The Austin Chronicle

Black Christmas

Rated PG-13, 98 min. Directed by Sophia Takal. Starring Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Brittany O'Grady, Lily Donoghue, Caleb Eberhardt.

REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Dec. 20, 2019

Three years ago, Riley (Poots) was sexually assaulted at a college party at Hawthorne College. Now a senior, Riley tries her best to move past her trauma by being a supportive Big in her campus sorority and working behind the scenes to help the activism of her close friend Kris (Shannon). When Hawthorne breaks for the holidays, Riley and a few of her friends agree to throw an Orphans Party for those college students stuck on campus during the holidays. Until one sorority sister goes missing, then another, and soon Riley and her friends find themselves hunted by someone (or someones) they cannot see.

It’s been said that this latest Black Christmas (the third film to bear the name) is devoid of subtext, that the film possesses the political subtlety of an icicle to the chest. This makes it a tricky film for some to read. The history of horror can also be seen as the history of subversion; for many now-classic horror films of the Seventies and Eighties, the need to reach as wide an audience as possible drove more complicated ideas to the background. We’ve become so accustomed to politics being horror’s subtext that some have come to demand this as the status quo: Successful horror films feature political awareness as a secondary feature, not a primary one, and that’s just the way it is. So when something like Black Christmas comes along – a feature that demands you open yourself to its political discourse as the price of admission – it’s bound to feel off-kilter to many.

Of course, it’s this very political discourse that is destined to make Black Christmas a unique cultural artifact. This is an angry, angry movie, but the past few years have seen an increased awareness of when civility belongs – or does not belong – in our discussions. What Black Christmas suggests is that “Kill All Men” is as right a place to start a conversation as any. It’s a bold statement for a horror film, and one not without its fair share of risk, but this candor also harkens back to Bob Clark’s original feature, a movie that was anything but tight-lipped in its depiction of self-centered and dangerous men. Flipping the script – positioning the horror elements like the background and the angry politics in the center – makes this new Black Christmas a cinematic manifesto dipped in the trappings of the horror genre. However the film is received now, it is destined to be analyzed to death in college courses across the country, and that feels like a win.

Ah, but that ending. I can understand those whose enthusiasm may be tempered by its now-supernatural narrative. While the original film offered no overt resolution as to the killer and his motives, this version prefers to make the notions of privilege and power literal, leading to a final showdown that, for better or worse, will come to define this film in popular culture. It’s an idea that works better on paper than it does on the screen. Presenting power as a tangible resource passed between generations of wealthy men is undoubtedly an apt metaphor, one that also allows Black Christmas to work comfortably within the parameters of its PG-13 rating (“That’s not blood!”). Unfortunately, this also requires the film to ditch the strong character work of the first two acts, leading the movie toward a broad finish that undermines its standout relationships.

And yet, for all its political positioning and explorations of institutional violence, the thing that makes Black Christmas most endearing is the strength of its sisterhood. It’s not enough to break down a system; you have to have something ready to replace it, and in a world where families struggle to overcome political differences – where dinner tables become battlegrounds, and twentysomethings need to practice self-care to get through the holidays – what this film suggests is that the family members we choose may be the secret to our success.

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