Blumhouse has made quite the name for themselves as a studio that has one eye firmly on the major issues of the times. With such releases such as Get Out, BlackKklansman and The Purge franchise, they’ve fused their output (usually horror) with hot button topics that cover race, gender and many others that inspire healthy conversation with it’s liberal lashings of social commentary.
It’s latest release, a second remake of Bob Clarke’s harrowing 1974 seasonal slasher Black Christmas is no different, styling itself as knife wielding, snow covered slasher for the me too generation, but can the movie deliver the goods along with a thought provoking metaphor or two about the treatment of women in both the genre and, indeed, society in general?
Something sinister is going on at Hawthorne College during the festive period as young women are gradually going missing in suspicious circumstances. Robed, masked assailants (who look distractingly like Fantastic Four villain Dr. Doom – have a word, Marvel ) are killing women for an unknown agenda and the only person who’s starting to notice is Riley, a rape survivor whose accusations were ignored. But when her friends play a prank to embarrass and name the student responsible, the masked killers step up their attacks by staging a bloody siege of Riley’s dorm. What is the reason behind this rash of Christmas slayings and what does it have to do with the bust of college founder and notorious misogynist Calvin Hawthorne?
If I have a concern with movies that lean hard on putting real world issues into a genre setting is that you can have the most important message in the world, but if you don’t nail the basics of the kind of movie you’re making, it kind of defeats the purpose of what you’re trying to say. Horror has always been a notoriously political area with boundless opportunity for rigorous social commentary (Christ, George A. Romero practically built his entire career on it) but the story still has to come first and foremost. Would anyone give a monkeys about the commercialism metaphor in Dawn Of The Dead if it wasn’t a fantastically scripted lump of world building, or would anyone care about the subtle statement about Vietnam lurking beneath the carnage of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre if it wasn’t an exercise in white knuckle terror?
Regardless on whether Black Christmas is a good remake or not (it isn’t) is actually neither here nor there, what is more important is if the filmmakers manage to pull off their good intentions while putting a feminist spin on the notoriously misogynistic slasher movie – and unfortunately they don’t.
The movie starts off well, despite some frustratingly bloodless kills, by building up it’s core characters as a group of young women who know their worth and are not afraid to go out and fight for what they want. As the bodycount slowly mounts and lead character Riley (a spirited performance by the always dependable Imogen Poots) catches on to what’s happening around her the film starts to stubbornly refuses to indulge in a few things that might have made the film work better. For example, if you find yourself making a whodunit horror movie you might want to add some scares or even a hint of mystery to your movie but Black Christmas doesn’t do either, remaining annoyingly surprise free. And when the film finally does decide to reveal it’s huge, but unnecessary, twist, it ends up undoing all the hard work it’s built up so far.
By revealing a strange, supernatural, mind-control plot, the filmmakers make their message somewhat confusing – surely toxic masculinity is far scarier when it’s been taught and raised in a young male from birth to believe that not only is it right, but also natural. Suggesting that it can be explained away by coming into contact with a viscous black liquid (not unlike the what happens to Indiana Jones in Temple Of Doom) oddly dilutes the metaphor. So is it the individual’s fault or not? Can they be held accountable for their murderous misdeeds? In it’s effort to want to have it’s cake and eat it the movie seems to be strangely giving some of it’s villains a pass – maybe it’s trying to articulate that toxic masculinity is like a virus and spreads unchecked unless women stand together and fight it but the message gets all but lost in the contradictions and chaos.
A further problem is that ,even without the overt metaphors, Black Christmas is resolutely not a good horror movie. A noticable lack of tension or even a decent jump scare or two is bad enough but the film also contains a baffling lack of surprises too with every initial hunch you have about where the film is going to go next usually turning out to be right. For example, Cary Elwes turns in a performance so obvious that anyone who doesn’t instantly clock his character’s actual intentions should probably never be allowed to watch a movie ever again.
If you truly want to indulge in some horror flicks that manage to pull off a similar trick then I’d suggest you seek out You’re Next or Joe Dante’s truly chilling episode of the Masters Of Horror TV show; The Screwfly Experiment, because this new version of a legitimately unnerving classic fails as a horror, a slasher, a remake and a feminist call to arms.
It’s ambitious should be lauded but unfortunately it’s execution shouldn’t and I’m afraid it’s a piece of coal for all involved.