Squad Talk: Misogyny, Messaging and Subtlety in ‘Black Christmas’ (2019)

Black Christmas

The second remake of definitive slasher (and AOAS favourite) Black Christmas is the first iteration to be written and directed by women. This time around writer April Wolfe and Sofia Takal (who also directs) spin a tale of a fraternity of men who target outspoken women, though there is more going on than what audiences may expect.

In this spoiler-filled free-for-all, the AOAS Squad breaks down the film…

Overall Impressions

GINA: For me, the 1974 version still reigns (easily). This version is okay, but it officially lost me about half-way through, with its shifting tone and efforts to cram in too many horror elements (slasher, cults, the supernatural, black magic, etc.)I feel like the first two would have sufficed. 

I appreciate that this new iteration tries to honour the original; that it’s really a version for a new generation; and that its feminist approach tries to make space for difficult topics, but honestly, it feels like #MeToo overkill. It REALLY beats you over the head with it, and there isn’t room for anything else in the narrative. Apparently, it’s better than the 2006 version, though (which I admittedly haven’t seen).

I can’t help but wonder at some of the self-serving choices in the film, such as why some of these strong, aware, activist women would bother attending a college like this (with an extremely problematic, misogynistic founder) in the first place…?

Black Christmas

VALESKA: I’d think that most of the prestigious schools would have some sort of sordid history and that there are a number of reasons someone would make the decision to enrol at a particular institution—location, reputation, scholarship opportunities, or a particular program or professor. Sorry, just nitpicking, and maybe a little defensive as the University of Toronto doesn’t exactly have a spotless reputation (though the campus is beautiful, as you can see in the first iteration of Black Christmas)! 

As for the film…I wanted to like it a lot more than I did. I didn’t walk out of the theatre feeling thrilled with the film as a whole, but I did emotionally connect with various aspects of it. I agree with Gina that it is a little heavy-handed at times, but I think that it is a film borne of tremendous anger in tremendously angering times. This isn’t a subtle whisper—it is a primal scream. It directly references events like the Kavanaugh hearing, firmly grounding it in our current traumatic dystopia. 

I really appreciated the scenes that dealt not with supernatural horror, but with the horror of rape culture. The dialogue was a little on-the-nose throughout, but scenarios connected with me—the coffee shop scene where Riley (Imogen Poots) is forced to serve her rapist’s best friend and apologist was so real and so gut-wrenching. I loved the catharsis of the frat house scene with the incredible call-out song. And I liked that the film dealt with the difficulty in talking publicly about survivorship, both in terms of dealing with disbelieving institutions like the campus police and in having to police one’s own words, as in the scene where Riley discovers that a video wherein she talks about her assault has been uploaded. 

Also: can we talk about how fun it is that they gender-swap Claude and make her Claudette, and how cute that cat is??

Black Christmas 2

VINCENT: The strongest thought I left the theatre with was “thank goodness they went for PG-13.”  I don’t want every horror narrative to feel pressured into including rated-R levels of on-screen violence and sex. Restraint in on-screen violence and sex can be an important filmmaking choice for many reasons. One of those reasons is accessibility. Accessibility is not just about who the theatre is allowed to let in the doors, it is also an awareness of how your film will affect your audience and knowing whether or not these effects will target some people more than others. 

With sexual assault and violence against women being the key focus of Black Christmas, I don’t know if I would be able to enjoy the film if it was a gore or skin fest. Furthermore, the type of violence associated with gore should not be the default of scary. Yes, stabbings, bludgeonings, and beatings are horrifying, but I find the frequent use of choking in this film to be equally horrifying because of its connection to reality within the film’s context. Strangulation is one of the biggest signs that an abusive relationship will turn fatal, and that makes the use of choking in a movie about targeted femicide pertinent. 

JOE: I don’t disagree with Vincent about the issue of accessibility, because it seems evident that young women can really benefit from being able to see the film and connect with its message. My issue is that the film wasn’t shot in a way that easily allowed it to be edited from an R to PG-13, so the missing gore plays like a phantom on the edges of all of the violence. It’s distracting because the audience knows that it’s there, but you never get to see it and that detracts from the viewing experience.

Overall, I think Black Christmas is *fine.* It’s not subtle about it’s intentions and the third act doesn’t work for me (though accusations that it comes out of nowhere are clearly a preference because there’s plenty of anticipatory groundwork laid earlier in the film). My biggest gripe: there’s simply not enough time with these women so they’re not fully fleshed out. I would have preferred a longer cut that allows Riley, Kris, Fran and the others to just be themselves without the need to get straight to violence.

Black Christmas

Performances 

GINA: Cary Elwes’ Mid-Atlantic accent is awkward, distracting, and wholly unnecessaryit doesn’t add anything useful since he already stands out as a sinister character from the get-go, and it really only contributes to the sense of caricature that swallows the rest of the film. 

