Black Christmas

Black Christmas ★★★

This might be a long one. First off, I kind of wanted to sleep on this when I walked out the theater, but on the drive back I kind of talked myself into just jumping right into the reviews. Maybe feeling like if I put them out there in the initial wave that maybe it'll be worth something to someone who is debating giving the film a chance in light of the widespread negativity I've seen day one. I don't think this is a bad film. I do think it's deeply flawed in several ways, but hardly the abomination that the ratings imply; it's far from the worst thing I've seen in theaters this year even.

I tried very hard to keep an open mind walking into this, despite already being aware of the tone of early reviews. It didn't help much that an abundance of technical difficulties lead to the film starting 40 minutes late either. But way back when this was first announced and Sophia Takal was attached, I was pretty excited; I've really enjoyed her last couple features, New Year, New You and Always Shine. I was also pleased to see her working with cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard again, after Always Shine. Though co-writer April Wolfe was an unknown element, I was hopeful that this could be really good. And even as it was revealed that it would be pretty loose as far as "remakes" go, that didn't bother me in theory. Frankly I'd kind of rather a remake put a new spin on the material; doing what's already been done is kind of pointless.

So anyway...eventually we got to see a trailer, and I can't say I was in love with it, but I've tried to remain optimistic; or at least open minded. I'm glad that I did...and I guess that I've got the sense about myself to do that, because a lot of people don't seem to. It's been pretty clear in some subsets of the Horror community that a lot of people were out to hate this film before it was out. Before they saw the trailer. Before they knew anything other than "another remake" was coming out. The fact that the 2006 remake is so widely maligned, but also has a feverish cult following, makes the whole topic kind of tricky in this case. I saw that film shortly after its release, when the DVD came out (I think I got a copy of the unrated version for my birthday or something). At the time I didn't even know it was a remake, I hadn't seen the original, but I still absolutely hated that film haha. I'd really like to revisit it now, as I think I'm a bit more...sensible? I guess, than I was at 17-18. I'm open to the idea that I was overcritical of it to some degree. So that's probably something I'll do in the near future, since examining it with this film fresh in mind seems interesting.

So preamble aside, let me start reviewing this movie I guess. Well I really like Takal's direction in general, and I think that Schwartzbard is great behind the camera. There are some gorgeous shots in this, some great visual ideas (like the snow angel death seen in the trailer). There are some really buttery smooth pans and zooms, especially in the first half, that I adored. They create some wonderful dead space that really sets you on edge, though I have to admit that I wish they'd done more with that space after they set it up. There aren't too many jump scares, a typical crutch for PG-13 Horror, and the ones that are there work fine. In fact one of them, which takes obvious inspiration from arguably one of the greatest jump scares of all time, is really damn effective in its own right. I don't want to give away the source film as it kind of gives away the scare.

Sonically I'm a sadly a bit less enamored; the sound design and mixing doesn't really show the same attention and care as the visuals do. There are a lot of shots that pull steadily back from the focus characters, adding to the foreground, but never really making adjustments to the sound. There are cuts to a POV of someone spying from a distance, through a window, but the audio of the people being watched is never muffled or adjusted. These are little details that may not matter to a lot of audiences, but I felt pretty aware of them, which is a shame. I was also sorely disappointed with how the score...kind of made no impression. I remember at one point about half an hour in the film and being quite suddenly aware that I wasn't sure there had been a score up to that point. Composers Brooke and Will Blair have worked on several really great films in the past, so I know they have it in them. I don't know what happened with this one, but it just wasn't there.

The editing is also a little bit rough, some of it felt like it was clearly due to cuts that had to be made for the PG-13 rating. I've read that a couple R cuts were tested before they came to this, which is a whole topic in and of itself for this review. But suffice to say, it hurt the action at times, made it feel a bit stiff and awkward.

The performances are mostly really good; Imogen Poots is always fantastic, and she really makes a good go of the material here. The supporting cast of girls get on well, I liked them, chemistry felt good in most cases. Cary Elwes is pretty campy, but that feels as intended, so it's not really bad or something I could fault him with. I found Caleb Eberhardt to be endearing too, in what I think is the first of his performances I've seen.

The PG-13 rating though. It bothers me in two different ways here, which also leads into the writing. For one, despite the changes made, this is still very much a Slasher at heart, which is a tough subgenre for PG-13. There is no gore, there is barely any blood, and the blood that is shown looks very clearly to just be smeared on faces with very little indication of wounds. It's not even that the kill setups are bad, I really liked a couple of them, but the payoff isn't quite there.

The second issue, which is honestly more vital I'd say, to what the film wants to be, is how it feels like the rating restrains the themes. It's actually a rather heavy film. There is a very defined plot thread about sexual assault, and dealing with the lack of belief and support by authorities in the aftermath. It's serious stuff, and an admirably difficult subject to approach, that is going to upset a lot of people in different ways, any way you slice it. It's frankly an uncomfortable film at times, which I don't think is a bad thing. And there are moments that it finds some purchase, and presents some interesting perspectives (even debating some of the grayer areas of the male vs. female topic). But for the most part it really only brings them up; it doesn't explore them that meaningfully, and as it reaches the final act, the collision of these very serious, very real themes and the campy, tame, supernatural teen slasher is unfulfilling. Not only are the villains cartoonishly evil and lacking nuance, but they're emboldened by this supernatural element, as if they weren't already monsters. The plot didn't need any of that, it had something meaty and upsetting at its core, and it didn't need the gimmick. So really, I think this could've benefited from the R rating, less so that we could get grisly kills, and more so that we could've gotten a more intense examination of something genuinely frightening, and in its overcoming, far more empowering.

So I walked away from this with a mixture of relief that it wasn't so bad as expected, disappointment that it wasn't as good as I'd hoped, and...frustration I suppose that I'll likely continue to read reviews in the coming days treating the film far worse than it deserves. It's surely not without issues; truly the disparity in the really harrowing plot threads with the cheesy action finale is an unfortunate misfire. But I encourage people to appreciate some genuinely good craftsmanship behind the camera, and to consider the topics that, even if imperfectly handled, are worth talking about.

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