There’s nothing tidy about the conclusion of Bob Clark’s 1974 horror classic “Black Christmas,” hailed as one of the first slasher films and the inspiration for some of the horror sub-genre’s most indelible works. After doling out thrills and chills and vicious kills to a group of sorority sisters over the course of a tidy 98 minutes, Clark’s film doesn’t end with a grand reveal of the crazed killer, no catharsis for its final girl, and little in the way of explanation as to why the hell a group of innocent coeds have forever had their holiday happiness shattered. These days, it’s the kind of open ending that would signal sequel hopes for a burgeoning franchise, but back in the ’70s, it was just a wild way to end a terrifying feature. What’s scarier than not knowing?
“Black Christmas” eventually inspired a lackluster sequel in the form of Glen Morgan’s 2006 feature of the same name, which attempted to give a backstory to its central killer (a damaged asylum escapee with a convoluted plan for revenge that centers on the sorority house that used to be his childhood house of horrors), robbing Clark’s film of some of its best bits. Thirteen years later, “Black Christmas” is getting another revival, in the form of Sophia Takal’s loose remake, which doesn’t just build out a brand new bad guy (or perhaps bad guys) to terrorize a motley group of sorority sisters, but does it with a contemporary spin that actually makes all those big reveals genuinely chilling.
Takal’s new film — her first studio-backed outing after indies like “Green” and “Always Shine,” and her second foray into the Blumhouse milieu after directing an episode of its “Into the Dark” series last year — utilizes the key elements of Clark’s feature (sorority house, Christmas break, crazed killer) and turns it into something fresh and exceedingly timely. She didn’t have a lot of time to do it, as Blumhouse hired her for the gig in February with an appropriate Friday, December 13 release date already set.
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“Basically Blumhouse’s directive to me at the very beginning was, ‘You can do whatever you want,’ and then I came back and I was like, ‘I would like to make a movie about three middle-aged women,'” Takal joked in a recent interview with IndieWire. “They were like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. Find the three to five elements of the original that define the movie to you and then take those elements in it and make a movie of that.’ For me, it was the characters, the artfulness of the violence, the sexual politics, and politics of the movie. I don’t want to re-make a movie that’s already great and just make it again.”
The filmmaker wasn’t worried about a lack of ideas when it came to the new film — in fact, the filmmaker said she might have too many kicking around in her head, including one she billed as “an incel school shooting movie” — before settling into what would become her “Black Christmas.” Still, even that idea wasn’t quite right for what she wanted to say during a fraught time in current culture. “There’s an urgency to the movie,” Takal said. “There’s rage, there’s excitement. This moment of time that we’re living as women right now is captured in the energy of the film.”
Takal’s take on “Black Christmas,” written alongside film critic and fellow screenwriter April Wolfe, is set at a bucolic New England college during holiday break, as a masked killer goes after two different sets of sorority sisters. At the center is Imogen Poots’ Riley, a college senior who was assaulted by a popular frat boy when she was just a freshman, and is still carrying her pain and rage over that incident. As the intensity ramps up — and the list of potential killers shrinks — it’s her assailant’s own fraternity that appears to be at the center of all the horror. Unlike Clark’s film, Takal’s take on “Black Christmas” reveals its bad guys by the end, with a series of revelations that are both timely and terrifying.
“I wrote a bunch of different versions of what ‘Black Christmas’ before I brought April on, but I was basically writing a straight-ahead slasher movie with a little bit of campus sexual politics thrown in,” Takal said. “But there was something that really didn’t feel good to me about just making a regular slasher movie, especially in early 2019. In the throes of the #MeToo era, and there was just something that felt assaultive about making a movie where the primary entertainment was watching women get killed.”
Takal turned to Wolfe, a film critic and long-time horror fan who also hosts the female filmmaker-centric podcast “Switchblade Sisters” (Takal herself has been a guest), to get her take on her big ideas. The filmmaker was thrilled by Wofle’s insight — lots of big questions, a canny sense of the ideas Takal was exploring — and Takal soon wondered if she might be able to join the project as a co-writer. Wolfe was down, and so was Blumhouse, and her narrative twists helped turn “Black Christmas” into something brand new.
Wolfe also helped Takal crack her killer problem. While Takal’s film does put a face — okay, faces — to the sister-stalking maniacs that attempt to murder off an entire group of friends, including Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, and Brittany O’Grady. (Wolfe also helped devise a tongue-in-cheek supernatural element that juices up the concept of “toxicity” to amusing new ends.)