Imogen Poots is decent as Riley; I think she does what she can with the role. Other than Kris (Aleyse Shannon), and the occasional glimpses of the sister missing her Diva Cup (whose name I admit I can’t recall), the other characters are relegated to either shitty male archetypes or to the flat, two-dimensional sorority sister archetype.

VINCENT: To be both simple and blunt, none of the performances stand out as particularly great. Its main triumph in performance is that many of the characters come off extremely endearing, which is certainly nothing to turn your nose up at. Character likability can sometimes make or break a movie, but, in this case, it unfortunately is not enough to elevate Black Christmas’s memorability. I did leave the theatre with a crush on Fran, the Jewish character who lost her Diva Cup, though. 

VALESKA: Yes, Fran is adorable. I really enjoyed Imogen Poots as Riley. Caleb Eberhardt is fun as Landon. Didn’t care much for Cary Elwes.

Black_Christmas

CC: Fran is super cute and I liked her flitting in and out of scenes. I think that the biggest issue I had with the performances in general were that they weren’t really given enough to work with. Imogen Poots and Aleyese Shannon were really trying with what they had, but it felt like they were treading a lot of water in the majority of the scenes. 

JOE: I agree with CC wholeheartedly. Like Vincent and Valeska, Fran is a delight, but she’s killed off so quickly that she’s barely even present. This is especially problematic when we get to the third act and we’re left rooting for a group of sorority girls that we’ve barely had any contact with earlier in the film.

In truth, only Poots really worked for me. I find her incredibly likeable as an actress and she’s the one character with a fully fleshed out backstory. Shannon is fine as Kris, but I really dislike the way the character addresses trauma, so that tainted my appreciation of the character.

Film Title: Black Christmas

Technical (Set, Lighting, Direction, Writing)

GINA: It is always fun to see horror happen amongst bright red and green Christmas lights, which offer a great contrast. Unfortunately I found the writing to be pretty repetitive, particularly the pacing and set-up of action cues. 

I feel that there could have been a better way to communicate a lot of the feminist content without constantly having the characters shout trendy lingo about it. The Christmas pageant at the fraternity is probably the most interesting/engaging display of it though.

VALESKA: 100% agreed on the lighting, I loved that aspect. It actually made me want to invest in some Christmas lights myself. I do agree that a lot of the political content was not integrated into organic conversation as well as it could have been.

VINCENT: I found the script to be cheesy, but in a harmless, perhaps even positive way. I have talked before about feminist narratives in movies often falling short of what I find effective. It’s my belief that giving praise to half-assed feminist messages, or calling any film that features a woman a feminist triumph, does more harm than good because it waters down the objectives of creating feminist media, which should be to push standards forward. 

Black Christmas is so heavy-handed in its messages that it can come off as cringey to more mature audiences. However, its failure in nuance does not equal a failure in identifying and delivering necessary messages. I think April Wolfe and Sophia Takal succeeded in writing a strong feminist film, it just happens to be one that is more palatable for a younger audience, rather than an older one. 

Black Christmas

CC: I agree with Gina, Valeska, and Vincent completely. I think this is definitely aimed towards a younger audience with the overt, topical, and repetitive feminist lingo andthough I would have loved to see something with more more finesse in terms of handling plotI thought it was enjoyable. The subversion of the Christmas backdrop is super fun and clever to watch. 

JOE: If you consider who the audience for the first is, the more obvious, on-the-nose dialogue and messaging of the script makes sense. Takal and Wolfe aren’t trying to be subtle because they want to ensure young girls understand that the behaviour of men in the film is unacceptable (the way that some men react to the film is reflective of just how vital it is that future generations of women feel empowered to stand up and *figuratively* fight back). 

As for technical elements, the editing really, REALLY did not work for me, so I’m hopeful that a future Blu / VOD release will give us a better sense of how Takal shot the film’s action sequences. They’ve been chopped to hell here, but considering how deliberate she was in Always Shine, this is a poor representation of her capabilities as a director. 

sorority-girls-fight-back-in-new-black-christmas-trailer-1200x630

Memorable Setpieces & Scares

GINA: I enjoyed the nod to a famous Exorcist III jump scare that happens about mid-way through, when one of the sisters darts in and out of rooms, searching for Claudette. The inching pan across the upstairs landing-way serves that scene really well. 

And the attic scene where a sister is searching for extra lights builds up to a spooky reveal, but the back and forth is, again, too repetitive and makes the moment of the reveal too obvious and too easy. 

The second act sorority house attack sequencewhen the small handful of sisters fight off the omnipresent cloaked cult membersis decent. And the initial snow angel murder is fun to open on, though it makes it hard to take the rest of the film as seriously. 

