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Black Christmas (2019)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/13/19 00:05:47

"The Yawns Are Coming From Inside The Multiplex"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

The advance hype for “Black Christmas,” the second remake of the 1974 low-budget horror cult favorite from Bob Clark (who later went on to make the slightly less terrifying “A Christmas Story”) seemed to suggest that director Sophie Takal and co-writer April Wolfe were going to take the old and generally sexist slasher film tropes and reinvent them for the Me Too era. Aside from the fact that approaching the genre through a feminist perspective in a way that gives the female characters genuine agency rather than looking at them simply as helpless victims is a concept that has been deployed by any number of filmmakers in recent years (a brief and incomplete list would include the likes of “Slumber Party Massacre,” “It Follows,” “The Invitation,” “Raw” and “Jennifer’s Body,” a film that I am increasingly convinced I underestimated when I first saw it), “Black Christmas” seems like an exceptionally odd focus for such a take since the original was actually pretty progressive in its take on female empowerment, especially considering both the genre and the time when it came out. By comparison, this version is far more hackneyed and cliched, both in terms of gender issues and as a horror film, until it goes completely berserk in the last half-hour with a finale so bewildering that it boggles the mind that anyone would have considered it to be a sensible conclusion.

To be fair, this version doesn’t really share much with its predecessors other than a title, the basic plot setup of a number of female students on a college campus largely abandoned for winter break stalked by a maniacal killer, and a couple of visual touches here and there. This time around, our chief protagonist is Riley (Imogen Stubbs), who is still feeling the trauma of being sexually assaulted three years earlier by the head of the most prestigious fraternity at Hawthorne College, an act that she reported but found her claims disbelieved by the powers that be. Egged on by her fellow sisters, chiefly the politically active Kris (Aleyse Shannon), she agrees to take part in a musical performance at a Christmas party at that same frat house—with her attacker in attendance—in which she calls out rape culture in general and her attacker in particular. Meanwhile, we see a number of sorority girls being bumped off by a mysterious masked figure who seems to have wandered in from an “Eyes Wide Shut” cosplay event but since people are still heading home for the holidays, their disappearances are not immediately noticed. Before long, though, Riley and her friends find themselves under siege from a seeming army of attackers and she has to face her past traumas in order to discover who is responsible and what is driving them.

Though I cannot say that the notion of sitting through another version of “Black Christmas” particularly thrilled me, the opening scenes following Riley as she slowly builds herself up to the point where she is willing to confront her attacker through song are interesting and handled with more delicacy than one might expect to find in the average horror retread. After her performance, however, Takal and Wolfe don’t really seem to be interested in developing her character any further and none of the other characters—including her sisters, the swarms of anonymous frat boys, the lone nice guy among them (Caleb Eberhardt) and a sexist professor (Cary Elwes, in spectacularly bad form) who Kris is trying to get booted off of campus—are fleshed out at all. Instead, the focus shifts to the ensuing slaughter and while it is all staged in a relatively slick manner, little of it is especially unique and none of it is particularly frightening. (Horror fans will note with no small amount of amusement that the closest thing to a genuine scare is a direct rip-off of the most famous bit from “Exorcist III”) The film does finally make a bold break from its predecessors in the final half-hour or so when everything is explained but this section is so completely batshit crazy that if I told you the details, there is a very good chance that you might assume that I fell asleep during the film and woke up to something completely different, if not discernibly better.

To give credit to this version of “Black Christmas,” I concede that it is at least a few steps up from the 2006 iteration, which is among the most rancid of the seemingly never-ending spate of remakes of horror favorites to emerge in the last decade or so. It also has a performance by Imogen Poots that is far better than the film deserves, even though those familiar with her work may find themselves wondering why she elected to go slumming here. And yet, even at its best, this version never comes close to equalling the original, in terms of scares and the sexual politics. In other words, if you want to see a truly terrifying and disturbing holiday-related film at the multiplex this season, you had best hope that “Last Christmas” is still playing at a theater near you.

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