“You messed with the wrong sisters.”
The final line of the trailer for Black Christmas (2019), a remake of the 1974 film of the same name, is accompanied by a wholly unexpected image: nine sorority sisters positioned in an undeniable battle-stance. With blood-spattered faces and slap-dash weapons by their sides, these women look more like soldiers than the ill-fated innocents we are used to seeing in the traditional slasher flick.
True to its trailer, Sophia Takal and April Wolfe’s Black Christmas offers audiences a modern twist on the cult classic. The film follows the residents of a snow-covered sorority house at Hawthorne College as they are haunted by a hooded figure. One by one, the sisters are stalked and killed, enthralling the survivors in a sinister mystery that quickly unfolds to reveal a strange and supernatural conspiracy come to life. As the sisters delve deeper into the dark histories that are housed within the walls of their entrusted institution, they realise that they will have to band together and fight to survive the Christmas break.
For those who don’t know the film, Bob Clarke’s Black Christmas is a masterful work of steadily-mounting terror that is often at least partially credited for launching the onslaught of onscreen slaughter that characterised cinema in the late 1970s and 1980s. It has essentially everything a slasher fan could want in a film; simplistic but creative kill scenes, distinct but generally sensible core characters and a twist that haunts us even as landlines become increasingly obsolete: the calls are coming from the house.
This is a film that a lot of fans feel protective of, especially since Glen Morgan’s largely ill-received remake in 2006 attempted to demystify a villain that is probably better left as a mysterious and inexplicable maniac. It is certainly bold of Takal and Wolfe to produce a remake that replaces the single deranged intruder with a cult of highly organised killers, and to furthermore substitute motiveless murders for those that occur out of supernatural forces and collective prejudice.
This is not to say, however, that such a decision is necessarily a bad one. Modern takes on films from the slasher sub-genre are hardly uncommon, with reboots of the ever-popular Child’s Play and Halloween franchises proving successful enough to warrant potential and confirmed sequels. Anticipation also surrounds an upcoming sequel to the 1992 crowd favourite Candyman, which will be co-written and produced by Jordan Peele. Even lesser-known sequels and stand-alones such as The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018), Happy Death Day 2U (2019) and the recent release, Ready or Not (2019) have drawn inspiration from the classic cat-and-mouse trope. One could argue that now is the perfect time for this film, for both a remake and a reimagining of the kinds of slasher movies that audiences have grown nostalgic for.
But while I appreciate the boldness of the project, the originality of the plot and the thoughtful intersection of old themes with new contexts, I fear that Black Christmas will struggle to satisfy its audience more than most. It is possible that this film strays a little too far from the slasher conventions, with genuinely thrilling kill scenes transitioning a little too quickly into fight sequences. Additionally, what modern slasher films lack in supernatural scares and torture porn they might make up for in a lighter, more humorous tone – a strategy that can make the sub-genre a more fun and accessible brand of horror. Black Christmas instead chooses to take itself seriously, taking on difficult subjects and treating them with a necessary dose of severity. While the film is relatively conservative in its use of gore and shock-based horror, it does not shy away from depictions of PTSD and the more common physical and psychological sufferings that can create horror out of everyday situations.
Takal and Wolfe’s willingness to explore these issues is commendable but might make the film a less enjoyable experience for those seeking cheaper thrills. Viewers that are a little more open to political content, however, might find themselves transfixed by the careful realism that is written into every conversation that transpires between the students of Hawthorn College. For the most part, Black Christmas refrains from cliché and cleverly entwines otherworldly horrors with the enactment of oppressive ideologies to illustrate the kinds of tensions that characterise college and university campuses.
Despite the ways that 2019’s Black Christmas departs from its predecessor on a surface level, Takal and Wolfe have uncovered the crux of what fuels the fear evident in Clarke’s pioneering cult classic. In between the missing persons and the murders lies a mystery that breeds a very gendered paranoia. Black Christmas (1974) is about more than a madman and his victims; it’s about a woman who, in a state of sudden vulnerability, is forced to confront the potentially perilous capabilities of her controlling boyfriend.
Takal and Wolfe’s Black Christmas explores this idea within a broader, more modern context, in which fraternities at college campuses across the US have come to be seen as sites of toxic traditions and prejudicial power-structures, many of which facilitate violence against women. The most memorable plot points of the original film may have been altered, but the heart of this harrowing story is decidedly fixed and pumps socio-political imperatives into a contemporary body. I can’t say that this will be your favourite horror flick of the year, but it’s a take on the Christmas classic that doesn’t stray as far as you might think.
Black Christmas is in cinemas December 12th.