“Black Christmas” made money off its minuscule budget, but ultimately went under the radar. I remember seeing the previews, but they looked formulaic and gave too much away. A group of women college students are stalked over Christmas break. That could go either way.
I was reminded of it recently while doing some research. I run a weekly feature on this site that highlights new movies directed by women. “Black Christmas” wasn’t new, but it was coming available on a subscription service for the first time (HBO Max). It was a thin week for new entries, which coincidentally never seems to be a problem for the number of films handed to men. Point is: I had some time to delve.
“Black Christmas” has just a 3.3 rating on IMDB. That’s out of 10. Awful. But once I started reading those user reviews, I realized why. Review after review complains about the movie’s feminism. This sometimes happens on IMDB and other sites with user scores when a film is particularly feminist or anti-racist. The reviews get brigaded from other sites that sent their users to tank the score of a movie, book, video game, whatever it might be.
I went to Metacritic. I hate aggregating sites because the scores themselves are largely meaningless. What they’re useful for is compiling most of the ‘print’ reviews that are out there. Among women critics, 7 of 8 scored “Black Christmas” above a 50. Among male critics, only 7 of 16 scored it above a 50. One non-binary critic scored it above a 50.
That there are twice as many men published as women only serves to bring the score average down even more. That’s part of what I mean about the scores being useless. Women scored “Black Christmas” nearly 20 points higher than men – an average of 63 to 44.
You came here for a review, not Maths ‘r’ Us. The point is, that marked a difference between how women and men experience a film is always worth investigating. It doesn’t always mean the film will be great, but it does tell us that something worth knowing is happening there. “Black Christmas” jumped to the top of my to-watch pile. That difference between women liking a film and men disliking it can often lead to a hidden gem.
Preamble done, is it any good? Fuck yeah. I have never seen a film so clearly and obviously demonstrate why that brigading and split happened as a reaction. “Black Christmas” is an entire conceit about the nature of that misogynist brigading and reaction as a toxic social construct.
Ugh, that sounds philosophical. It’s supposed to be a horror film. You know what – why not both? That’s what makes “Black Christmas” unique. It’s both a successful, enjoyably tense horror film and it’s a crystal-clear critique of systemic misogyny.
Riley and her sorority put on a sketch right before December break. It calls out one of the frat houses for sexual assault. Little do they know that they’re poking at a literal cult of toxic masculinity. They each start getting threatening texts. Friends start disappearing, and the matter is confused by who just went home for break and who actually went missing.
Riley is played by Imogen Poots, an indie horror veteran who manages to both energize and ground the films she’s in. She always seems to truly inhabit the world of a film. Her characters are invested in the other characters around her. She plays to them rather than the camera, and when you can see she’s listening to the dialogue, you do, too. She’s an exceptional choice here because too many of the characters around Riley don’t listen to her. That contrast helps you identify with her frustration.
For instance: why not go to the authorities? There’s the caring, charming Professor Gelson, whose rampaging misogyny resides in plain sight but is often excused and forgiven due to his accent and beautiful eyes and the fact that he’s brilliantly cast as Cary Elwes playing against type.
There’s campus security, that doesn’t want to get off its ass and so dismisses the concerns of women students as hysterical overreaction. And if that seems painting by a broad brush, you’ve apparently never had to ask anything of any campus security department.
Riley’s best friend Kris, played by Aleyse Shannon – well the two listen to each other except when they run past each other or are so eager to make a point that they stop listening. It’s an interesting dynamic to have two characters who listen to and care for everybody else, yet who understand and care for each other so well that they’ve sometimes stopped listening to each other enough. It feels real and it gives their dialogue a history and texture that does a lot to fill the film’s world out.
Riley, Kris, and the ever-decreasing number of sorority women are left to deal with things falling apart on their own. Since their authority figures believe they’re scaring themselves at nothing, they have to wrestle with whether to trust their own survival instincts or disregard what to them is a blatant threat.
Lo and behold, horror ensues.
I was expecting a fun, underrated horror movie with some points to make. Oh, sweet summer child who was me from before I watched this, “Black Christmas” is a fucking pissed off movie. It is a much more slow-burn horror movie than it looks. It has that patient, slow build I look for in horror. The directing draws from a lot of different eras, but one of the elements comes unexpectedly from giallo films – from Italian horror in the 70s and 80s. There’s a sense of being a fly-on-the-wall, of watching a protagonist figure out what to do next in a space bigger than herself. Murders mostly don’t happen in shadows or in alleyways, they happen in empty, vacated spaces where there’d usually be witnesses. It’s not just authority figures that are obstacles, it’s the mood of a place, it’s the architecture, the layout, how long a walk in the cold is.
