Even when considered alongside other cults, fraternities are uniquely gross and terrifying. “They do charity and are good for networking” is a profoundly lame argument in the face of “They are linked to a simply breathtaking amount of sexual assaults.” A horror movie that leverages the inherent terror of the college rape crisis seems both warranted and potentially catastrophically irresponsible. Black Christmas straddles that line like Frosty doing the splits.
If taken at face value, writer April Wolfe and writer/director Sophia Takal have made a wicked bit of feminist carnage, not so much inverting the slasher genre as applying “#MeToo” makeup to it. Yet, at times, it is unclear whether Black Christmas is laughing with its sorority subjects or at them. Within the first five minutes, a woman wearing a shirt that jokes about “Manologues” puts in a diva cup while practically staring down her friend, standing in her bedroom. Is that fun, silly shorthand for sisterhood or some kind of parody?
The gossamer plot is less complicated than deciphering the film’s tone: Someone is sending creepy direct messages to women on campus just before Christmas break. Riley (Imogen Poots) is the first one to link the icky texts to women disappearing. She suspects the whole thing may have something to do with her and her sisters calling out racist, sexist stuff at the school. They demanded the removal of a bust depicting the college’s slave-owning founder and are petitioning against Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes). His gloriously grotesque use of Camille Paglia to defend a literature syllabus that contains only white dudes is maybe the film’s smartest bit of writing.
Far too slowly and with far too little style, given the narrative simplicity, the attacks increase before crescendoing into a third act that is as gleefully bonkers as the whole of Black Christmas should have been. Absolutely nothing about the quasi-supernatural machinations make a bloody drop of sense, but watching a random young woman assaulting murderous rapists with a menorah is the exact sort of delightful shenanigans that was promised.
The fact that a slasher horror movie that hinges on sexual assault chose to go PG-13 is palpably insane. This isn’t because younger viewers shouldn’t be exposed to observations about rape culture so much as because ultra-violent, gory revenge would have been more deeply satisfying. In that and so many other ways, Black Christmas wants to have its fruitcake and eat it too. The long stretches of self-seriousness detract from its potential cheekiness. The genuinely enjoyable sisterly bonds clash with the “final girl” trope that’s used. The madcap insanity of the last 30 minutes is in direct opposition to the tone of the previous 60 minutes.
And yet, far better to offer a messy bit of genre-based empowerment than to roll out hackneyed, reductive horror patterns. Nothing about Black Christmas may work in its entirety, but imperfect fun is still fun. Better to watch supportive women wailing on evil frat bros than whatever misogynistic gibberish Clint Eastwood has folded into his latest.
Grade = B-