There is a wealth of material out there unpacking the role of gender in modern horror, but perhaps none has been as impactful as Carol J. Clover’s book Men, Women, And Chainsaws. In it, she unravels audience preconceptions about masculine and feminine roles, particularly in slasher films, and makes a strong argument that there is a blurring of the lines between the two genders and how they present themselves within the functions of the hero, the villain, and the victim — a blurring that allows audiences of any gender to cross-identify. Of course, the reality is that when these movies were first coming out, the majority of the filmmakers AND audience members were men, which is why the “Final Girl” (a term Clover was the first to coin) wasn’t just a hero/victim that embodied both male and female characteristics but a female with intentionally male characteristics. It wasn’t a feminist victory so much as an assertion that to survive, you had to be somehow unfeminine — to take up that phallic knife for yourself and stab back. As for her typical virginity? It’s no coincidence that these slashers arose in the time when the sexual revolution was still fresh, to be seen by the first generation of young adults faced with the uncertain ramifications of the era. Their choices looked so different from their parents, and so did their unconscious fears.
All of which is a very long preamble to say that if you’re a fan of slashers and the complicated gender subtext of the genre then you may be in for a bit of a surprise with the latest reboot of Black Christmas. Here, there is no blurring. There is no subtext. The struggle between the masculine and the feminine is the entire plot of the movie. And — despite what its current Tomatometer score might lead you to believe — it is absolutely brilliant to behold.
Make no mistake, this Black Christmas bears almost no resemblance to the 1974 original or the already forgotten 2006 remake. Nor does it need to! The barebones premise itself is ripe real estate for reimagining. Sorority girls staying in their Greek house on campus over the winter holidays are slowly picked off by a crazed assailant — it’s a slasher slam dunk. The difference is that the new film plants its bloody Christmas tree firmly in the #MeToo era, and explores the strong undercurrent of modern fears rising to the surface because of it. Directed by Sophia Takal from a script she co-wrote with April Wolfe, the movie is boldly, unabashedly feminist. The victims this time are targeted because of their choice to speak out against the institutional misogyny and rape culture on their college campus — because they are, essentially, mouthy women. There is no moral good to separate a lone hero, a Final Girl, from the pack, because there is no Final Girl at all — nor is there is a single maniacal assailant. The killer isn’t a man but an entire frat, and the threat is almost banal in its predictability. The message is the danger is all around us, everywhere, all the time, but also that strength in numbers cuts both ways. Moral virtue comes not from virginal purity but from respect, consent, support, and believing women.
All of this — the heavy-handed on-the-nose politics, the predictability, even the nearly bloodless PG-13 rating — could easily be cited as marks against the film, and the source of its divisiveness amongst critics. It’s a mouthy movie about mouthy women, masquerading as a low-budget horror flick. To which I’d counter that horror has always been political, that predictability has always been the cornerstone of slashers (which, counterintuitively, use their formulaic nature to draw us in), and that this movie effectively mines its scares despite its rating precisely because it’s trodding on all-too-familiar ground. What’s subversive isn’t the film’s message (like, at all) but the way it cleverly twists genre tropes to serve that message. The main character, Riley (Imogen Poots), is the obvious Final Girl type, from her gender-neutral name to her tomboy wardrobe and reserved demeanor. However, how you read those details shifts the moment you discover that she is a rape survivor. The movie wisely picks up in the distant aftermath of her attack, meaning we never have to witness it onscreen. It’s been three years since the president of a neighboring fraternity assaulted her, and Riley has struggled to move on in a community that labeled her a liar — while surrounded by sorority sisters (played by Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, and more) who support her. They also, coincidentally, almost all have gender-neutral names like “Kris” and “Marty” and engage in patriarchal-smashing activism.
The action kicks off as the college heads into winter break, and the frat in question holds their annual talent show. Riley’s sisters decide to participate, but the twist is that their performance isn’t what the boys (or the viewers) are expecting. Sure, they’re dressed in sexy Santa dresses, but instead of singing “Santa Baby” they perform a deliciously disruptive, autobiographical version of the song (penned by Riki Lindhome!) that details Riley’s assault. In the frat house where it happened, in front of the man who raped her, Riley speaks her truth with the help of her sisters. Unfortunately, her public victory is, you know, kind of embarrassing for the frat or whatever, and it doesn’t take long before Riley and her sisters begin connecting the dots between the disappearances of their friends, the sudden onslaught of harassing DMs they’re receiving, and that weird pledge ritual Riley witnessed involving a bunch of frat boys in cloaks.
