Lindsay (Lucy Currey) in Black Christmas, co-written and directed by Sophia Takal.

Black Christmas Review – A Welcome Tear Down of the Patriarchy

A few years ago I wrote a review for Kirby Dick’s horror documentary, The Hunting Ground. In that searing film, Kirby looked at the way rape culture thrived within the American college system, and in moments that would no doubt further infuriate viewers, the way that the perpetrators of sexual violence were not only let off without conviction, but in many cases, they were elevated because of the way their victims called them out. The general fear that this allegation would ‘scar’ these athletes was considered worse than the trauma inflicted on the women that were assaulted. 

While it may seem crass to say, why has it taken til 2019 for this behaviour to be explored in a horror film?, I do so with the same understanding of how Jordan Peele explored racism with Get Out. When that film stormed into the social consciousness, it did so with such anger, such fury, that I personally couldn’t help but ask, where has this kind of film been all this time?

Granted, horror films working as allegories aren’t new inventions. They’ve been around for an age, and in many cases, it’s the foundation of many horror sub-genres (look at Night of the Living Dead for example). Blumhouse Productions have been steadily forging a new future that embraces this socio-political horror consciousness, manoeuvring the horror genre into a world where the allegory is the text. 

It is then an inevitability that the destruction of the patriarchy would be explored in a film, and it’s with the 2019 remake of Black Christmas that we find director Sophia Takal and co-writer April Wolfe taking a welcome female spin on the slasher genre. There are precious few slasher films written or directed by women, and given the subgenres predilection for slaughtering women, it’s about time that a film came along and subverted that ultra-masculine view.

Here, Imogen Poots stars as Riley, a college student who lives in a sorority house with her sorority sisters. It’s the winter break and her classmates are heading off back home to be with their families. As a wrap up event, a fraternity house is hosting an end of year wrap up variety show event. While each house participates in the showcase with a slice of entertainment, one sorority house withdrew because of the reports of sexual assaults from the fraternity brothers. Meanwhile, as the event nears, someone is killing the sorority sisters.

I’ll be the first to say that the whole fraternity/sorority college system is double Dutch to me and is as impenetrable for an outsider as Australian lingo is to visitors to Australia. While Black Christmas doesn’t touch on the fact that sorority houses can’t have alcohol, and only fraternities can, I really wish it did. Instead, that’s information I had in my mind from – of all places – Bad Neighbours 2.

What is clear is the way that men have organised and managed college campuses in America for decades (and if Black Christmas is to be believed, centuries), with the testosterone fuelled perspective driving the minutiae of college life. This is not a subtle film, with Takal and Wolfe slathering the script with obvious sweeping statements about how toxic masculinity harms society as a whole, but on the same hand, you don’t go to a slasher film for subtlety. 

April Wolfe has been vocal about the toned-down violence in this version of the film, a decision that was made after test screenings showed that this was a film that would be best catered to a younger audience of women. When you approach Black Christmas with that in mind, the deliberate way that the deaths of the sorority sisters is presented in a muted, off-screen manner, feels respectful. After all, the stats that 20% of women are assaulted reminds us that while violence against women is a genuine problem in society, it’s not exactly something that we need presented with all its brutality in a horror film.

Which does, theoretically, create a slight dilemma for a film where the entire point is trying to find out who is killing women. The slasher genre is one that’s built on the audience being entertained by the way the victims are dispatched, with elevated gore and brutality making the death all the more memorable. For the horror fiend who’s looking for that kind of film, then you’ll have to look elsewhere. 

Black Christmas is instead more interested in creating a horror-heightened look at modern college life. Takal and Wolfe try to operate within the framework of the slasher genre, tinkering with the format that has long been established, torn down, and rewritten by male filmmakers, and while both are well aware of the genre tropes needed to make x get to z via y, the harsh reality is that the slasher genre is as tired as ever. 

It’s hard to rewrite the rule book for any film, let alone within the framework of a remake, and fortunately, Takal and Wolfe don’t try and do that. Instead, they try and subvert the genre by using it as a platform to discuss the problems with the patriarchy. It is a little ham fisted, but when you consider that we live in a world where the President of the United States has outwardly bragged about sexual assault, well, you can appreciate why this discussion is presented in a heavy handed manner. 

(from left) Riley (Imogen Poots) and a black-masked killer in “Black Christmas,” co-written and directed by Sophia Takal.

It’s hard to tackle these dense topics and themes within a 90 minute horror film, but I have to applaud Takal and Wolfe for the way they manage to make the serious, well, fun? The performances from the core sorority sisters (Aleyes Shannon, Lily Donoghue, and of course, Imogen Poots) are genuinely enjoyable, with all actors showing that they’re having a good time. Shannon’s Kris is a genuinely entertaining character who always has a petition to remove sexist lecturers from their position of power on hand. Imogen Poots continues to impress as one of the more enjoyable lead actresses of her generation.   

Every character has something to say about masculinity and allowing feminism to have a place in society, and for some viewers this may be exhaustive with the message coming on very strong, but when the message is the movie, I can understand why Takal and Wolfe push that message so much. You can almost feel the two writers at the end of the movie yelling at you, ‘have you got the point yet?’ 

I certainly did get the point, and you know what, I found the excessive repetitive tone refreshing and exciting. While it can seem like the discussion about #MeToo makes up the bulk of the discussion on social media, it has yet to be fully addressed in films, and as such, the more that the discussion creeps into films like Black Christmas, then the more that changes should ideally occur in society. 

The film never strays into misandry, especially since it provides some interesting male characters. Caleb Eberhardt’s Landon in particular is a well written, well performed potential boyfriend role, and out of all the characters, he’s the one I connected to the most. The awkward guy who doesn’t know how to approach the opposite sex, let alone know how to have a proper conversation. It’s not because he’s concerned that his approach will be considered out of line, but more that he’s just an awkward guy. 

And yet, heading into mild spoiler territory here, it’s easy to see how a guy like Landon can be coerced and bullied into being a misogynist man. I appreciated the lengths that Takal and Wolfe went to to portray the influence of the fraternity group on men like Landon. In my experience, I have seen the pressure pushed onto less confident men to be ‘alpha-male-esque’, and to see women as something to be conquered. So to have that subject explored in a horror film written by two women made me feel seen. 

On top of this, as the prevalence of #MeToo stories roll out around the world, and men continue to sexually assault women, I appreciated the way Black Christmas displays the ‘unaware’ male. Men tinkering on their phones, walking too close to women, unaware that their presence may cause stress and fear to the woman, works to reinforce the way that modern men ought to be hyper aware of how their masculinity is presented in public. Not everyone feels safe around men, and it’s not hard for men to take that into consideration and be aware of their physical presence in the world. Whether that means crossing the road when you see a lone woman walking by herself, or being observant of unwanted behaviour from men, there is a lot we can do to make society feel safer for women.  

Which leads me to my next point: providing platforms for women filmmakers and reviewers to create films, and to discuss films made for them. The industry has been dominated by men for so long, that when films like Charlie’s Angels or Black Christmas come along, they can’t help but use the language of cinema that has been established by men. These aren’t masterpieces, and they may not be what women audiences want, but they are important stepping stones in the deconstruction of masculine driven cinema. You can’t help but use the language that’s already been established before you are able to destroy it and build it up as new. Additionally, more women reviewers are needed to be able to discuss from a lived in experience as to why a film works or doesn’t work. 

For me, Black Christmas worked a treat. It was a joy to watch, even with its flaws (the poor sound design and lack of an impactful score in particular). I enjoyed the way it pushed back against the patriarchy, and how it presented the difficulty of trying to tear it down, especially when it pushes back with force. I appreciated Sophia Takal and April Wolfe’s writing a lot, and look forward to their future films.

I’ve been impressed with Blumhouse’s library of films that are exploring social commentary themes, and while Black Christmas isn’t a classic to be remembered far into the future, it will at least be bundled up in the surrounding conversation about their output. This is much the same as Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body – a film that was derided on release, but in subsequent years people have rediscovered and grown to appreciate. I hope the same occurs with Black Christmas, because there is a lot to enjoy here if you’re looking for it.

Director: Sophia Takal

Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue

Writers: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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