“When I re-watched the original ‘Black Christmas,’ the thing that I was struck by was, at the end of the movie when you think she’s killed the killer but then this other killer comes out of the shadows, and you don’t know who he is, this woman is asleep,” Takal said. “The men who are supposed to protect her have left, she’s all alone. I was just like, ‘That is this moment right now.’ That is misogyny lurking in the corner. The killer in it, this faceless killer, is just misogyny and we can’t ever rest on our laurels or think that our job is done or that progress is inevitable. We can’t fall asleep.”
Takal said Wolfe hit upon the idea of multiple killers, a conceit that stretches the idea that “you can’t ever fully eradicate misogyny” into literal spaces. “When you kill one, then another appears,” Takal said. “We had a version where you just never find out who the killer is, just that it’s not exactly human and that you never know what it is. It’s just some weird force, but that felt kind of unsatisfying.”
Takal’s interest in issues of female empowerment and women supporting women are nothing new for the filmmaker, but “Black Christmas” offers them a progressive twist that goes far beyond headlines and cultural shifts. In Takal’s previous two features, “Green” and “Always Shine,” the filmmaker harassed the corrosive power of female jealousy to craft chilling psychological takedowns (think of it in “Mean Girls” parlance: “girl on girl crime”). For “Black Christmas,” Takal’s ladies had to be there for each other, because the threats coming from outside their tight-knit sorority house are far more destructive to them.
“One of the first things I said when I took the job on was, ‘I don’t want to make another movie where women hate each other,'” she said. “Maybe because I’m over hating other women, but I also think that we’re in this moment in time where women are lifting up each other’s voices. I feel like we’re all finding power and amplifying one another and I wanted a movie that reflected that. For me, those other movies that I made were about a darkness inside of me and I don’t feel that darkness has such a strong hold on me anymore. I do think there’s been a cultural shift, and that women really have each other’s backs and I don’t feel like we’re each other’s enemies.”
And yet Takal’s film offers plenty of nuance to its many characters. The sisters are tightly bonded, but they don’t always agree with each other or their view of the world. And, while a pack of toxic frat boys are at the center of the film’s terror, there are other types of men who appear in the film, from a conflicted boyfriend to a respectful love interest. They are not all bad guys. There’s also not all good girls.
“I didn’t want to make a movie where men as a monolith are bad people, and I didn’t want to make a movie where women as a monolith are good people,” Takal said. “There are complexities and nuances in terms of how women see the world. Some people are totally fine with the proscribed roles that you’re meant to play and it felt important to acknowledge that. It felt important to acknowledge the majority of white women who voted for Trump. It felt important to somehow find a way to put that in the movie.”
In November, the film made some weird internet waves when it was announced that it would be rated PG-13, a break with the R-rated tradition of the first two films that plenty of fans (at least on social media) appeared to take serious umbrage with. Wolfe took to Twitter to explain the rating, writing, “We wrote it with an R in mind. When they did the test screenings, [it] was clear that this movie needed to be available to a younger female audience because the subject matter is timely. Also I want to indoctrinate girls into horror. Doesn’t make it any less vicious!”
Takal doesn’t see the rating as a break with Clark’s original, and said she was actually inspired by its craft to load the film up with interesting, not gratuitous kills. “The violence wasn’t particularly explicit towards them. It was really artful,” she said. “So how do I make a movie that doesn’t feel like we’re disposable, our bodies are disposable? … It kind of all goes back to the idea that I don’t want our murders to be the thing that people find funny about the movie. I don’t find it fun to see a woman dragged by her eye-socket down the hall. Some people love gore, I don’t find that scary. To me, the thing that scares me is, ‘Where is the guy in the house?'”
Takal also clarified that she initially suspected the MPAA would give the film an R rating because of its frank discussions and depictions of sexual assault, and that was the stuff she really didn’t want to lose, despite her belief that the film should be accessible to younger audiences. She prepared for every eventuality, and was pleasantly surprised when the MPAA came back with a PG-13 rating (yes, she had to cut a few uses of the word “fuck” along the way, but it was worth it).
“We assumed it was going to be R because of all the scenes of sexual assault,” she said. “It was really important to me to not have to file that stuff down, but PG-13 was always something we were talking about. … We shot PG-13 versions of the kills and R versions of the kills and then when the MPAA came back and said it was okay to have a sexual assault [themes] in the movie [for PG-13], we just committed to that.”
That rating ensures that a younger audience will be able to access the film, which was always Takal’s intention. She wants people to talk about it, even if it’s uncomfortable or, yes, scary.
“That’s what I really want from this movie, is for people to go see the movie, and for some people to talk about their experience in a way that they haven’t acknowledged or been scared to talk about before,” Takal said. “But also for other people who maybe, even if they have a knee-jerk reaction or feel threatened [by it] or they interpret it as trying to diminish their own life experience, which it’s not, to grab down into their vulnerability and listen and know that maybe they don’t understand every aspect of everybody’s experience.”
“Black Christmas” is in theaters today.