Despite usually being immediately disregarded by critics, horror films have always been far smarter than they get credit for. Through extreme situations and storylines, they’re often able to contain a subtext that’s trying to either make a bold statement or provoke mindful thought.
Sometimes however, a horror film (or any film for that matter) tries so hard to convey a specific theme or agenda that it completely overshadows the film itself. 2019’s Black Christmas is one such example. But before we delve too deeply into it, there are two important disclaimers to remember.
Firstly, this is a review of the 2019 version, and not at all a comparison to the previous two iterations (we’ll be posting a specific article for that next week). So we will refrain from mentioning anything about the 1974 or 2006 versions and simply review this film on its own merits.
And secondly, we’re not at all discounting or disputing the film’s overall theme itself. We’re just evaluating how that theme works in service to the overall narrative. So without further ado, let’s dissect (no pun intended) 2019’s Black Christmas!
Spoilers Ahead – But given how much the trailers already gave away, there’s not much left to spoil!
Message Over Story
Right away, we get a decent cold open kill as a sorority has their Christmas party, but one sister is walking alone at night, telling her friends over the phone that she’s heading home and won’t make it.
We get some legitimate tension as she’s being followed and kind of a cool “snow angel death” (which was already shown in the trailers) that makes for a nice Christmas-y but sinister aesthetic.
From there we’re introduced to our trio of sorority sisters, Riley (Imogen Poots), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), and Marty (Lily Donaghue). Riley is more the protagonist than the other two, and to be fair she’s the most developed and has something of a character arc from beginning to end.
Her backstory includes a tragic case of sexual assault, which she still struggles with PTSD over. Her friend Kris, on the other hand, feels like a one note caricature whose personal agenda represents the primary issue with this film.
Throughout its runtime, Black Christmas ensures to promote its anti-misogynistic moral with every line of dialogue and every single scene. To be very clear, the message itself is 100% true and accurate. However, there’s a difference between a subtle subtext that the audience must infer and beating the audience over the head with the message just to make sure even the most dimwitted of viewers can’t question it.
This is most evident in the treatment of the film’s primary villain, Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes). We’re told immediately that Kris has a petition to get him fired due to his sexist views, and he can’t go more than five minutes in class without bringing this up. The whole time he does nothing but act creepy and suspicious, then we’re supposed to act like his villain reveal is a “twist”.
Much like Kris, Gelson feels like an exaggerated version of what the film wants us to think a misogynist is. The issue with this however, is that misogynists are very real in our society and they’re usually not as cartoonish and over the top as this.
It’s far more subtle, but this film doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of that word. It purports that sexism is perpetrated by people like this, when it fact it exists among many who aren’t as overt about it.
Decent When It Remembers to be a Slasher
About halfway through, the film remembers that it needs to a be slasher, and to be fair, it’s not bad once this starts. Despite its PG-13 rating, it still manages to convey suspense and terror. In fact one could argue it’s even scarier because we don’t actually see every kill, and we’re left to imagine how horrific they were.
We get some fun and creative kills. In addition to the previously mentioned “snow angel” kill, the bow and arrow is fun, as well as a nice callback to the original where Riley suffocates one of the killers with a plastic bag.
It serves as a nice tribute and subversion to an iconic piece of the original film. Plus, the idea of a whole team of killers elevates the tension, because even as the sorority sisters kill each one off, we’re never sure if another is right around the corner.
This is also the only version of Black Christmas which diverts from a single psychopathic killer and goes full supernatural. The concept of fraternity pledges being possessed to kill is just absurd and interesting enough to make for a decent slasher film. It’s a shame because in areas like this, the film has a lot of potential. But it really gets bogged down in its own morals and messages.
And ultimately, this is the primary issue with this film. It has an important moral to tell, but doesn’t trust its audience enough to understand it.
Its regard for the viewer’s intelligence is so low that it feels must spoon-feed. At its core 2019’s Black Christmas is a PSA first, and horror film second. Not that there’s anything wrong with the former, but this film is marketing itself as the latter.
It seeks to tackle sexism and misogyny the same way that Get Out tackled racism. However it simply doesn’t have the sharp and witty writing or the subtext that Get Out had.