SLAY BELLES OR SNOW BALLS?
Black Christmas (15)
Director: Sophia Takal
Review: Dave Stephens
Remakes, reboots, reimaginings... It’s getting re-diculous. It’s hard to know what you’re going to get these days when you see a familiar set of words on a cinema poster. When a film sharing a title with a “classic” original is announced, it could mean; a shot-for-shot remake (“Psycho” - 1998), or a prequel (“The Thing” - 2011), or an intriguing new take on the original concept (“The Blob” – 1988 & “The Fly” - 1986). The latest example is this unexpected update of the 1974 classic slasher “Black Christmas”. Bob Clark’s seminal horror was a chilling take on an urban legend (“Get out! He’s phoning from inside the house!”), and arguably one of the most influential genre movies in the 70s, with strong female characters and an intentionally “amorphous” villain in “Billy”. The film has already been remade once by Glenn Morgan (“Final Destination”) in 2006, which took the raw concept but substantially fleshed out the backstory of Billy, managing to disappoint critics and box-offices despite a really good cast. So what’s new for this 2019 version? Well, the biggest change is (*trigger alert*) that this is a PG-13 (15 in the UK) horror as oppose to the stabby R-rated shenanigans of the previous two films. The Blumhouse production is written and directed by Sophie Takal and stars Imogen Poots, an actress who has dipped her toes in-and-out of horror with some excellent performances in the likes of “Green Room”, “28 Weeks Later”, and the “Fright Night” remake. Getting a Friday the 13th-ish release in the US and UK during December, YGROY takes a look at this seasonal slasher to see if it’s naughty or nice…
It’s nearly Christmas at the prestigious Hawthorne College, and student Riley Stone (Poots, who to be honest, looks like she should be teaching rather than attending classes) is spending the last couple of days before leaving the campus, revelling in the close friendships that she has with her sorority sisters, and indulging in a few last-minute parties. But she is distracted by the return of arrogant jock Brian Huntley (Ryan McIntyre), who she previously accused of sexual assault. As she tries to overcome her fears, she’s further distracted by a number of menacing DMs (obviously replacing the heavy-breathing phone-calls from the original). Not only that but although some of the girls have apparently left for home, they don’t actually seem to be reaching their destinations. Someone is stalking the girls, and something weird is going on…
Let’s be honest about this from the start; there is very little similarity between this film and the fantastic original. It concentrates on a few frat girls and is set in a campus at Christmas, and that’s the only direct comparison you can make. Less of a remake than you might be expecting. It doesn’t even matter that’s its set at Christmas; it could be any College vacation or circumstance that involves the campus breaking up. No carol singers are annoying a drunk Margot Kidder here. Also… yes, the trailer HAS spoilt A LOT of the plot once again and yet still manages to be misleading as to some of the content and direction. And… yes, to be blunt it does suffer from being cut down from an R-rated movie (re-edited after test screenings allegedly). The kills are bloodless, and practically all of the scares are of the false-jump or lurch-in-from-stage-left variety. In fact, it so badly fudges one jump-scare which is totally ripped off from “Exorcist III” (yes, THAT one), that you might find yourself scowling at the screen for all the wrong reasons.
Concentrating on the positives for the moment though, Takal does exhibit an assured hand in the direction, and there are a couple of genuinely creepy scenes. The cloaked bogeyman has a nice “Doctor Doom” quality about him and is pretty menacing. There are a couple of homage moments that genre fans will link to the original film; a corpse wrapped in Xmas lights, a suffocating plastic bag over the head, and a few others. The opening murder culminates in a nicely ironic “snow-angel” that has a Giallo quality about it, in addition to a well-executed moment of false security. Poots also makes for an appealing and 3-dimensional heroine, especially as she has some figurative demons to battle, as well as a masked nutter with a bow and arrow. However, beyond those points, quite a few genre fans are likely to be left disappointed.
As you might imagine from the trailer and promos, there’s a strong female empowerment motif that runs throughout the plot, which is absolutely fine but sometimes it either swamps the narrative completely or shuts it down dead. The juxtaposition and very real problem of toxic masculinity in an education system sits uneasily next to the half-hearted slasher tropes. For example, the recent horror drama from filmmaker Natalia Leite (“M.F.A.” starring Francesca Eastwood), covered similar subject matter in a much more effective and disturbing manner. Even “Knives Out” tackled some tricky social commentary whilst still giving the story room to breathe, and this doesn’t have that same sleight-of-hand confidence. This is painfully apparent (and we won’t spoil the details) when the reason for the murders is unveiled in the final act during a genuinely WTAF-is-going-on? series of revelations, which honestly don’t make a lick of sense. It just seems to try to crowbar some left-field genre references in there for no good reason when it could stand on its own as a perfectly “pure” slasher film. Really weird. Just try to man-splain the final sequence to someone who hasn’t seen the film, and you’ll see what we mean.
So there’s a weird and not entirely successful mixture of tones there. And to add slight insult-to-injury, if you think that a large proportion of the movie is going to be given over to a sisters-doing-it-for-themselves or final-girls-beat-the-crap-out-of-the-big-bad, as the promos and trailers suggest… it really isn’t. Apart from a brief contrived rumble right at the end (spoilt in trailers, natch), and a couple of archetypical slasher skirmishes, there’s nothing to compare to Sharni Vinson’s rampage in “You’re Next” or Neve Campbell’s triumphant final gun-shot in “Scream”, or any striking “She-venge” film. So you’ve got the female empowerment message, playing up against weird genre situations, all trying to reach a PG-13 audience. We wanted to like it, but it just doesn’t come together or gel as a solid genre experience. It certainly doesn’t hold a candle to the 70s film, and it doesn’t even feel like a festive film, horror or otherwise. We're being possibly over-harsh (some early reviews seem more forgiving), but that’s only because it could have been so much better, and another valid entry in the sub-genre of Christmas horror. As it stands, there was potential and skill in the ingredients for this seasonal cake, but it turned out to be a lump of coal at the end of the stocking. Rewatch the original, or “Krampus”, or “A Christmas Horror Story”, or “Gremlins”, etc.