We tend to think of our understanding of characters in American horror as relying on closeness. We’re close to them in dangerous situations. We’re right there in the dark next to them, afraid with them, shoulder to shoulder. Here, we’re not. It’s more about how small Riley is, how all-encompassing a terror is when it’s everywhere, when it doesn’t need shadows to hide, but it can lurk unseen in broad daylight or murder in the blaring glow of Christmas decorations on a residential street. It’s about whether Riley’s determination and community can overcome some eerily, physically realized sense of the world looking the other way.
It’s an inversion of giallo’s visual and architectural tropes that often delighted in that perverse sense of witnessing what you shouldn’t. Here, you’re witnessing what you should, but no one else is and no one else cares.
That asks for a different kind of closeness that relies not on a viewer’s fight-or-flight instincts, but rather on empathy. If we can understand and identify with what it feels like to be in that situation, we’re watching horror on an entirely different level. Here is someone overwhelmed, swept up without a clear way out. The directing by Sophia Takal deserves far more credit than she’ll ever get.
“Black Christmas” does a heel-turn on mood about two-thirds of the way through. The reveal of what it’s built around is jarring for a half second until you realize it’s also pretty brilliant. The tone changes from old-fashioned, slow-burn suspense into a more modern pop horror. Does it work entirely? It’s well done while also feeling just a touch rushed. More to the point: I don’t really care, because the change that it makes is needed and vital. It’s on the pulse of a theme that runs through the entire movie, and any other route wouldn’t let “Black Christmas” tackle that theme so head-on.
What “Black Christmas” is before anything else is blatant. It doesn’t want to code what it’s saying, it wants to say it outright and confront you with it. Do I understand why women critics liked it and men disliked it. Yes. Easily. If I couldn’t, I should give up being a critic.
I’ve actually sat on this review for a week because I wanted to process it more. The truth is, I’ve held off on watching much of anything that demands a lot of attention since the election. I’d been processing, waiting for something in my brain to tick over from then into now. Voting counts taking needed time, Trump’s objection to voters voting, and his subsequent attempt at a coup haven’t really helped. I wanted to recognize some harder boundary between Trump and the sense that moving on is so close.
I forgot that you need input to do that, but I’m also thankful that I delayed enough for this to be that first major artistic input. I’m so god damn glad this is the first movie I’ve watched since Biden and Harris won the election. I’m relieved it was something this pointed and this unapologetic about it – because ultimately, “Black Christmas” is about so many of the factors that contributed to the last four years, condensed into a horror conceit.
Does “Black Christmas” Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “Black Christmas” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Imogen Poots plays the main character, Riley. Aleyse Shannon plays best friend Kris. Lily Donoghue plays Marty, Brittany O’Grady plays Jesse, Madeleine Adams plays Helena, Nathalie Morris plays Fran, Zoe Robins plays Oona, Lucy Currey plays Lindsay.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. They talk to each other about a sketch they’re putting on, about feminism and racism, about curriculum and reading, feminine hygiene products, holiday plans, cats, selecting a Christmas tree, the list goes on. It’s one of the few films where women seem to talk like real people who aren’t just pieces that need to get moved around on the plot board.
They also talk about men, which becomes necessary as they increasingly have to avoid being murdered by them.
It’s a difficult line to walk in making a film that’s feminist, but with a plot that’s ultimately centered on violence toward women. I think “Black Christmas” walks that line better than just about any I’ve seen because it’s so clear about why women even have to face this in the first place. It has a point to make, and above all else it makes sure you know and are at least somewhat educated in and thinking about that point by the time the credits roll.
Ultimately, whether it walks that line isn’t mine to assess. I’m a dude. I can tell you what I think, but women are going to be more qualified on a point like this because they’ve lived those experiences and had to exist inside arguments about them their entire lives. That’s why that split between critics was so important in the first place. Women overwhelmingly thought there was something here. Men were split, but largely didn’t. Given what the film talks about, yeah there’s something here.
You can watch “Black Christmas” with an HBO Max subscription.
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