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Riley (Imogen Poots) attempts to evade a masked invader.
Ho ho ho.
Universal Pictures

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The new Black Christmas reinvents a 1974 slasher for a feminist era

It isn’t subtle, but its look at campus sexism and rape hits uncomfortably close to home

In the British horror parody series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the fictional horror author Marenghi says, “I know writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards.” It’s a joke — he’s attempting to excuse his poor writing — but the new Black Christmas movie at least temporarily suggests he’s right. There’s no such thing as subtext in Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas, and that’s for the best. Takal and co-writer April Wolfe have crafted a smart slasher that lays all its cards on the table, and it absolutely rules.

The original Black Christmas, which came out in 1974, was relatively simple: a group of sorority sisters became the targets of a masked killer, and were picked off one by one. There was no subtext there, but no real text, either. The 2006 remake followed in much the same vein. This latest spin actually digs into the story’s college setting and uses it to turn a tale about young women getting murdered into one about young women coming into power.

Riley (Imogen Poots) has mostly withdrawn from any social activity outside of her sorority after being assaulted at the DKO frat house during a Christmas party. When her MKE sorority sisters Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donohue), Jesse (Brittany O’Grady), and Helena (Madeleine Adams), who are set to perform at DKO’s Christmas talent show, need a pinch-hitter, Riley steps in — and turns their “sexy Santa” song into one about her rape by the former DKO president, and about campus sexual assault as a whole.

Lindsay (Lucy Currey) on her back in the snow.
Snow angels.
Universal Pictures

When Kris uploads the video of the performance and it starts to go viral, the group begins receiving threatening DMs from someone claiming to be Calvin Hawthorne, the long-dead founder of their college. Soon after that, a cadre of masked killers descends on the sorority house.

It’s clear from the outset that Black Christmas has a clear message to send. During class, former DKO member Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes) complains that he’s not being allowed to do his job because he’s being forced to teach more than just white male authors. He also bemoans the removal of Calvin Hawthorne’s bust from campus (it now resides in the DKO house), following a student petition citing Hawthorne’s history as a slave owner and racist.

As the MKE house becomes a hunting ground, those blinkered ideas (and their defenders) become the film’s villain, handily embodied by frat bros and Elwes’ oily professor. Black Christmas tiptoes into Us-esque territory by introducing a supernatural element to the unfolding shenanigans — early scuffles reveal that the masked killers shed a black goo rather than blood — and heightening the story to a ridiculous level. It’s difficult not to laugh (derisively, but also wryly, given how unfortunately real it all feels, in spite of the occult shenanigans) as men in robes crow about male superiority and the natural order of the world.

Jesse (O’Grady) tests a string of Christmas lights, illuminating a figure behind her.
Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) and a surprise guest.
Universal Pictures

Besides exploring new thematic ground, the film also makes good on its progenitors’ slasher DNA, with Takal expertly setting up stalking sequences. Wide, fixed views on the MKE house as a single character roams about it make it clear that, while we can only see one person, somebody else is watching. And long walks home alone in the dark, already a source of anxiety for most women, become especially eerie, with Christmas lights taking on a malevolent glow.

Takal and Wolfe also tackle larger issues of sexism and racism, introducing a character who acts as a sort of analog for the 53 percent of white women who voted for Donald Trump, supporting a man who clearly doesn’t have their best interests at heart for the sake of a perceived proximity to power. And a black student, Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), who takes a shine to Riley, sees the unnatural events at DKO differently than the frat’s all-white pledges do.

Black Christmas wears these themes plainly on its sleeve, along with its heart as a whole. For another movie, this might be a death knell, but the lack of subtlety is exactly what gives Black Christmas life. When a film’s text is “Maybe men shouldn’t be able to get away with rape, and maybe old, racist, sexist institutions should be torn down,” it shouldn’t have to be hidden, not least because that message feels so rare. Sometimes, the film’s bluntness does work against it, as the characters treat recovering from emotional trauma a little too cavalierly — there’s no one way for people to recover from or process sexual assault, which is boiled down here to (literally) “fighting back.” But for the most part, Black Christmas is a breath of fresh air. Unlike their 1974 counterparts, these sisters are more than just bodies to be dismembered; they’re forcefully bonding together to fight back against an oppressive system.

Black Christmas is in theaters now.


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