Do Earnest and Obvious Go Hand-in-Hand?: Our Review of ‘Black Christmas (2019)

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - December 18, 2019
Do Earnest and Obvious Go Hand-in-Hand?: Our Review of ‘Black Christmas (2019)

The thing about signs, signifiers, references, allusions, and metaphors, is that they’re meant to be grasped. It’s all fine and dandy to make your film an adaptation of “The Isty Bitsy Spider,” but if one lowly amateur film critic from Toronto is the only one to pick up on it, then maybe you didn’t quite stick the landing as much as you would’ve liked.

There does, however, need to be some level of difficulty inherent to the invocation of the outside world. Take, for example, Jordan Peele’s Us. It isn’t necessarily rocket science to suggest that the titular Us could be both ourselves, and the United States of America, but it does require audience members to think beyond the confines the screen itself. I’ve always tried to sell horror films to people on the basis of the fact that they’re inherently subversive, with the literal on-screen terrors acting as manifestations of our pervasive off-screen psychoses. Good horror films are inherently aware of this, while less successful ones err on the side of extreme bluntness.

At the same time, however, this is a binary that isn’t a hard and fast maxim. Just because something is obvious, doesn’t make it any less true or real. This is a tension that seems to be plaguing Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas (2019), the latest Blumhouse horror film to occupy a back-corner theatre at your local multiplex. How complex can you really make a metaphor that still doesn’t seem to be picked up on by the general society as a whole?

Signifiers can extend from outside the literal text, to the marketing and (in this case) the title of the film too. Black Christmas offers up specific connotations of the upper-echelon of slashers for slasher enthusiasts. Peter Smythe may not be horror villain royalty to the extent that your Freddies, Jasons and Mike Myers’ are, but I would personally have him in my canon of seedy horror movie jerks. To address the elephant in the room, I am a big fan of Clark’s original film, and it is partially the reason that I felt compelled to purchase a ticket to this iteration.

Takal’s version has basically nothing in common with Clark’s original, save maybe the fact both films feature sorority sisters as their heroines, and Takal makes use of a plastic-bag based callback. Black Christmas (2019) centres around Riley Stone (Imogen Poots) a rape victim and survivor struggling with everyday campus living, a fact complicated by the reality that her accusations against AKO fraternity Brian Huntley (Ryan McIntyre) proved to be less than successful, making Riley something of a pariah on-campus. No one believes her, save her fellow sorority sisters such as Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue) and Jesse Bradford (Brittany O’Grady in what is I guess another major connection to the original that went unreferred to prior to the credits). When Riley accidentally stumbles upon a bizarre ritual occurring in the basement of the AKO house, the lives of these sisters will be in grave peril.

I personally find the slavish fidelity to the original text perpetually clamoured for by fan groups in our time of the ubiquitous nostalgia remake gauche, and thus, I’m likely more willing than most to give this loose adaptation a chance. At the same time, I’m very aware of the drawbacks to making something titled Black Christmas (2019). A Black Christmas remake sells easier than say, a film titled Frat House Massacre, even if the content is exactly the same. Yet, by making this property again, even if it is only in spirit, you likely have to serve more masters. Takal’s first film, the excellent Always Shine, was made on the back of spit, duct tape, a relatively small potatoes Kickstarter campaign, and a whole heck of a lot of favours. Black Christmas (2019) was made for five million dollars.

If Takal didn’t have to make this for a teenaged Blumhouse audience with an ancillary, at best, understanding of Clark’s original, then she might have been more successful. At the very least, the film could be meaner, more satirical, and more horrifying. Instead, what we get is a film with the thematic subtlety of an eggcup. Did you somehow miss the fact that the film was about rape culture in the first twenty minutes? Subsequent references to Brett Kavanaugh’s “I like beer” line, an argument about how “not all men,” and a bizarre, albeit hilarious, musical number that reworks the lyrics of “Up on the Housetop” to be about what really goes on in the basement of a frat house, will ensure that you will never forget it. Does someone say “boys will be boys,” at some point? If you have to ask the question, you already know the answer.

But the more I think about this, the more I kind of like it. Previously, I made the point that the obviousness of a reality doesn’t invalidate its truth. I think that’s partially the case here. Just because the film is clearly about the horrors of rape culture, doesn’t mean that the point is any less valid. What Takal’s remake is most guilty of isn’t obviousness, but is actually earnestness. Black Christmas (2019) knows what it wants to say, and knows that it wants to say it loudly. I could do without the invocation of high-profile real-world cases, but without getting deep into spoilers, I do really enjoy some of the cleverer touches.

From a pure entertainment standpoint, the well-executed second act is the most enjoyable part of the film. Takal cross-edits between three events happening simultaneously. It’s a genuinely tense sequence. I miss the mood lighting of Clark’s original. This has a dreadfully uninteresting look to it. Poots is probably the big-name star here, and she delivers an excellent performance. I have no idea what Cary Elwes is doing as the awful, but tenured, classics professor.

The best thing I can say about Black Christmas (2019) is that it’s a future big hot mess candidate, particularly when the film goes off the rails in the third act. If I had to choose between this and Always Shine, I would take the latter, and this is as someone who tries to see every slasher film that gets a mainstream release. It’s oh so obvious and achingly earnest, but there was enough that I enjoyed both formally and thematically to openly admit that this was pretty solid.

This post was written by
Thomas Wishloff is currently an MA student at York University. He is new to the Toronto Film Scene, but has periodically written and podcasted for several now defunct ventures, and has probably commented on a forum with you at some point. The ex-Edmontonian has been known to enjoy a good board game, and claims to know the secret to the best popcorn in the world.
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