Film Review | Black Christmas: Tales from the Sisterhood

Audiences and critics have not been terribly kind of Sophia Takal’s spirited feminist remake of the pioneering 1974 slasher, but this well-intentioned rough diamond has plenty to delight those willing to give it a shot

Directed by Bob Clark and released prior to John Carpenter’s Halloween, Black Christmas (1974) is now a bona fide cult classic, recognised by many horror lovers as being the true ur-text for subsequent slashers, even if Carpenter’s Mike Myers gets most of the credit for that, most of the time.

So it’s hardly surprising to see another remake of it crop up on the seasonal horizon.

This time, the approach thankfully swerves in a different direction to the dismal 2006 version – which is a more ‘faithful’ remake but certainly not a better one – as the Blumhouse, the current mainstream horror purveyors du jour, get indie actress-director Sophia Takal and horror journalist-screenwriter April Wolfe to give a hardly-subtle feminist take on the haunting Clarke original.

Like the original, we are thrown into the world of American sorority girls, but beyond that and the title, Takal and Wolfe very much do their own thing.

The setting is Hawthorne College, an elite institution with roots firmly embedded in the unjust power structures of American history, so much so that it took a group of particularly ‘woke’ and particularly vociferous students to remove the bust of the college’s slave-owning founder out of public view.

But while students like Kris (Aleyse Shannon) are happy to vocally fight the good fight, others are keener to keep their heads down, like Riley (Imogen Poots) who is less keen on meeting the demands of the season, as the scars of her sexual assault by fraternity president Brian (Ryan McIntyre) are still fresh, not least because a sizeable chunk of the insitution remains sceptical of her version of events.

It’s an atmosphere of toxic masculinity that’s calcified by the likes of Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes), who gleefully quotes the feminist-baiting, melodramatic maven of cultural studies Camille Paglia back at his female students when they dare to suggest that his programme of studies is animated by a misogynistic agenda.

But could the sudden spate of murders and disappearances around campus also be tied to the inner workings of the old boys network?

The answer is, of course, yes, and so begins Takal and Wolfe’s right-on fable about masculine privilege and its most horrific logical end point, and the girls that band together to say no, enough is enough. It’s the kind of set-up that a film critic would certainly want to see click into place, and it’s hardly surprising that Wolfe’s previous career was, in fact, as one of our number, writing in venues like the Village Voice and LA Weekly. But the cast is also game enough to get us on board, and Imogen Poots in particular gives us a brittle-but-sharp performance that’ll have you rooting for Riley all the way.

Takal’s indie bona fides shine through in the many scenes leading up to the full-on horror, as the bonding between the girls feels humane and lived-in, and in many ways the arrival of the masked, crossbow-wielding killers feels like a tacked-on exercise too late, made all the more so by a supernatural explanation revealed at the eleventh hour.

It’s not exactly an airtight piece of storytelling, and this tonal murkiness may have been part of what contributed to the film’s rocky critical performance.

But the misogyny metaphor (really, an allegory by this point), remains the key lynchpin, whose logical endpoint will be cathartic to anyone tired of the current resurgence of the ‘manosphere’.

The verdict

While it boasts none of the gritty atmospherics and foreboding sense of mystery that hangs over the 1974 original like a sharpened bunch of poisoned mistletoe, Sophia Takal and April Wolfe’s riff on similar ideas and iconography slams into the contemporary zeitgeist with zesty gusto, crafting a ‘hell yeah’ feminist rebuttal to current forms of toxic misogyny while remaining within the realm of pulpy slasher horror. It’s not without its silliness and moments of pure cringe, but nobody will be able to call this remake redundant or irrelevant.