Valeska: The supernatural storyline didn’t work as well for me. I read the possession piece as a reference to the act of red-pilling, and I think that it’s an interesting metaphor in that sense. However, as my friend Adam (a writer at Bloody Good Horror) observed, the inclusion of the possession narrative sort of undermines our ability to hold the murderous men wholly responsible for their actions. Adults may be led to commit harm via harmful ideologies, but it isn’t a completely involuntary process.  

The horror parts of the film fell a little flat for me, as much as I enjoyed many of the non-horror sequences. The army of faceless killers worked for me on a symbolic level but not a cinematic one; it sapped the tension from the film. That said, I am very glad that the film exists and hope that we see more like it, though perhaps with a more artful blending of the sociopolitical and the cinematic.

Black-Christmas

CC: I think that my favourite part is that the majority of the blood in the film is the black gooey gunk. I think that part was super well handled, especially for a violent PG-13 film. 

I do have mixed feelings about the paranormal aspect of the film, but I interpreted it more as a manifestation of systemic and toxic masculinityI definitely do see how it could be read as undermining it, as well. I’d say the use of the ‘dog whistle’ noise that the guys outside of the fraternity hear is the honourable mention of clever set-pieces. 

JOE: Black Christmas is at its best in the second act when the violence unexpectedly erupts in the sorority house. The initial full attack on Marty, Kris and Riley with the crossbow and in the kitchen is (minus the bad editing) really enjoyable. Unfortunately that high wears off for the exposition-heavy finale, which suffers the worst from bad editing (some of the action borders on incomprehensible). 

Just like Gina, I also enjoyed the plugging in Christmas lights scene and The Exorcist III homage. There’s good stuff here, even for those who dislike the film’s PG-13 take on violence and gore.

Black Christmas

The (Twist) Ending / Third Act

GINA: It’s not something I’ll really be dwelling on hereafter. And, for a film that pushes feminism (and in some cases, straw feminism at that) so overtly, it still relies on a male character, Landon to come to Riley’s rescue, after he awakens from his culty black goo hypnosis. 

VALESKA: I mentioned my thoughts about the supernatural aspect above, but I do enjoy the multiple sorority houses banding together to take down a small corner of the patriarchy and how that ties into Jesse’s (Brittany O’Grady) ant simile from the earlier scene. Overall, I wasn’t incredibly emotionally invested by this point, unfortunately.

VINCENT: I’m not a big fan of the supernatural twist. Most importantly, I agree with everything Valeska said in the last section about the supernatural aspects taking away from the murderous men’s accountability. 

Less importantly, as someone whose favourite horror subgenre is slasher, I’m almost always disappointed when films shy away from a simple slasher narrative. My opinion will always be that there is nothing scarier than a real person deciding to kill you horrifically for no good reason. 

One choice I really liked is Helena’s betrayal. Her last statement, “but I did everything I was supposed to,” is both haunting and a necessary addition to complete the message of the film. Internalized oppression is key to understanding oppression in any form. Too many times people use the excuse “ but I know a girl who agrees with [insert sexist stereotype here]” as an excuse to stay willfully ignorant. 

For some women, scenes like Lindsay holding her keys between her fingers will trigger their personal experiences; for others, it will be the harder-to-watch scenes of sexual assault that are triggering. For me, it is Helena. Helena’s storyline is what sticks with me the most specifically because of the real-life women I know who would set themselves on fire to please men. The frustration and sadness I feel for these women, who include my own mother, is easily transferable to Helena in her last scene. 

Black Christmas

CC: I have to say that I was not fulfilled with the climax of this movie. I think that there were smart efforts, but ultimately everything just fell flat for me. I think that there are deeper readings into the director’s choices, but that the movie moves past them too quickly for the audience to really discern them. I’m with Gina: I don’t like that Landon comes to the aid of Riley at all, but the movie ending with two individuals (and their friends) from marginalized groups coming together to burn the patriarchy is very satisfying. 

JOE: While I would have loved to see all of the women back at the sorority having breakfast, the final image of the burning frat house is pretty great. Who among us hasn’t wanted to burn toxic masculinity/the patriarchy to the ground? 

I have found it odd that some people have (mis)interpreted the end of the film as excusing the behaviour of men because they’re under the influence of the Founder’s black goo. That’s clearly the case for Landon (and, briefly, Marty’s boyfriend, Nate, who reacts to the dog whistle). There’s still, however, an entire room of unpossessed men in the tribute room, including Riley’s rapist and Elwes’ Gelson. The film is far more damning of them and their desire to spread their misogynistic rhetoric into capitalism and politics. Heavy handed? Sure, but, let’s be honest, there’s ample evidence that women-hating groups active recruit assholes like this and groom them.

With that said, like Vincent, I would have preferred a more straightforward slasher. The supernatural element feels more like an effort to distinguish the film from traditional slashers and I’m not sure it was required (particularly when the second act works so effectively). This is what Takal and Wolfe decided on, though, so…we just have to deal with it!

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