The new remake of Black Christmas premiered last week, complete with shrieking sorority sisters and other delights of the scream queen genre.
The film retains the central mystery from the original 1974 Canadian slasher flick: someone is stalking and picking off sorority girls one by one, and don’t look now, but the call is coming from inside the house. But other than the overarching plot, this new iteration, written by Sophia Takal and April Wolfe and directed by Takal, has little in common with the original or the ill-fated 2006 remake, both of which were written and directed by men. Wolfe recently said on the podcast “Who Shot Ya?” that she and Takal were inspired by campy slasher films of the twentieth century, and that they wanted to upset the “final girl” trope that has defined horror movies for decades. It’s clear from the beginning that this update of Black Christmas was helmed by women, as the first victim clutches her keys as a weapon of self-defence, a move women know all too well. There are scrumptious shots of high-waisted jeans, and the reminder that there’s nothing scarier than losing your menstrual cup right before a final exam. But this isn’t just a horror movie by and for women—it’s for survivors.
Riley (Imogen Poots) is preparing for a fraternity’s annual Christmas talent show at the fictional Hawthorne College, where she and her sisters are planning to reveal a parody Christmas carol about the frat’s rampant sexual assault problem. At the last minute, her own abuser, Brian (Ryan McIntyre), returns to campus to attend both the show and a bizarre hazing ritual for new frat pledges. Riley wants to hide in the crowd, but her friend Kris (Aleyse Shannon) thinks she should address Brian, who roofied and raped Riley a few years ago. Kris’ in-your-face activism doesn’t sit well with Riley— the actual victim of the crime Kris is protesting— and the way Wolfe and Takal put these opposing approaches in conversation is richly layered. Kris coerces Riley to confront her rapist publicly, leading to a satisfying argument about how to let survivors heal on their own terms.
“I thought calling out frat boy rape culture was supposed to inspire people,” Kris says, to which Riley spits back, “You’re not listening to me.” In a way, the film showcases an argument between mainstream feminism and feminist action, as the characters debate the spirit of fighting the good fight and the toll that the fight takes on women’s bodies and lives. We’ve been inundated with films this year that echo the “girl power” trend of the late 90s/early 2000s first appropriated from women’s punk bands: Captain Marvel, the remake of Charlie’s Angels, and others that preach that all you need is a little luck and lipstick to stick it to the man. Sure, Black Christmas features some glamorised shots of women yielding bows and arrows as they summon super strength to defeat rapists, but it’s less about weaponised femininity than weaponised survival.
The sorority’s stunt leads to Riley and others getting mysterious text messages from a supposed Calvin Hawthorne, the long-dead founder of the college. Soon enough, women begin disappearing and masked assailants sneak into multiple sorority houses to hunt down deviant women. The women and the mysterious villains, who bleed black ink, fight with snow shovels, carving knives, colourful Christmas lights, icicles, and other holiday props. When Riley finally meets the assailant, who’s already murdered many of her friends, the cloaked figure doesn’t just go in for the kill—he tries to rape her. In having the assailant pin down Riley’s hands and force his mouth on hers under mistletoe, Takal shows the everyday body horror of womanhood without over-sensationalising assault onscreen. The fact that Riley then saves herself by grabbing keys strewn on the floor to attack her would-be rapist is icing on the cake.
The only aspect of the film that doesn’t sit well with me is the implication that the men in the story—and the outside world—aren’t entirely responsible for their own actions, thanks to that black ink and hazing ritual. A (highly contrived) plot twist claims that the spirit of Calvin Hawthorne is controlling the minds of men on campus, from a creepy and bigoted professor to one character’s nice-guy boyfriend who goes on a sexist rant when the frat tries to breach his mind. The professor (Cary Elwes), the de facto frat/cult leader, warns Riley that soon the members will infiltrate society and “fill boardrooms, courtrooms, and the halls of Congress” with their message of violent male dominance. Takal has stated that she was inspired by the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, during which Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accused him of sexual assault, in approaching the film; isn’t a tad precarious to suggest that Kavanaugh, or anyone else, is not necessarily responsible for his decisions because he was possessed by Hawthorne? And further, wouldn’t it be scarier if the frat boys were not part of a supernatural conspiracy theory, but instead were just bad people?
Black Christmas is not exactly subtle, and much of the dialogue is overwrought with explications of both sorority culture and the slasher genre. Sometimes this can be patronising to an audience—we don’t need flashbacks to Riley’s actual rape, for example, to understand that an assault at the end of the film is analogous. But the film’s PG-13 rating makes it a gateway film for young women interested in horror, so I’ll take the overt explanations with glee.
And yes, Takal does take the “final girl” trope, which relies on the presence of one perfect, smarter, sexless woman to survive while others fall, and spin it on its head. It’s a gratifying ending, and one that’s made more interesting by the presence of a male ally who fights through the mind control to help Riley and the others. Watching the ending sequence, as Riley, Kris, and the other survivors triumph over the violent misogynists, rapists, and bigots who have harmed them, a quote from gymnast and activist Aly Raisman sprang into my mind, as she addressed her abuser in court and spoke on behalf of other survivors: We are now a force, and you are nothing.
Black Christmas is in cinemas now
by Amelia Merrill
Amelia Merrill is a writer and theatre artist from Baltimore, Maryland. An aspiring screenwriter, Amelia is a senior at Dickinson College studying Theatre Arts and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is an ambassador for Alma, where she writes about Jewish culture. Her favorite films include Love & Mercy, Marie Antoinette, and Cléo de 5 à 7. You can follow her on Twitter @Miajmerrill.