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Non-Review Review: Black Christmas (2019)

Black Christmas is an interesting misfire.

There’s something inherently clever about using the familiar template of a slasher movie to engage with the idea of toxic masculinity and the horrors of campus culture. Sophia Takal and April Wolfe certainly have a lot to say, and producer Jason Blum deserves a great deal of credit for positioning a film like this as part of the larger “social thriller” milieu that includes films like The Invisible Man or Get Out or Us. There’s a lot bubbling through Black Christmas, and it’s great to see a slasher film dabbling in these ideas.

Take a bow.

The biggest problem with Black Christmas is that it simply doesn’t work as a horror film. In terms of basic narrative mechanics and pacing, Black Christmas is a mess. The film suffers from many of the same structural problems that haunt so many disposable horror movies; the characters are thinly sketched, the film’s slow build-up feels a little too slow and its climactic confrontations feel a little too rushed and its internal logic is close to non-existent. These problems are compounded by the fact that actually positioning this movie as a remake creates an extra level of extraction.

Black Christmas has good ideas, but is somewhat lacking in the execution.

Don’t choke.

There is a lot simmering away in the background of Black Christmas, something the film signals heavily quite early on. Riley is the victim of a date rape that was never prosecuted, having to face her rapist every day on campus. Cary Elwes is cast as Professor Gelson, a lecturer subject to criticism for prioritising white male writers on his curriculum and who talks about how modern masculinity has lost its way. Professor Gelson rails against the politically correct culture on campus, the film clearly positioning him as a figure comparable to Jordan Peterson.

Peterson isn’t the only spectre who haunts Black Christmas. Obviously, Black Christmas is informed by the harrowing statistics about sexual assaults on campus. Riley laments that she went to the proper authorities and they failed to take her complaints seriously, something that repeats itself within the course of the film. However, Black Christmas feels particularly informed by the scandal around Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was appointed to the Supreme Court despite serious accusations that he raped a woman while in college.

A blood mess.

Black Christmas is not exactly subtle. Ruminating on the influence that campus culture has in shaping broader society, Gelman speaks of using colleges as a place “to create an army of young men to take our power back”, by taking control of “courtrooms, boardrooms and congress.” It all flows downstream. When Riley reports some suspicious behaviour to the campus authorities, the half-interested campus security guard dismisses it with a casual “boys’ll be… you know”, recalling the off-cited defense of Kavanaugh that “boys will be boys.”

There’s a lot of interesting material here, most notably in the way that Black Christmas suggests that these sorts of college fraternities can become a festering ground for toxic masculinity. At one point in the film, the bust of a key historical figure is revealed to be a wellspring of toxic black sludge that contaminates and corrupts everything with which it comes in contact. Black Christmas suggests that these spaces can become places of radicalisation, with members talking about “drawing out your true alpha” and “sitting on the throne.”

Getting to the point.

There’s a lot of interesting material with a lot of bite to it, which explains why the reaction to the film has been as pointed as it has been in some corners of the internet. This is a film that very clearly has something that it wants to say about contemporary culture, and which is going to articulate that in the strongest manner possible. Indeed, there’s something to be said for Takal and Wolfe’s decision to use a slasher movie – a remake of the first slasher movie – to play this out, given the genre’s long history complicated and confusing attitudes towards women.

There’s no small irony in the fact that Black Christmas wrestles with these big ambitious ideas, while failing in a much more mundane sort of way. Most obviously, Black Christmas is not a satisfying slasher movie. Of course, it might be fair to argue that Takal and Wolfe are deconstructing the genre, but the problem is that the film spends most of its runtime dutifully cycling through the tropes and rhythms of the genre. There is an introductory kill sequence that relies on coincidence, and then a few minor characters are picked off to maintain tension before the climax kicks in.

No Claus for concern.

Black Christmas feels slightly cynical in all of this. Riley and her core group of friends spend the first half of the film exploring campus rape culture, and brushing up against unsettling examples of patriarchal abuse. However, Takal and Wolfe seem to assume that the audience demands blood, and so Black Christmas keeps cutting away from this tension by having the killers pick of stragglers from the group while Riley and her friends remain largely oblivious so that exploration of campus culture won’t be too heavily disturbed.

This creates a sense of a film at odds with itself, unable to decide whether it wants to be a critique of slasher movies or a pretty standard example of one, with those early deaths often playing as cynical pandering rather than meaningful escalation. To pick an obvious example of a film that manages to satisfy both approaches to the material, the original Scream mostly structures its early kills in a way that advance or drive the plot, rather than serving as interruptions to it.

Lightening the mood.

Even once Black Christmas settles into its rhythms in its second half, it never quite manages to find the right balance in terms of genre. Black Christmas initially looks like a simple slasher movie with very pointed overtones, but very quickly evolves into a plot that involves “black magic or something” and even “a magical bust.” These sharp swerves make sense thematically, but they are not grounded in the world of the film and so throw the movie off-balance. Black Christmas starts like Halloween and ends like Dawn of the Dead, which is a difficult switch to pull.

The problem is compounded somewhat by the decision to build this film as a remake of Black Christmas. Again, there are thematic and historical reasons why this makes sense, but the problem is that it adds a whole other level of expectations to the film. Takal has to find a way to make these killings seasonal and to pay homage to an original that was in no serious way engaged with similar thematic material. As with a lot of the rest of the film, the result is a false compromise.

Snow alternative.

Black Christmas nods towards the familiar seasonal trappings – the first murder is committed by icicle, one victim flails desperately on the ground creating a snow angel, another is strangled by Christmas lights. However, there’s nothing in the film that feels particular to Christmas. Black Christmas does hinge on the idea of the campus shutting down – the characters even talk about how this will be their last Christmas break together – but it feels like it would probably work better if it were set at the end of the academic year.

Black Christmas is a mess. It’s an ambitious and thoughtful mess, but a mess nonetheless.

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