It’s beginning to feel a lot like murder.
Maybe it’s not surprising that one of 2019’s buzziest holiday films is a horror movie. After all, many frustrated women will tell you that their world — one where there’s a new headline about sexual misconduct accusations almost daily — is more on fire than the Yule Log.
Black Christmas is here to offer some catharsis, setting up its villains as heightened reflections of ones in the real world — and giving women a chance to fight them with axes, arrows, and other weapons to really win. The feminist take on the classic doesn't completely overcome misogyny by the end of its 92-minute runtime. Instead, the film reminds us that, sometimes, the patriarchy's call is coming from inside the house.
Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas is a remake of Bob Clark’s 1974 slasher flick, which followed a group of sorority girls being tormented with disturbing phone calls before eventually getting picked off by the deranged killer ho-ho-hiding in their house.
Takal, known for directing psychological dramas like 2016’s Always Shine and 2018’s New Year, New You, the influencer-inspired installment of Hulu horror anthology series Into the Dark, was offered the chance to remake Black Christmas earlier this year. There was just one condition: The film needs to be ready for a holiday release date. (A 2006 adaptation also exists, following the same general premise, but adds no real depth to the story.)
For Takal, whom Refinery29 spoke to at The London in West Hollywood on a recent afternoon, it was impossible to untangle a horror story about targeted college women from the horror stories coming out of real campuses.
“[When I was offered the project,] I went back and watched the original film, and what I was struck by was how modern and fresh that movie felt for the time,” Takal explains, noting a plot point about a character having an abortion. “I thought, 'What would it mean to make that movie now?’”
Statistics on campus sexual assault are alarming, and college activists have been fighting for reform long before Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement gained national attention. Crafting a story about a sexual assault survivor — played by Imogen Poots — fighting for her life felt like the perfect way to tie a cultural conversation into the director’s remake.
“If Riley doesn’t fight, she’s a failure for women, she’s failed the sisterhood...You can advocate for both sides of the argument quite easily.”
The spirit of the original Black Christmas — with its high (if now less gory) body count and contrasting holiday music-inspired score — still exists in their script, but it’s reimagined to reveal truths about what young women fear now. Instead of unsettling phone calls to their house landline, the women receive threatening messages via the “YipYap” app.
There’s no screaming at the screen for the sorority sisters to get out of the house. What would be the point? For these women, potential threats are everywhere — online and off. When the first sorority sister receives a threatening message while walking through campus at night, she uses her car keys as a makeshift weapon to fight back. When was the first time we as women learned that self-protection life hack?
In Black Christmas, the killers are revealed to be cloak-wearing, woman-fearing fraternity brothers. They are obvious stand-ins for the real-life men of privilege who have been revealed as predators. Actually, let’s call a spade a spade: They’re young white men with money and connections.
Despite the social relevance of unchecked men in power (we all heard Donald Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment and watched his subsequent ascent to the Oval Office), the reveal that it’s misogynstic fratstars stalking and murdering their women classmates offers nothing new to say about who perpetuates rape culture.
Yet, despite that surface-level commentary, the movie finds its footing when it dares to pose tough questions about female allyship, and how it can fail to protect us.
The sisterhood in question is a family by choice: Hawthorne College’s fictional Mu Kappa Epsilon. Going against the stereotype of sorority life, MKE includes women of different races, backgrounds, and, most significantly, personalities. That fact that these sisters are capable of debating campus politics alongside what to wear to a frat party is refreshing.
"Some women are just fine with the status quo."
At the center of the sisters is Poots’ Riley who, three years earlier, was roofied and sexually assaulted by the president of a popular fraternity. The police and his fraternity brothers didn’t believe Riley’s story, and her rapist faced no consequences. It’s insinuated that he is already off in Washington, D.C. leading a successful early career in politics. (At the time they wrote the film, Wolfe explains, Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing had just aired. Make of Riley’s alleged rapist's unencumbered career path what you will.)
Riley did everything right in reporting the incident, and it only led to her being retraumatized by a society that doesn't always believe women. It’s for this reason that she initially refuses to participate in the holiday talent show where her sisters — spearheaded by Riley’s activist bestie Kris (Aleyse Shannon) — plan on calling out the hosting fraternity for protecting brothers who drug and rape women.
Yet when Riley does decide to get on the stage, she surprises herself by loudly singing a pointed parody of “Up on the Housetop,” aimed at her rapist, who is standing in the back of the room. (The parody was written by Garfunkel & Oates’ Riki Lindhome.)
Takal calls Riley’s song the film’s “false triumph” moment. While a different movie might use Riley’s anti-rape anthem as a bonding experience for the women, it becomes more complicated than that when Kris posts the video of Riley performing the song, in which she names her rapist.
This is too much for Riley, and she explodes on the “pushy” Kris. Riley doesn’t want to be a card-carrying, whistle-blowing survivor; she just wants to survive. Kris, however, doesn’t believe that Riley can separate the personal from the political.
“[For Kris, if] Riley doesn’t fight, she’s a failure for women, she’s failed the sisterhood,” Poots says of her character’s journey. “You can advocate for both sides of the argument quite easily.”
By the time the bodies start piling up, Riley and Kris get back on the same page in order to fight the predictable villains of the film. Yet the message of the film doesn’t quite sink to “rah rah sisterhood” levels after Kris and Riley’s initial conflict. Instead, each borrow a little bit from the other’s world view and make up to kill the bad guys.
The reconciliation is immediately followed by the film's best, but also cruelest twist. Just when the film allows us to be comfortable in our heroines uniting to fight for their lives, it reminds us that not every woman buys into the concept.
“Aren’t you tired?” the betrayer laments to a horrified Riley, as she rattles off the perks to sticking by the killer frat bros. She knows that these men want to reclaim their place above women on the social hierarchy — and as long as she has a place in this man-run society, she doesn’t care.
It’s the real “the call is coming from inside the house” moment, and quite frankly, it saves the film from being predictable feminist fodder about girl power conquering all. But it also almost didn’t make the cut. Wolfe says the idea came to her “in a dream” while the film was already in production. Takal agreed it belonged, because ultimately, “[some] women are just fine with the status quo.”
And maybe that’s the true horror of Black Christmas: It's not the men who will abuse their power, but the women who remain silent and complicit in order to save themselves from the fight.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).