Review: Black Christmas (2019)
Winter break has come to Hawthorne College and most of the students at the MKE sorority house are getting ready to flee. This leaves Riley (Imogen Poots), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue), and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady), four strong-willed and brilliantly outspoken sorority sisters who are holding a private get-together known as “The Orphan’s Dinner,” a tradition reserved for the precious few who stick around campus for the holidays.
But not everything is “holly jolly” this Christmas. MKE is catching heat from the campus over Kris’ petitions, one of which successfully removed the bust of racist-sexist founder Caleb Hawthorne from display, and a recent prank that called out AKO, the founder’s fraternity, for its vile behavior. Meanwhile, Riley starts receiving creepy DMs from a stalker and begins to notice that other girls on campus are going missing. Naturally, a deep, dark secret buried in Hawthorne’s history starts to unravel itself and it isn’t long before MKE’s quiet holiday dinner is interrupted by uninvited guests with deadly intentions. The stragglers must work together to fend off the masked killers and survive the night.
One of Black Christmas‘ strongest elements is the camaraderie amongst its leads. These girls have their differences, their disagreements, including a heated argument between Riley and Kris early in the second act. But they also empower each other, look out for one another, and risk their own lives so the others can get away. Their loyalty together is inspiring but unfortunately (and understandably, due to genre expectations) cut short by that necessary evil known as “slasher tropes.” To compensate, writer/director Sophia Takal and co-writer April Wolfe bandage the final set piece together by introducing new characters late in the game, but they are unable to fill the void left by those characters we’ve actually invested in for the first two-thirds of the film.
Strangely, Black Christmas is at its least satisfying when it follows traditional slasher setups. Apart from an effective jump scare (an homage to Exorcist III’s brilliant set up, as I’m sure many, many reviews have already noted), the film isn’t scary, not in the traditional sense. Perhaps this is because, as Takal is clearly aware, faceless masked killers wielding arrows are less scary compared to grin-faced men wielding opportunity?
Like its characters, Black Christmas is strong-minded and doesn’t mince words about real life issues, such as sexism, toxic masculinity, and rape culture. Its lead, Riley, as we learn early in the film, is a victim of sexual assault. Her assailant was Brian (Ryan McIntyre), AKO’s fraternity president, who drugged and raped her. Only her friends believed her and he got away with it with not even so much as a slap on the wrist while his frat-brothers give Riley flack for her “false accusations.” In another scene, she saves one of her friends, Helena (Madeleine Adams), from being assaulted, for which frat-guy storms off with the usual “You bitches are all the same” tirade.
With the outright progressive, political nature of contemporary movies becoming a hot topic amongst the horror community, it’s not hard to imagine the film coming under fire for its lack of subtly in regards to what is often labelled as “virtue signaling” by those who often see “agendas” in their soup. But that’s what I love most about the movie, it’s fearless, empathetic, straight to the point, addressing issues the way they have to be addressed in the real world, vocal and head-on, and it is not like any of these elements are inorganic to the story Takal and Wolfe have written, but instead very much at the heart of it. Films are often criticized for their candidness, but such issues, virtues, and yes, agendas aren’t subtext in the real world, they are the text, whether people choose to see them or not. Why should film be any different?
Unfortunately, as Black Christmas rises to the occasion with its social commentary, it falls short of weaving it into a compelling horror film. The biggest problem is the story suffers from an imbalanced structure. The first act has a lot of tedious build up, the second act starts way too late, and the third act is burdened by introducing things that should be revealed in the second. Because the film takes it time to advance its premise, teasing the mystery, establishing a superfluous character (Landon, played by Caleb Eberhardt), and a number of other extraneous bits, it isn’t until we near the halfway point that we get to “The Orphan’s Dinner,” and that’s where the premise really heats up.
A major casualty of this are a pair of revelations (including a supernatural element) that would’ve greatly benefited from unfolding earlier in the film, but are undercooked as a result of being pushed to the climax. As it was revealed in the trailers, it should come as no shock that the AKO frat bros are the masked foes. Even if the previews weren’t so forthcoming, it’s fairly obvious from the first time you see them, from the first time they’re even mentioned, they’re the bad guys. At first I thought that hindered the mystery, but the more I think about it, the more I realize there didn’t need to be a mystery, that pretending there even was a mystery held the film back Because in the real world, there is no mystery, you often know who the bad guys are. In the real world, they don’t wear masks.