available to a younger female audience because the subject matter is timely. Also, I want to indoctrinate girls into horror.” (from IndieWire).
I am certain there will be an unrated director’s cut on digital media. The cutaways and audio muffling to reduce the gore and profanities were clearly meant to keep the rating as a comfortable PG-13. While I would certainly let my tween-age children watch this movie, I am looking forward to an unexpurgated version!
Why is the concept of a horror film for young, female fans important now? Horror writers and directors are using the genre to encourage discussions about difficult topics. Black Christmas goes to great lengths to expound on many of the frustrating difficulties and fear-inducing struggles women experience while living in an openly misogynistic environment. One difficulty within the community of women is agreeing on the best way to confront prejudicial behavior. This is illustrated in the argument between sexual assault survivor and college senior Riley (Imogene Poots) and her sorority sister Kris (Aleyse Shannon). Riley pleads for a less-confrontational approach with the fraternity where she was date-raped, versus Kris’s full-on, confrontational attitude.
Horror movies are transgressive at their heart. They stir up strong emotional responses by taking the viewer out of their safe places and forcing them to reevaluate where their boundaries lie. Black Christmas is not the first female written and directed slasher. It is unusually open and upfront about the issues it presents to the viewer. It does this by making sure the characters speak loudly and clearly about their experiences, especially in a world where even the most benign men may harbor beliefs rooted in toxic masculinity. Beliefs, that at the very least, deny females their credibility and agency and, at the worst, seek to force them into the male’s version of their place in society.
Some fans have declared that sexual politics of this sort do not belong in a horror film. Many fans do not agree. One of the most common tropes faced by female characters is the constant denial of their credibility by the males, especially when they claim they are in danger or attempting to get help. Riley is continuously reminded that no-one (meaning the police, school administration, and in short, all the men around her) believes she was sexually assaulted by Brian (Ryan McIntyre), the president of a fraternity. Fraternity adviser Professor Gelson (Carey Elwes) tells her she owes Brian an apology for the difficulties her accusations have caused him.
Tellingly, the most insidious aspect of this scene is not his refutation of the crime, but that his belief that it does not matter if the crime happened or not. Riley transgressed beyond her place when she accused one of his fraternity men. It is not hard to find examples in real life where the predatory perpetrator is canonized and the victim becomes vilified.
Not only do men hurt women, but they also kill them. Another argument that these sort of politicized conversations do belong in horror movies comes from a 1996 essay by Mary Dickenson. She recounts an anecdote about Margaret Atwood. “(She) writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, ‘They are afraid women will laugh at them.’ When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, ‘We’re afraid of being killed.’” (Mary Dickenson, A Woman’s Worst Nightmare, PBS.org)
This vulnerability is the face of women, and its deadly response is the driving engine behind the action in. In the world of Black Christmas, its most transgressive moment comes when it is revealed that the men are impotent in the presence of the women they revile. They resort to using drugs, black magic, and demon possession to pursue the male-dominated vision they need to protect their fragile egos. The creepy, masturbatory rituals the fraternity brothers use show their belief in their own powerlessness.
Early in the film, Kris tells Riley, “If I were missing, I would want you to unleash the bloodhounds and track me down.” When the fraternity kidnaps Riley, she brings the surviving sisters to rescue her. The message is clear: When united against their common foe, women need to have each others’ backs, because they are fighting together for all of their lives.
My companions were considerably less impressed with Black Christmas (2019) than I was. It is not a movie for everyone and is better appreciated when that is understood. Rather than trying to make another generic, lowest-common-denominator holiday horror film, the makers presented a movie that boldly colored outside the lines of expectations. Black Christmas delivered an unexpected gift by providing a different sort of movie that deliberately aimed at educating and promoting difficult discussions about sexism and gender among young people. We may not live in a world where fraternities call on the black arts to subjugate women. We do live in a world where women get roofied, their credibility is questioned continuously, and they are made to believe they are the cause of their attacks. Knowing the correct words to call out toxic masculinity, sexism, rape culture, and other sorts of misogyny is a pretty good spell of protection.
Made Christmas horrible again10.0/10
Original, creative, and bizarre ideas.7.0/10
- Everyone needs a best friend like Aleyse Shannon
- Reason to look forward to next Christmas
- Christmas horror movie without fractured families, commenting on consumerism, or saving the family farm.
- Weaponized menorah
- Bloodless mayhem
- Gratuitous mayonnaise shot
- Talking points-style dialogue