Horror movies and fiction are the twin sister of grimdark just the way fantasy is its father. As such, Grimdark Magazine is going to be providing a review of classic horror movies as well as novels to share in shared DNA. This is the perfect place to share my opinion of the remake of 2019 Black Christmas as compared to the original 1974 classic. Many individuals have torn down the remake on various grounds ranging from politics to cheap production budget, but I intend to give both movies a fair shake. I won’t lie, though, since one of the films is arguably one of the greatest slasher movies of all time–its remake will be facing stiff competition.
The premise of the original Black Christmas is based on a popular urban legend about the massacre of babysitters by an escaped mental patient. The same one that inspired Halloween in 1978. The story was updated to take place, instead, in a sorority house filled with a collection of hard partying young women. Cinema fans will immediately recognize Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet), Margot Kidder (Superman), Keir Duella (2001: A Space Odyssey), Andrea Martin (too many comedies to list), and John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street) among the cast.
The sorority house has been receiving a series of obscene phone calls from an unknown caller that they finally grow sick of enough to call out the man on the other line regarding. This results in one of the young women, Clare Harrison, being murdered in the upstairs of the sorority house before her body is stored in the attic. The rest of the movie deals with the unknown caller, possibly named Billy, stalking our protagonists as they desperately search for their missing (but already dead) friend.
Famously, there’s also a surprising subplot about the fact that Jess (Olivia Hussey) is breaking up with her boyfriend over the latter’s refusal to respect that she wants to get an abortion rather than get married. A controversial topic today let alone in 1974 when Roe vs. Wade happened just the year before. Mind you, this was a Canadian film so a little less controversial there despite being set in the USA.
Due to the fact most popular slasher tropes hadn’t been codified yet, much of the film feels like it lives in defiance of them. The stars of the film are its female cast of characters rather than the slasher himself, who remains an enigmatic and off-screen presence except for a single eyeball and his frequent calls. Most of the women are hard partying and explicitly sexually active while the most virginal is the first to die in defiance of genre convention. There’s certainly a Final Girl character but her ability to stand up against the killer is almost cruelly subverted at every turn.
The remake of Black Christmas in 2019 isn’t the first remake, which happened in 2006, but we’re not going to cover that one. It is notable for having a dramatically different plot than the original movie to the point that it might even be considered a different film. Directed by Sophia Takal, and written by Takal and April Wolfe, it has been described as a feminist reinterpretation of the original.
In this one, Riley (Imogen Poots), is a victim of sexual assault on campus by a member of the AKO Fraternity. After blasting her rapist, Brian (Ryan McIntyre), during a school play, she discovers her sorority is now under attack by several robed occultists. The fraternity was founded a century ago by an evil wizard plantation owner who has passed down a magical ooze that allows it to turn pledges into mind-controlled misogynist serial killers. Our protagonists end up fighting off a small army of bad guy cultists while losing several members.
The two storylines are significantly different as can be inferred by their plot summaries. The original Black Christmas has a single killer using stealth and terror to slowly pick off women one by one. The remake’s killers are many murderers that attack out in the open while wearing elaborate costumes. The fact Billy is a misogynist psychopath whose origins remain nebulous makes him a more “realistic” threat than the weird occult villains of the second.
The creators of the second movie emphasize its feminism but I think the first one is quite feminist in its own right. The protagonists are all liberated and independent women. They are also deeply involved in each other’s lives. When Clare disappears, the young women of the sorority spend much of the next day scouring the campus and surrounding area for her. They visit the police and lean on each other as it becomes increasingly clear that they are never going to see her alive again.
The remake suffers from the fact that one of their friends is murdered at the start of the movie in an elaborate chase scene (contrasting to the quick plastic bag execution of Clare) only to have none of the women notice for most of the film. Her disappearance is not worth commenting on and more attention is (perhaps understandably) given to dealing with Riley’s trauma. I feel this makes the sorority sisters of the 2019 movie feel less supportive of each other and, ironically, less feminist.
Both movies star misogynist villains with Billy being a terrifying looming presence. He is never defined, and we never get a good insight into either his motivations or reasoning. Billy’s phone calls give us some clues that he’s motivated by a hatred of women, though. The AKO Fraternity is much more overt in their misogyny, drawing literal strength from their racist and sexist founder via sorcery. I find Billy to be the more terrifying, personally, being more grounded despite addressing issues like rape culture.
The endings are really the area where the two movies diverge the most. Here’s a SPOILER WARNING if you want to avoid discussion of this. Skip this paragraph. The original Black Christmas ends with Jesse killing her boyfriend Peter (Keir Duella) under the mistaken impression that he was the serial killer. The police give her a sedative and leave her in the sorority alone, Billy still present and likely to murder her. It’s a bleak nihilistic ending that is more powerful for how tragic it all is. The recap ends with the extermination of the AKO Fraternity as its members are locked in their fraternity and burned to death. Evil is punished, perhaps excessively so since the the fraternity pledges are mind-controlled rather than misogynists of their own free will.
Acting-wise, I’m sorry but I’m going to have it all to the original. Margot Kidder’s Barb is a delightful character that is entertaining in every scene she’s in. Olivia Hussey’s Jesse is also a delightful, showing gentleness and vulnerability that doesn’t diminish her inner strength. Keir Duella’s Peter shows just enough controlling and violent behavior to make him a possible suspect in the murders even as you could also view him as someone with very specific ideas about how a man is supposed to act in the event of a surprise pregnancy. Ideas that he hasn’t bothered to check to see if his girlfriend wants or supports (or if she even likes him that much).
Imogen Poots does a fine job as Riley and I enjoyed her friend Aleyse Shannon’s Kris as well. Unfortunately, I feel their characters feel a good deal more stereotypical (or archetypal if you want to be kind) with them feeling like they belong in a much more typical slasher movie. Cary Elwes has experience in these types of films from his stint in the Saw franchise but he comes off as a one- note stereotype. Ryan McIntyre’s Brian Huntley also is just “rapist jock” and lacks any additional layers (not that such a character particularly needs them).
In short, I’m going to state that the original Black Christmas remains the undisputed winner in all categories. This isn’t to say the 2019 remake is particularly awful, though. I think it’s entertaining in the way B-slasher movies should be. The plot is silly and over-the-top with its own charm. It just doesn’t have the strength, believability, or scares that the original possessed. I believed in the sorority sisters of the 1974 version and would want to hang with them. The 2019 version feels like a movie set about sorority sisters that are played by actresses. In short: Black Christmas (1974) is Halloween (1978), Black Christmas (2019) is Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers.