Riley Stone (Imogen Poots) and her sorority sisters are doing their best to enjoy a Yuletide break at Hawthorne College between their controversial public performances, traumatic pasts, and a masked killer stalking them. While her friends are putting their professor on blast for not teaching from books written by women, Riley’s avoiding her rapist who’s been acquitted and now rules the fraternity.
Such layered issues are the bane of young women just trying to get an education and the film builds a knee-shaking dread before they even face the killer. The first oppressive half emphasises suspense from what’s essentially daily life for these girls. The moments of violence seem like breathing room for escapism. As a British white male, I can handle an icicle-wielding psycho but the thought of entering an American frat house alone is terrifying.
Takal’s approach is a more thematic commentary; there are dispassionate authority figures and overbearing boyfriends in both the ’74 and ’19 versions but now we’re addressing the social ramifications women have in the real world. People were fine with an all-female cast in the original as long as they “stay[ed] in their lane” and merely survived till the credits rolled — as a killer is allowed to target women with impunity but curse those same women who dare acknowledge their victimhood.
There’s also criticism this film is poorly executed horror, but I disagree. The cinematography is stellar throughout, evoking a vintage 1970s feel with lengthy static shots given movement through subtle and deliberate zooms. The spacious locations of heritage campus housing establish an overwhelming chill — not just with snow but with the pale and desolate interiors that reinforce the character’s own isolation. Only sparse decorations providing any warmth to some scenes. One sequence is masterfully done in a single wide shot that manages to fit the entire landing of the sorority house with a character moving from room to room (each entrance being a potential jump-scare), culminating in an excellent homage to The Exorcist III (1990).
The escapism found in the fantastical elements can come from the battle of genders, but the complicated reality is that everyone’s either resisting a dominant culture or embracing it at the expense of others. There’s a supernatural catalyst in the narrative that supports both the fantasy and reality of what Takal and Wolfe are covering. We’re allowed to enjoy the horror knowing this is an isolated event under extreme circumstances, but there’s the disappointment that real ideologies are harder to break than fictional curses.
Black Christmas is a film with an exceptionally strong voice of its own and censoring it, for the sake of ‘pure entertainment’, reduces it to senseless schlock. I believe this movie will be deservedly reappraised in time, as the negative reaction swirling around suggests there are black magic statues beaming negativity to the hivemind.