What is it about combining Christmas with Horror that’s so appealing? Is it the twisted idea of safety, togetherness and good will to all men being juxtaposed to vulnerability, loneliness and a bad death to everyone? Or perhaps the masochist in us likes to see what the most wonderful time of the year can look like when the most horrible can happen.
Both Bob Clark and Sophia Takal’s versions of Black Christmas explore the idea of a Christmas plagued by slaughter but Christmas is but a backdrop in both of these stories. The two films use a Christmas setting to bring characters together in one location, let them feel safe and allow horror to creep in unnoticed by anyone but the audience. Both are set in sorority houses, focusing on vulnerable young women and both feature unidentifiable murderers, picking them off one by one. Although on paper these two films share more than just a name, under the surface they are quite different films.
The 1974 version of Black Christmas is a harsh, grim and unforgiving story. We meet an array of characters, distinct in different ways and see the plights which they’re all dealing with as Christmas fast approaches. But as the audience we know that the one problem they should be dealing with is the murderer that’s snuck in the house. Slowly, he’s quietly picking them off one by one in-between making vile prank-calls to his victims. As the girls start to notice that some of them are missing they contact the police, only to be told the missing girls are probably shacked up with their boyfriends and not to worry. It’s only when a much younger girl is murdered (perhaps completely unrelated) that the police take their story seriously. By this time it’s far too late, the body count has already stacked up and the seemingly incompetent authorities can’t seem to do anything to save these girls. Although the girls are independent and forward-thinking they’re at the complete mercy of the system, the society and as a result, the psychopath that’s hellbent on slaughtering them all.
Takal’s 2019 version uses the blueprint of Clark’s film and adapts a necessary contemporary take. The sorority house remains, as does the group of girls, though perhaps not as well defined and as interesting as those from Clark’s original. But the foundation of the film differs greatly. It shows main character Riley’s journey to deal with the sexual assault from a fellow student. The film explains how Riley was drugged and raped by a well-respected and well-off student and how her reporting of the crime was ignored and the rapist went onto graduate and lead a happy life while Riley was left shattered and unable to rebuild herself to the girl she was before. Surrounded by strong, outspoken feminist friends, Riley and her pals seek to stop the silence and stand up to the toxic frat house at their college and show them that they won’t take any kind of abuse from them anymore. However, like the women in the 1974 version they start getting verbal abuse but rather than prank-calls, they get threatening in-app DM’s and their cries for help to the authorities are just as ignored. Soon after the girls in this sorority and other sororities across the campus find themselves encountering men in masks and black cloaks and meeting untimely ends.
However, unlike the 1974 film, the identity of these men is revealed and it has a supernatural twist. The founding fraternity has been using mystical means to control fraternity pledges and sending them to kill the girls, and this is pathetic as it sounds, they don’t like. If it wasn’t for the supernatural element, this could read like true crime.
Bob Clark’s Black Christmas is essentially a perfect slasher film. It’s so frightening because it can happen. The trope of someone hiding in the house to jump out and kill you is timeless. What’s horribly beautiful about Clark’s film is that there’s no justice, the killer isn’t caught and the ending is left open in such a way that it seems like he’s going to carry on killing. Christmas is supposed to be a time where we all stop for just a day but this guy won’t be taking a day off.
The ending to the 2019 take is radically different. The girls fight back. In fact, they take the fight to men and they don’t stop until there’s nothing left. An excellent cinematic depiction of the #TimesUp movement. Takal’s version might not get the horror right but it nails the politics and that’s more far more important than pacing out the scares properly. The fact that monsters like the men in Black Christmas exist mean that women can never truly feel safe. However, it’s clear this is still lost on some people. As the credits started rolling and I stood up to put my coat on I heard one of two men behind me say in the most matter of fact way, “That film was sexist.” I think you missed the point.
Words by Adam Gunton
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