For hardcore horror fans, Black Christmas is sacred, a film that in many ways created a bloody blueprint for the slasher genre. Though the film was remade (and well enough, too) back in 2007, the latest take — opening today just in time for Friday the 13th — has been met with some backlash due to its seemingly bold reboot of the narrative. Remakes can be tough. Audiences are understandably tired of them, as they are often lazy rehashings (read our list of horror remakes that actually did it right here). And yet, when writers and directors try to do something fresh and different from the source material, they are accused of not respecting the original and what fans loved about it.
In the case of the original Black Christmas we’re talking about a low-budget schlocker from the ’70s that might not seem like anything special to modern audiences, but really was in context of the times (it was the debut of Bob Clark who went on to make another yuletide classic, A Christmas Story). In the wake of Halloween (plus sequels), Scream (plus sequels), Scary Movie (plus sequels), Freddy, Jason and more recently, American Horror Story’s campy kill-filled hodgepodge, everything about this kind of movie is familiar: the mysterious figure in the shadows going on a merciless murder rampage of pretty (often promiscuous) people (often female), slicing and dicing them until only one is left standing, at which point she finds the strength to defeat her maniacal tormentor. On the surface, the slasher narrative appears sexist — women who enjoy, sex for example, tend to die first while virgins tend to live — but most of them are in fact quite the opposite, depicting empowered women in stand-offs with their attackers, and usually kicking their ass.
Which brings us to the new version of Black Christmas. As in the two previous films, it takes place during winter break in a small college town. Hawthorne College, named for its founder Calvin Hawthorne (not the L.A. suburb) has, like many college campuses, fraternities and sororities each possessing all that you’d expect in a stereotypical movie scenario — rapey, entitled guys; sassy and sisterly gals; etc.
After putting on a little skit at the Delta Kappa Omega Christmas show (reinterpreting the sexy Santa dance from Mean Girls as an accountability call-out on assault), our heroine Riley (Imogen Poots) and her sorority sisters at Mu Kappa Epsilon become the targets of a cloaked killer representing himself as the long-dead founder of the college, a figure whose problematic history led Riley’s bestie Kris (Aleyse Shannon) to get his bust/statue removed from campus and stored — where else? — in the misogynistic frat house. The frat is helmed by Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes, who has really come full circle from his Princess Bride days, now a villain of choice in creepy fare, and fresh off his smarmy Stranger Things stint).
Kris’s protest-minded, petition-pushing ways are neither celebrated nor critiqued, only presented as they are: a reflection of the millennial/Gen Z mindset today. Later in the film, when the death toll rises and the situation gets more dire, there are glimpses of introspection from the main characters and there’s a boyfriend who attempts to represent the male point of view (frustrated by all the “man-hating” these days) but for the most part the villains here — or more accurately monsters — are men. Produced by Blumhouse, there’s nothing subtle about writer/director Sophia Takal’s script (she co-wrote it with former L.A. Weekly movie critic April Wolfe), and for the most part, it nails its intended targets, especially as it reflects the way young adults speak, act and feel today, post #MeToo, Brett Kavanaugh and terror of the Trump era.
But suggestive or threatening texts or DMs got nuthin’ on the eerie ring of a rotary phone, especially since we’ve all been victims of the former at this point thanks to dating apps and social media. The storyline’s supernatural subtext (we won’t spoil it, but it’s a bit hokey) is also a hard sell, which Riley acknowledges near the climax.
Also, the choice to go PG-13 on the gore and thrill level for this reboot makes it feel more like a TV movie than a feature film. Still, it was probably the right choice for the intended audience. My 13-year-old daughter seemed to enjoy it more than I did, though she viewed it as cultural satire. And to the new Black Christmas’ credit, it sparked conversation afterward about patriarchal society, toxic masculinity, and sexism, but also stereotyping, cyberbullying and cancel culture — scary real life stuff that’s sadly only gotten more insidious since the original Black Christmas brought a chill to our spines. Happy Holidays.