Black Christmas has been remade once already, in 2006. But Takal’s version is up-to-date in a very specific way, starting from the realisation Clark’s original premise — a string of killings at a sorority house — offers a direct route into today’s version of what were known in the 1990s as the “culture wars”. After all, who are more likely than young people of university age to discuss subjects such as “toxic masculinity” explicitly and at length?
A performer as well as a filmmaker, Takal hails from the realm of talky independent US cinema sometimes known as “mumblecore” and this is, so to speak, a post-Girls slasher, where everyone is alert to sexual politics and even the most chauvinistic frat boys know the right buzzwords to throw around in jest.
Naturally, qualms are raised about the dubious reputation of the university’s 19th-century founder (“He owned slaves — in the North!”). Naturally, too, there are protests afoot against the resident conservative literature professor (Cary Elwes), an amalgam of culture warrior Jordan Peterson and Giles from Buffy who quotes Camille Paglia and smirkingly defends his choice to teach an all-male canon.
All this threatens to veer towards the heavy-handed, but there’s enough wit to make it work. There’s a degree of visual style, too, especially in the wide shots of the snowed-in, half-deserted campus (the film was shot in New Zealand, with the University of Otago as the main location).
The emptiness is due to the holiday break, with most students heading home to their families. Among those who have opted to remain and celebrate an “orphan’s Christmas” is the heroine Riley (Imogen Poots), a literal orphan and a recent victim of sexual assault, putting her heavily on guard even before the murders begin.
The role is a gift to Poots, who over the past decade has proven her versatility in supporting roles (as in Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way), but has rarely had the scope for her talents she gets here. Her performance grounds the more caricatured elements of the film, conveying not the defiance expected of horror heroines but a defensive friendliness masking chronic anxiety: an unusually believable portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder.
All of this ensures that when we reach the climax something significant is at stake: much of the meaning of the film will be determined by the identity of the killer and how the final showdown plays out.
Takal doesn’t exactly lose her nerve, but she’s restricted by the particular template she has to follow. Like last year’s Truth or Dare, this Black Christmas belongs to the odd sub-genre of horror films aimed at an audience of young teenagers and designed to win a PG rating from the American censors.
This means that the deaths, unlike in the 2006 film, are never too gruesome: Takal tends to build to the moment of impact and then cut away. Bad language is restricted, too, and even the sexual content, which is explicit enough, is more a matter of talk than action.
All this reduces the element of transgression that has been the strength of horror especially since the 1970s — the willingness to tackle troubling subject-matter without the alibi of respectability.
To borrow a dubious phrase, Black Christmas signals its virtue all the way, meaning it will inevitably be embraced by certain kinds of commentators and denounced by others. But on its own terms, the film is risky enough and young viewers who see it without much advance knowledge of what to expect may well feel that they’re getting more than what they bargained for.