Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions sparked initial excitement when they announced a Black Christmas remake for 2019. Unfortunately, Black Christmas 2019’s early goodwill quickly gave way to criticism and divisive reactions. An early trailer seemed to give away a major twist – and departure from the original. Next, the MPAA assigned the remake a PG-13 rating, which opened an old, if not unnecessary, horror debate. Upon its release, critics were divided and some fans ravaged it. Among criticisms, some horror fans complained that director Sophie Takal’s remake felt more like a ‘lecture’ than a movie. In spite of a disappointing opening box office weekend and divided opinion, Black Christmas 2019 plays out much better than expected.
As Christmas holidays draw near, Hawthorne college student Riley Stone struggles to deal with her trauma following a sexual assault on campus. Though her assailant, a fraternity president, was forced off campus, college officials and police discounted Riley’s story. But when Riley and her sorority sisters perform at the same fraternity’s talent show, they expose her offender and the fraternity culture itself. Soon thereafter, anonymous hooded figures begin stalking and texting threatening messages to the sorority sisters.
Black Christmas 2019 An Actual Remake, Not Rehash
On one hand, Black Christmas 2019 is very much a feminist horror movie. Though the horror has offered strong female protagonists in the past, Sophie Takal and co-writer, April Wolfe, tackle current gender politics head on. Black Christmas 2019 wears its heart on its sleeve. Rather than rehashing the 1973 original movie, Takal and Wolfe use its setting and premise to tell a contemporary story. Date rape, the #MeToo movement, toxic masculinity, and campus debates over tainted historical monuments all find their way into the story.
Rather than rehashing the 1973 original movie, Takal and Wolfe use its setting and premise to tell a contemporary story.
Yet contrary to some of the criticisms, Black Christmas 2019 doesn’t feel like a ‘lecture’. Let’s not forget that Bob Clark’s original movie featured a sub-plot about a character wanting to get an abortion against her partner’s wishes. That same movie’s killer, ‘Billy’, also thoroughly laced his threatening messages with misogynistic vitriol. Takal and Wolfe’s remake doesn’t really stray from the source material as much as update it for our current cultural divide. The Soska Sisters’ American Mary and 2007’s Teeth similarly fired shots at predatory masculinity. And Jordan Peele’s Get Out didn’t shy away from its own commentary on race. Moreover, Black Christmas 2019’s commentary doesn’t distract from the story or scares. It propels the story forward and, more importantly, gives the remake a reason to exist.
Takal Delivers Scares and Suspense Early, But Loses Control in Final Act
As compared to the 2006 remake, Black Christmas 2019 eschews over-the-top gore for a more serious tone. Takal never conjures up the same dread or intensity as the 1973 original. The remake’s updated text threats, for instance, never unsettle in the same way as Billy’s phone calls. But for most of her remake, Takal makes good use of the Gothic college campus and isolated winter setting. Several good jump scares are delivered throughout the remake. There’s a great nod to one of the best jump scares in horror movie history with a homage to The Exorcist III. An early scene that I’ll just call ‘the snow angel of deal’ is visually affecting.
Things veer a little off course in the climax.
Where Black Christmas 2019 loses momentum is its big third act. As it turns out, the remake’s trailer didn’t reveal all of its surprises. Unfortunately, a final twist involving the bust of the college’s founding father feels unnecessary and out of place in the movie. In addition, as the remake gets ‘bigger’ and brings in more characters, it loses some of its atmosphere, suspense, and scares. Arguably, Black Christmas 2019 may have fared better if it had focused on Riley and her small group of sorority sisters. Things veer a little off course in the climax. However, the ending will also prove cathartic for some viewers.
Well-Written Characters, Empathetic Performaces
Slasher movies aren’t known for their character depth. Nonetheless, Takal and Wolfe craft believable characters and relationships for their performers. As Riley Stone, Imogen Poots gives a layered performance, convincingly portraying a strong woman struggling with trauma. This makes Black Christmas 2019 the second major movie in the last year or so to address female victims’ trauma (see Halloween 2018). Sorority sister Kris, played by Aleyse Shannon, is a similarly layered character. Like Poots’ “Riley Stone’, Shannon brings ‘Kris’ to life, investing the movie with stakes as its protagonists elicit empathy.
In a return to horror, Cary Elwes (Saw) makes for subtly menacing villain. Unfortunately, Elwes’ role in the remake is more of a supporting nature. This leaves Black Christmas 2019 lacking in a truly threatening antagonist to support the movie’s scares. While the ‘dude bro’ fraternity members aptly reflect the remake’s subtext, they’re pretty interchangeable and don’t leave much of an impact. The patriarchy and toxic masculinity make for good villains, but the movie needed a better onscreen representation.
Black Christmas An Uneven, But Thoughtful and Largely Effective Remake
While it’s uneven, Black Christmas 2019 is better than its Rotten Tomatoes score. And it’s absolutely much better than the current IMDb score. Yes, Takal and Wolfe have embedded their movie into today’s current socio-political context. Ironically, the movie’s low IMDb score and the bitterly divisive response reflect the very issues Black Christmas addresses. Takal’s remake is no more overt in its commentary than, say, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Neither as memorable as the original nor as bad as the 2006 remake, Black Christmas 2019 is likely a horror remake that will benefit from later critical re-appraisal.