So no, the gender in Black Christmas isn’t necessarily permeable, but that doesn’t mean there is no nuance in this battle of the sexes — and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t empathize with characters outside of your own gender. There’s Marty’s boyfriend, who tries to be supportive even as he falls into a bit of “But not all men!” confusion, and there’s a new love interest for Riley who is so careful in his approach to women that his patience reads as skittishness. There’s Cary Elwes as a smarmy professor who just wants to teach his (exclusively white male) classics syllabus, dammit! And the women are hardly a monolith either. For Riley, her trauma is personal, and her focus is on her own healing, while Kris is unafraid to turn her friend into a tool to take down the patriarchy — whether Riley is comfortable with it or not. Women can betray each other, and they can choose to buy into an alpha-male society, while men can struggle to be allies or to even perceive the power imbalance that has always been skewed in their favor.
Sure, the villains are projected from the outset, and the mystery behind the central cabal is total nonsense. If you’re a viewer looking for big twists or even serious jump scares you’ll be disappointed — but that’s not where the real fear lies anyway. What Black Christmas gets, in its slow build-up focused on the life of Riley and her friends, is that the eventual killing spree is beside the point here. We all know some sorority girls are going to die in this movie, since this movie has literally already been made twice before. The most gut-wrenching moments occur around those acts of violence, in which our heroes simply… exist. It’s the footsteps of a man walking behind a sister down a darkened street, and the way she clutches her keys in her fist just in case. It’s Riley freezing up on stage, as she spots her rapist in the crowd of revelers. It’s anonymous phone messages from a stalker, or the courage it takes to interrupt a near date-rape to make sure your friend is safe. It’s having to decide whether it’s worth the risk to go to the police or take justice into your own hands — not because it might take too long, but because they might not believe you anyway. Compared to all that, I’d argue it makes sense that the slayings aren’t nearly as exciting. They’re a diversion, a sleight of hand revealing the real everyday horrors the movie trucks with — and thankfully the sisters give as good as they get along the way (one villain is lit on fire with a well-aimed oil lamp in an act of literal gaslighting that made me grin). More importantly, the climax is rousing and bonkers and not at all the skin-of-their-teeth escape scenario typical of slasher flicks. It is unquestionably a victorious ending, in which the big damn hero moment is one of sisterhood.
I can see how some might find this movie too preachy or too boring. Though if that’s the case, then you’ve probably never had to shout to be heard before, or doubted you’d be believed — and maybe you’ve never walked down a dark street with your keys clutched between your fingers, either. That’s not boring, that’s just what life is like for a whole lot of us. That fear is real, and just as cathartic to see on the big screen as any number of dismembered camp counselors.
It’s impossible not to view this movie from the perspective of your own personal bias, and in that regard, all I can say is Black Christmas was a damn satisfying experience. Which is why I’m going to share a little detail on my own college experience. I attended an old school, rich with tradition, not unlike the one this movie is set at, and in that school I entered a Greek “society” — which was a fraternity that decided to allow women in. We had a hidden chapter room, tucked away behind a trick bookcase and everything. I eventually became president of our co-ed frat house, and during my time there we had a member who was a sexual predator. This man thrived in the grey area of assault, where the women were just drunk and just vulnerable enough to be convinced it was their fault it happened — and none of them wanted to lodge any formal complaints with the university, or speak on record in any capacity. For us, the call was truly coming from inside the house, and we didn’t know what to do as our suspicions gradually gave way to certainty. Eventually, the whispers of his behavior grew deafening, and we were able to exploit a loophole in our own internal policies that allowed us to vote the asshole out of the house, which solved our problems — but it didn’t stop him.
After I graduated, I received a call from a friend, asking if I would be willing to go on record about that man’s behavior. It turned out that after our society severed ties with him, he simply moved on to other feeding grounds on campus, and one woman he assaulted was willing to file an official complaint. I’d already felt like a failure for not being able to protect the people under my watch until too late, and here again, I had no evidence to support this woman’s claim either. I had nothing but hearsay to share and the names of victims who I knew had no desire to speak. So I’ll admit, my own reaction to Black Christmas is colored by these experiences, and I imagine I’m not alone in that. There is something about seeing the frustrating failure of institutions and the struggle to protect and support victims that spoke to me, just like I’m sure there are viewers who will react the opposite way toward the portrayal of the villains as an over-the-top army of young Jordan Petersons. None of it makes for a subtle film in the least, but having navigated a college experience filled with tales of assault shared behind closed doors, maybe I just can’t hate a movie that flings those doors wide open and gets so much right.
Header Image Source: Universal Pictures