Content warning: Mentions of rape, sexual assault and violence.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Colorful lights sparkle and flash. Christmas trees are covered in tinsel. And underneath that tree is a messily-wrapped gift bursting with rage. That gift is Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas, a modern revision of Bob Clark’s 1974 slasher of the same name. Takal and co-writer April Wolfe take the story and bring it into the tumultuous 21st century, where women are no longer content with staying silent.
Black Christmas is centered on Hawthorne College campus and the sorority sisters of MKE. Riley (Imogen Poots) is a sexual assault survivor who, after three years, still feels the repercussions of her rape, both emotionally and socially. She tries to cover up her body as much as possible and wants to make herself small, unnoticeable. Luckily, she has her sorority sisters who support her every step of the way, never for a second doubting her.
Kris (Aleyse Shannon) is her outspoken, politically-oriented best friend who petitions against racist and misogynistic professors (Cary Elwes) and wants to fight for what’s right. She convinces Riley to perform in a fraternity’s talent show in front of Riley’s rapist in an act that blatantly calls out the disgusting attitude the brothers have around sex. But of course, these boys don’t take it well.
After the performance, cloaked and masked men begin attacking and killing sorority sisters across campus. Women are mercilessly picked off and hunted like animals. But what these men don’t expect is a fight, and boy do these women have a lot of fight in them. They punch, kick, claw, stab, and scream their way to survival, never for a second letting their fear cloud their need to escape. In Black Christmas, there is no Final Girl; there is no need for a morally superior female character because they are all on an equal playing field.
From the film’s opening moments, Takal and Wolfe are speaking directly to any woman who has felt even the slightest bit unsafe around men. Sorority girl Lindsey is shown walking down a dark road with keys shoved in between her fingers like makeshift knives as a man walks closely behind her. There are few women I know who haven’t relied on this trick to give them some semblance of security when walking alone at night. What Takal is showing on screen, sans the ritualistic murder, is the reality for women. We must constantly find ways to quickly protect ourselves in case things go wrong.
Poots’ performance, as well as Takal and Wolfe’s script, is able to carefully capture what it feels to experience PTSD. This isn’t about the immediate aftermath of rape, but about the scars that never seem to fade even years later. You cannot just forget your trauma; it informs your every move, as we see in Riley getting dressed, going to parties, and participating in class. Black Christmas also captures the dizzying and nauseating pride felt in confronting your rapist. It is terrifying; you don’t know how he or his friends will react. But when you finally take that step, you feel like you could fly and puke at the same time. Seeing this experience on-screen practically reduced me to tears as I remembered my own confrontation with my rapist. Takal and Wolfe took such a harrowing experience and captured the complicated emotions that surround it.
One of the biggest criticisms around Black Christmas has been about its cringy and overly-woke dialogue. However, despite some finding the way these women speak annoying or unrealistic, this is the way young women talk on college campuses. I recently graduated from a Master’s program and many of my conversations in class, at parties, and in group texts were about trying to confront the inherently racist and misogynistic structures of academia. Perhaps it seems odd to some, but young people are thinking like this. They are trying to navigate the world and make it a better place by confronting hegemonic ideas of how learning should be. Further, they are increasingly concerned about the safety on campus as sexual assault survivors are ignored and silenced. Just like Riley, people who have been raped are often silenced and ignored with their rapists given the benefit of the doubt. It is infuriating, upsetting, and worth loud discussions, which students are not afraid to have.
In a film so dedicated to confronting the violent reality women face on a daily basis, it becomes tonally uneven in its third act. While it never loses sight of the ultimate message of female empowerment, it delves unexpectedly into the supernatural that threatens to detract from the themes built up in the first hour. Yet, somehow, it delivers an amazing, almost joyous punch to the entitled faces to frat bros everywhere. It is outlandish and bizarre, but it is the kind of risk that you can’t help but respect.
Ultimately, the film’s biggest detriment is its title. Fans of the original slasher have been spewing vitriol since the film’s announcement earlier this year. It is being held to an unrealistic expectation that sets it up for failure. While using the title is a key marketing tool in drumming up excitement, it seems to have instead stirred up a lot of hate aimed at the idea of confronting toxic masculinity and rape culture.
Takal and Wolfe create a film that speaks to the unbridled feminine rage that has bubbled up in just the past few years. They eschew subtlety because women are expected to be subtle. They must work in metaphor and delicate suggestions to create what is considered a good movie. But why can’t women filmmakers be messy? Why can’t they take risks and make a few mistakes? Black Christmas may not be perfect but it is what female audiences, especially young audiences, need right now. We need stories that reflect our hellish experiences of merely existing in a patriarchal society. We need to feel seen, heard, understood. Takal and Wolfe have heard us and have given us hope for the future of horror.