Thoughts on “Black Christmas”

So, I have Crave TV as my on-TV streaming service thingie, and one time when I was looking to see what other things were on it I noticed the “Horror” category and decided to work through the movies in that category.  So for the next few weeks that’s what I’ll be doing.  “Black Christmas” is the first of these, and is the remake of an older movie that it turns out that I actually watched at some point (when I had the “Scream” channel in my cable package, which was similar to “Shudder” is now except that it wasn’t streaming, which makes me consider getting “Shudder” but I don’t have a place to watch streaming movies that don’t come through my cable box and I haven’t been all that thrilled with their originals anyway).  So this was one that I had a little interest in coming in.  The movie doesn’t really have much to do with the original movie and ultimately it doesn’t follow the same structure as that one, so it’s kinda a remake in name only.  But that’s not really the issue with the movie, for me.  The main issue is that like “The Craft:  Legacy” it seems to be trying to make a Social Justice point, but unlike the movie those points are more ambiguous than stupid.

This movie is also one where it’s really hard to come up with a good way to organize my thoughts on it, because there are a lot of interconnected issues that don’t make sense in isolation but where ever I start talking things will suffer by not having the other points to appeal to.  So I’ll try the best I can to make this make some kind of sense.

The main plot is this:  the main character is a woman in a college sorority who claims to have been raped by a member of a popular fraternity (it’s the “intoxicated or drugged” type instead of a violent rape).  She went to the police and they didn’t believe her, so he’s gone free.  The fraternity is holding a Christmas pageant and the women of her sorority put together a skit calling him out about it.  At about the same time, women on campus get attacked by a strange hooded figure, who seems to be targeting the members of her sorority.

That works well-enough as the background.  Making the rape a big part of the main character is the first nod towards Social Justice, and especially so since it isn’t all that important to the overall plot, but is referenced in a number of places — including in a dream/memory sequence — where it isn’t really relevant.  It’s also ambiguous because the guy who she says raped her later gets her in a situation where there is no reason for him to deny raping her, and he still says that he didn’t do it, and it is implied that he drugged her deliberately to take advantage of her.  But if he’s still denying that when he has no reason to deny it, then is she right about that?  Maybe she’s wrong and it was just somewhat intoxicated sex that she regretted later.  Yes, in the Social Justice scheme of things that still counts as rape, but in general we aren’t going to look too harshly on a guy who might well have been drunk himself who hooked up with a drunk woman at a party.  This only gets more ambiguous because the main character “saves” her sorority sister that she was acting as an official Big Sister to from either that guy or a similar situation and it’s later revealed that she was entirely consenting to the act.  So it isn’t clear that this is something that should be considered as evil an act as the movie considers it to be.

This also carries over to her lack of trust in the police.  Towards the end, they are fleeing the house and her friend suggests going to the police, and the main character references the dead bodies in their sorority house — of their attackers — and insists that the police won’t believe them, citing that they didn’t believe her when she reported the rape.  However, this is pretty ridiculous because the police are indeed quite likely to believe that a bunch of young college women didn’t lure a couple of men to the house, cajole them into dressing up in strange robes, only to kill them.  And if they were really sexist, they wouldn’t have believed that the women would have been physically capable of overpowering them anyway.  So it’s a ridiculous argument that no one should have believed or agreed to.

This could have been made more reasonable with the earlier scene where the Little Sister has gone missing and the main character goes to the campus police and he doesn’t believe her.  Except this is ambiguous as well.  The cop is a bit skeptical, but he clearly is that way because the woman was only a few hours overdue.  He asks some reasonable questions, and when she brings up Landon — the guy that she just met who will be important later — he reasonably asks her if she might suspect him and she vigorously denies that, despite having no reason to think that he couldn’t have been involved.  The cop then goes with her to the fraternity that she is insisting did something terrible to her friend, looks around, can’t get in, and then says that if her friend doesn’t turn up by the next day to come back and he’d investigate some more.  She takes this as a sign that he simply doesn’t believe her — and is wrong to do so — but that approach is actually reasonable, since he clearly didn’t have enough reason to, say, break into the fraternity to see if she was there.  On top of that, her own friends didn’t think that her friend had been gone long enough to go to the police, so why would he?

On top of that, at the end he rushes out to the scene of the murders and is killed trying to help the girls, but is merely unprepared for what he would face.  So he’s not even presented as a bad person or bad cop, someone who isn’t actually willing to protect people.  He’s a good cop and pretty much a hero.  This makes it hard to believe that he’s being unreasonable in not jumping immediately to do everything the main character says he should do, which makes her insistence on that seem unreasonable, which makes her distrust of the police in general seem unreasonable and makes us wonder if she’s interpreting the details of the rape properly.

And this is very sad because they actually had a good reason for the main character to not want to go to the police, while her friend might want to:  it turns out that what is behind the attacks is actually the bust of the founder of the college, which is supernaturally influencing people or can be used to turn people into zombies, depending on which ability you think is the driving force behind the plot.  More on that later.  The main character could have easily insisted that the problem was with the busy and the police were not going to believe that it was the issue, and so they wouldn’t deal with the actual problem, while her friend could be insisting that at least with the police they’d be safe whereas if they went after the bust they’d probably get killed.  This would give a real conflict, make the main character seem heroic for going after the bust anyway, and make the ending with the friend actually have some real meaning (more on that later, too).  Except they didn’t do that to shoehorn in some kind of “The police don’t believe women” point.

So let me talk about the other ambiguity, which is with her friend herself.  She’s a Social Justice Warrior in the worst possible sense.  We are introduced to her circulating a petition to get a professor fired, which we discover is because she tried to take his Classic Literature course and asked about diversity and representation, and he got angry at her and, in her words, yelled at her.  Except by that point we know that she’s not exactly polite about things like that, so we’re pretty sure that it wasn’t just polite questioning or a polite suggestion as almost certainly accusatory.  And, in fact, when she describes it she says that she questioned him about why there were few to no women, and then black people, and then gay people, and so on, and so we know that she was essentially badgering him about it, and that she did it in front of the entire class as well.  So she doesn’t seem all that reasonable about these sorts of things.  She does get called out on this after she posts the video of their skit with a commentary actually making an accusation of rape, but it isn’t clear that the main character is calling her out because she’s doing the wrong thing or because the main character herself is afraid of the consequences of doing that publicly.  The problem with this specifically is that nothing seems to come from that conversation itself — the friend doesn’t seem to learn to be more discerning but the main character doesn’t seem to learn that that sort of thing is right either — and so it isn’t clear what it’s there for,

It also comes in another pointless part where the boyfriend of one of the other sisters, who has been around them the entire time and is the only man to be around the entire time, gets ticked off at her and calls her out for always talking about how terrible all men are, at which point she replies with indignation that he’s gone all “Not all men!” on her.  He talks about having a terrible headache, but it isn’t clear if his concerns are valid or are expressing some kind of strange misogyny.  From what we know of the friend, it’s perfectly reasonable that someone might get tired of her ranting, but the accusation that he’s doing “Not all men!” in a Social Justice context means that he’s wrong and invalidly criticizing her.  So it isn’t clear whether this is supposed to be him giving reasonable objections or whether it’s supposed to be him acting oddly and perhaps under some kind of strange influence.

Which brings us back to the bust mentioned earlier, and explains part of the issue here.  It’s revealed that the bust itself can influence perfectly reasonable men into becoming alpha male-type and somewhat misogynistic men.  The main symptom of this is, you guessed it, a headache.  The same sort of headache that the boyfriend had.  Later, this gets him to get himself killed bravely trying to “protect his woman” (yes, he actually says that), even though it doesn’t actually do any good as she manages to use that distraction to keep herself alive longer but then gets killed later (which is a shame because she was my favourite character).  But the words seem misogynistic and how the bust is used is meant to invoke misogyny, but again he’s acting bravely and heroically, so it doesn’t align.

And that’s the real issue here.  This idea of the bust influencing people’s minds and getting them to do bad things is a good one.  However, they also hint at using some kind of black fluid to turn men into zombies who are the ones who do the killing.  And then at the end, they subvert the classical take by making this all into a huge conspiracy, and then that doesn’t hold together.  So let me back up a bit to talk about how the movie is like the original “Black Christmas”.

For much of the movie, what we have are women being killed secretly one at a time.  At the same time, the movie has set up a number of potential killers, and is hiding the identity of the killer from the audience.  We have the professor that the friend is trying to get fired who is very angered by that, the guy who is accused of raping the main character and is very angered by the accusation, and as noted even the new guy Landon would work as a suspect, as the campus police officer noted (and her strong denial of that would only make it turning out to be him more satisfying).  So as per the genre we have these people being set-up to be the suspects so one of them might turn out to be the killer.  Or not.  I believe that in the original “Black Christmas” the actual killer turned out to be someone that we had never met and so a complete surprise.  Now, unlike in mysteries, this can work in this sort of horror movie because while the mystery is used to build suspense it isn’t the end of the actual movie.  And eliminating all the reasonable suspects in favour of some random person that the main characters had never heard of before can actually be more viscerally frightening than someone who had a grudge, especially if they are killing people just for the sake of killin’.  So the movie’s initial structure is set up pretty well to pull off that sort of traditional story.

And then the movie pulls the rug out from under us by revealing, as noted above, that it’s a conspiracy associated with the hostile fraternity, which contains the professor and the guy accused of raping the main character.

To be utterly fair to the movie, the reveal is actually pretty well done.  After spending the entire movie focusing on these girls, it sets up a scene where in her death throes the character that I liked the most is heroically straining to reach her cell phone and call the police, and then it cuts to the campus police officer getting the call and rushing to the scene — getting killed there as I already noted — but revealing that … it’s a different sorority house and so a completely different group of women are being attacked and killed.  So it isn’t about them and isn’t about any kind of revenge.  So we know that this is bigger than it originally seemed.  Not long after, the main character sneaks into the fraternity house aided by Landon, who ends up getting converted via headache and then they capture and knock out the main character and then explain their big plan, which is to use the power of the bust to recruit men to their cause and place them in positions of power so that they can roll back the “excesses” of feminism.  Which is actually not a bad plan, as long as we assume that the fraternity did indeed have some people of power and influence who could do that.  Except, we can immediately call into question why in the world they would then convert their members into zombies to commit this murder spree.  Killing off all of these women doesn’t seem to advance their position in any way, and since they are using people that could be associated with the fraternity it’s actually likely that they’d get found out which would work against their plans.  They aren’t killing all these women out of revenge or to hide something, and doing this would only draw attention to them.  So they go from being clever and sneaky to being idiots.

And this only gets worse with the other revelation, which is how the main character gets caught.  Her Little Sister is found tied up in a room, but it turns out that she was actually converted to their cause and wants to accept the subordinate position.  Recruiting women like this seems a good move for our villains.  Except that they get the women targeted by placing items they owned on an altar, and it turns out that they placed something of hers there as well, seemingly to get her killed.  Why?  She’s attractive and willing to join them, and they didn’t seem worried that she’d rat them out for the murders, and even if they were that only makes the attacks make even less sense.  Killing her off that way can only be used to make them seem evil and for her to get her comeuppance for her betrayal, except that her betrayal wasn’t all that bad yet and that comeuppance should follow from either her own actions or from the main character getting payback.  So, again, the movie goes with trying to make the villains more evil at the expense of making them make sense.

And all of this is likely done to make the ending work.  The friend comes back with the other women from the other sororities and they engage in an all-out melee.  Against zombified exceedingly strong men as well as a group of other men who are stronger than they are.  And yet there doesn’t seem to be any significant casualties among the girls, which there probably should have been if they were really trying to kill them.  At any rate, they manage to get the bust destroyed by setting the professor on fire, which sets the room on fire, at which point the women run out of the room and deliberately lock the men inside in a huge “What the hell, hero?!?” moment.  See, we know that the men were under the control of the bust, some as zombies and some as alpha influence.  We know that after the bust is destroyed that influence is lost because Landon was under the influence and is saved at the end.  So there’s no indication that the men were still trying to kill them and weren’t just trying to escape, and we know that some of the men there were innocents who were supernaturally controlled, and the heroines are content leaving them to burn to death.  In fact, they stand outside the fraternity house and look smugly at the burning building as it burns, even though the fraternity house itself didn’t seem to reflect any real horror for them and so seeing it burn shouldn’t really give them any satisfaction.  So the entire structure of the supernatural threat works against the ending, and the ending requires the movie to make the villains very, very villainous which it doesn’t pull off.

To be honest, the interesting plot here is the one about the bust that can influence people’s minds, and that’s what they should have focused on.  If they wanted to keep the Social Justice angle, they could have made a fairly subtle shot at incels by having the bust be rescued by Landon who would have had no success with women, and then used it to try to give him success.  What it would have done is taken away his latent misogyny but then broadcast it out across the campus, which would explain why varying women are being killed by different men.  With his misogyny gone, he would have actually been or come across as a good person which would have gotten him the interest of the main character, making the point that the problem with incels is indeed their misogyny and not anything else about them.  Then destroying the bust could have ended the murders, and a point could have been made about not ignoring misogyny in people because it can come out and impact the world and men around them, even the “good” ones.  You could redeem Landon or not as desired.  While I don’t think I’d agree with such a message, at least it would have been subtle and consistent and tied into the plot.  As it is, the bust influence plot works against the conspiracy plot and the murders work against the conspiracy plot as well, but the conspiracy plot is what is needed to make the ending make sense at all.

I also would have dropped the accusation of rape as well, mostly because it isn’t properly developed and doesn’t add anything to the plot or the characterization of the main character.

Ultimately, the movie isn’t uninteresting.  If nothing else, it moves and the performances are relatively good.  But the ambiguity of the message and the confused plot really doesn’t work.  This is a movie that I probably could watch again, but can’t imagine when or why I actually would.

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