There are many reasons a person goes to see a horror movie. They want to be scared. They want to be thrilled. They want to be grossed out. Above all, they want to be entertained.
Not many people go to a horror movie to be lectured, and while there should be no arguing against the importance of many of the issues Black Christmas tries to take on during its 92-minute running time — misogyny, date rape, female empowerment — because director Sophia Takal puts issues over entertainment the message she is trying to send gets lost.
Set on the campus of Hawthorne College, the movie stars Imogen Poots as Riley, a sister of the Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority, as she gets ready to spend another winter break as an ‘orphan’ left behind while other students go off to spend Christmas with family. She’s not totally alone, though; a few of her sisters also are staying behind, mostly, it seems, to keep an eye on Riley who is still fragile recovering from a brutal attack at a frat house. As an act of protest/revenge for the attack and the awful treatment Riley received for daring to report it to the campus authorities (who ignored her), the sisters of Mu Kappa Epsilon sign up for the talent show at the frat where the attack took place and sing a Christmas song parody with lyrics that detail what happened and who did it. Although she freezes when she sees her attacker standing in the audience, Riley fights back her panic and fear and delivers the song with increasing strength, and Poots does a great job of showing us how singing that song helps Riley get back everything the frat attack took from her.
It’s a moment of pure cinematic exhilaration, enough to make you cheer, and if the movie ended there Black Christmas would have been a great short film. But that’s not what happens. Instead, battle lines are drawn after a video of the song goes viral and it isn’t too long before sisters start disappearing from campus. There is never any question that the frat boys are kidnapping and killing the sorority sisters, or that the fey English teacher Professor Geldon (Cary Elwes) is the leader of the boy pack. And it’s a bit disappointing that Takal doesn’t put more effort into distracting the audience from the obvious to keep them guessing who the killer is. That’s not to say there isn’t a twist to the story; there is one crammed in towards the end of the first hour about a bust of the college’s founding father that oozes some black goo the frat brothers are using to turn their pledges into murderous misogynistic zombies, but it is so ridiculous that it’s more of an ‘Oh No!’ rather than an ‘Ah-HA!’ moment. It also seems like the ultimate cop-out in terms of the message of the movie. The frat boys are murdering rapists because they are over-privileged, obnoxious women-hating jerks, not because they are under some cheesy satanic spell. The film doesn’t need to send its audience the mixed message that they are that way only because of some ancient fraternity ritual. It feels wrong given everything the movie has been lecturing us about up to that point and even manages to cheapen the final scenes where the sisters finally give the frat boys the beatdown they deserve.
So what’s left? If Black Christmas misses the mark so wildly in making a statement or taking a stand, what is there to recommend paying for a ticket to see it? Well, there’s Poots who does a pretty good job of projecting the inner turmoil Riley is forced to live with every day since the attack, and it’s compelling to watch her tentatively drop her guard when a generally nice guy (Caleb Eberhardt) — the only nice guy depiction in the movie — takes a gentle interest in her. Beyond Poots, though, there isn’t very much. The rest of the cast on both sides of the gender battle is generic to the point of blandness and seem cast more to fill a type — angry feminist, innocent freshman, fascist date raper — than for any unique talent they bring to their performance.
Cary Elwes is suitably creepy as the faculty member leading the frat pack, but his performance is also one-note. The moment he opens his mouth in the classroom you know he’s one of the bad guys; it couldn’t be more obvious if he was twirling a Snidely Whiplash mustache while laughing maniacally. Where’s the fun in that? (Unless laughing ‘at’ a movie when it’s not trying to be funny is your idea of a good time.)
So with a messy message delivery system and bland bunch of caricatures up there mouthing the words, all that could save Black Christmas from being a total trainwreck would be the kills. Ah…but this is PG-13 Blumhouse Studio production, so the kills are both tedious and tame. Here’s a perfect example: A sorority sister finds one of her housemates bound to a chair in a spooky dark room by a string of Christmas lights. Her back is to the door, but you know this is one of the girls the killer has already gotten to and so as you watch the living sister approach what you know in your horror movie-loving heart is a dead one, you lean forward in your seat, waiting for the body to spin around and reveal some gruesome visage that will make you jump in fright and delight.
And … it never happens. The chair never turns, the face is never revealed and you know in your heart at that moment that any chance of Black Christmas delivering horror holiday cheer is lost forever.
- John Black, Black Christmas (2020)