The 1970’s brought with them a plethora of horror movies that resonated to such a degree that contemporary movies still remake, reboot and borrow from them. So original and benchmarking were the films released in this decade that it is understandable that Hollywood would want to replicate the success of these golden years in horror cinema and the sub-genre’s it made way for. In those ten years alone, we were given iconic entries such as The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Omen (1976), Don’t Look Now (1973), and Halloween (1978) and that is naming just a few. These movies gave us Leather Face, Michael Myers and Pazuzu the demon and provided influences for many of the horror releases today. One particular sub-genre gathered momentum and became extremely popular within the 70’s, the slasher film.
Following on from the groundwork laid by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), movies were presenting killers hidden in the shadows, an unstoppable force intent on stalking and eventually, usually by the means of sharp implements, dispatching their victims in a variety of gory scenarios. John Carpenter’s Halloween is arguably the most recognisable and probably the one that most often springs to mind when considering the quintessential example of the slasher movie. It gave us the rules and tropes that still echo in horror releases today as they recycle and repackage the effective formula. Take the excellent and often overlooked The Guest (2014) for example, a Halloween/Terminator hybrid that sticks to a code etched into the horror headstones of the 1970’s.
One movie that tends to blip outside of the moviegoers’ radar despite already being remade 2006 is Black Christmas. As the title suggests, set during the yuletide season and it offered up the slasher vehicle to audiences much earlier than Halloween (’78), which appeared 4 years later and followed a very similar plot structure, honed and built upon the foundations of Black Christmas. The 2006 remake was a watchable yet flawed attempt, that whilst serviceable has arguably aged worse than the original. I am a fan of the 1974 film and whilst it is rough around the edges, it is genuinely scary and fun. With the first remake being so recent I was shocked to find out earlier in the year that the successful and highly regarded horror studio Blumhouse were having a third stab (sorry!) at the pie.
Set in the present day, the third incarnation of Black Christmas follows its predecessors in taking place on the campus of a college, on this occasion Hawthorne College. The narrative centres around a group of sorority sisters with the focus been Imogen Poots’ Riley. Establishing within the first 3 minutes of screen time that she is recovering from a sexual assault at the hands of a fraternity member and is struggling with the injustice of him not being held to account for his actions and avoiding prosecution. After a rather hilarious song and dance number that results in the hyper-masculine frat boys booing them off stage, the girls are then subject to a bit of murder-y behaviour performed by a masked killer.
The plot moves on briskly through the means of rather clunky exposition dumps, luckily though the level of suspense is high as you are forced to wait extra-long periods for each jump scare, of which there are many. Shadows and camera framing are used to excellent effect and it had me thinking of the methods Carpenter used in the original Halloween. How he framed the characters with open areas in the background, challenging you to imagine what or who is hiding in the dark void potentially waiting to attack. One wonderfully tense scene in which a camera is placed static and high in a hallway as a character walks back and forth between rooms ends with a jump scare that those familiar with the Exorcist III nurse scene will nod knowingly at.
So far so good then? Not quite. If only Director Sophia Takal and her co-writer April Wolf had chosen to stick to the groundwork they laid for the first 40 minutes and leaned into it rather than adding a misplaced plot twist at the mid-point that leads to a third act tonal shift that left me so discombobulated that I had little disbelief left to suspend.
There is a well-considered and strong message that is delivered from the very opening of that demonstrates a step into the realms of woke culture. These central women are all strong and have agency and it is brilliant to see them push back against the toxic male frat culture. There is a build-up that truly had me invested in what the lead characters had to say, and I was excited to see more into their machinations to break the glass ceilings of frat house douchery. But the character development falls short and there is disappointingly little flesh on the bones of all characters with exception to Poots’ final girl, and as expected she is excellent. Somewhat jarringly, the sorority archetypes are present, strong and bolshie leader, drunk and vulnerable, dizzy airhead, etc. It is unfortunate then that a film with so much to say in regard to the patriarchal systems would then present us with key protagonists who follow a linear stereotype and feels, with want of a better word, lazy.
Black Christmas does however achieve what many will want from a seasonal horror movie, fun, a few jump scares and stabby gore aplenty. A special mention to Brooke and Will Blair’s score for ramping up tense scenes. But it is not scary and doesn’t get under the skin as much as a horror film should and this is made more apparent in an era of cerebral horrors that nest in your mind for days. It is a shame then that Black Christmas 2019’s closing act could not follow through on the promises made by a subversive and interesting opening. A fun yet muddled take on a classic.
Directed by: Sophia Takal
Written by: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe
Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt