Review: Black Christmas (2019)

Director: Sophia Takal

Stars: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Cary Elwes

In an early scene of Sophia Takal’s unfairly derided Black Christmas, Imogen Poots’ Riley is selected in her classic literature class to suppose a writer’s intention. She responds that the context-free quote speaks of how men think and women feel; that because of this it is a man’s world and women only live in it…

At the time of writing Black Christmas sits at a lowly 3.1/10 on imdb, which is disappointing since a depressing number of people will take aggregate scores like these as gospel and not try something for themselves. Consensus can be useful, but it shouldn’t be all that there is. You’ll never be surprised that way. I had a sneaking suspicion I would enjoy Takal’s film – I dug Always Shine which played like a self-aware, mumblecore Persona – but that I found so much to enjoy here is the kind of sweet cinema experience that I feel like we’re rarely afforded these days, especially if we stick to the numbers and play it safe.

The first hurdle for your expectations is that this is a remake of Bob Clark’s 1974 slasher in name only. Granted, it contains a few scant nods and, yes, it takes place at a sorority near Christmas, but otherwise cast aside notions that Takal’s film should adhere to any pre-set template. Rewriting the rules is part of this movie’s sly little mandate.

Riley is not-quite dealing with being a dues paying member of #MeToo society, having been the victim of sexual assault by fratboy Brian Huntley (Ryan McIntyre) the previous year. It’s the end of the fall semester and everyone’s going home for the holidays save a few of her sorority sisters. When a group of them perform an outspoken protest against rape culture (a zinging southpaw disguised as a Mean Girls homage), they start to receive threatening DMs. Then Riley’s friend Helena (Madeleine Adams) goes missing and, as with her assault, Riley finds her own credibility dismissed when she speaks out that something is wrong.

Black Christmas has been marketed as a fun and trashy yuletide romp, but Takal’s film is actually quite removed from that. She favours washed out frames and quiet worry, evoking a similar hushed campus feel found in Ti West’s The House Of The Devil. For much of its mid-section, this is an exceedingly evocative and even maudlin little chiller. Yes, there are jump scares, but these feel like tilts to studio notes in a film more concerned with ethereal dread and gender politics.

On this latter note, Black Christmas is fiery and vocal, and perhaps this has contributed to its sour reception. Riley’s friend Kris (Aleyse Shannon; superb) petitions ferociously for greater equality on campus and is even gunning for classics lecturer Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes) following a public altercation that’s referred to but never visually recalled. Embodying ‘woke culture’, she riles-up the all-white fraternity as the film pries into a gender war that’s only on the rise.

Not only is Takal joining a valid conversation about polemic gender ideals in US society, she’s also slyly deconstructing the slasher movie here. While at least one of the sorority sisters is played for comedic airhead points, none of her women are objectified – even during the Mean Girls number. For a subgenre notorious for its male gaze, Takal stares right back, daring audiences to blink. And she has fun doing so. The third act swerve toward the supernatural comes with a chunk of lumpy exposition, granted, but its also an unbridled hoot.

There are other slasher movie notions being rejected here, too. The final girl, for instance. Don’t count on it. Don’t assume that Takal’s young women will quit on one another. Imogen Poots is a great lead, but she is not alone, and you’ll be glad of it. There are a number of well-written characters worth caring about here and they’re better off alive and fighting than sating some fleeting, taciturn blood lust. Granted, it can be fun adhering to the ‘rules’ – its easier not being challenged – but this Black Christmas shows that bending them can produce unexpected results.

There is an odd, stilted feel to the flow of things at times, down to some wonky ADR in places and the recurring sensation that someone really took the shears to this one (for no obvious reason). Takal has shown before that she’s a filmmaker worth study, so these elements feel like outside interference in what amounts to her first big studio project. And yes, the third act is likely to split an audience – the same audience who totally went with Get Out or The Perfection; movies which made similar tonal leaps with perhaps a little more grace – but this is a spiky, thoroughly engaging endeavour that’s worth far more than has been largely suggested. It’s progressive message is blunt-force, but maybe the time for coyness is over?

It’s worth noting, also, that the men in the movie think things and are wrong, while Riley feels things… and she’s right.

So who’s world is it anyway?

Score: 

 

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