Sorority girls have been tormented on screen by unknown stalkers for decades. 1974's cult film Black Christmas and its 2006 remake seemed to have wrung the story dry, but Blumhouse's Black Christmas offers a modern update.
It pits a group of educated young women against a white supremacist patriarchy under the pretty colored lights of Christmas festivities. While its straightforward horror is far inferior to this year's Ready or Not, Black Christmas does provide a satisfying sense of justice. And you can't go past goofy one-liners like, "Ho ho ho, bitch," when it comes to light and easily digestible Christmas horror stuffing.
Opening with a girl walking home alone at night, Black Christmas never lets its jump-scares actually surprise you. It also doesn't allow you to invest much in its young female characters, which may be a good thing given so many die on screen.
Riley, played by Green Room's Imogen Poots, is a hipster college student whose sorority sisters use diva cups, drink green juice and make petitions to have their misogynistic lecturers fired. She's quieter than her passionate sisters, who plan a performance at one of the college bro houses, involving a Christmas song and dance that transforms the Mean Girls performance into a statement about rape culture.
Riley's confident friend Kris, played by Charmed's Aleyse Shannon, stands out from the less-defined sisters, with her clipboard of signatures to oust Cary Elwes' Professor Gelson. Elwes, who's sidelined for most of the film, plays tightly wound college professor eerily well.
Waiting behind the curtain of Christmas fare is a costume-store masked killer picking the girls off one-by-one. The killings are suitably Christmas-themed, involving icicle impalements and Christmas-light strangulations, all preceded by creepy text messages -- one aspect of the torment that hits home.
To director Sophia Takal's credit, there's very little blood and the deaths are never gratuitous. The same can't be said of the megaphone-loud messages characters regularly spout, like "Women live in men's worlds" and "Now you'll never need a man." While those often grate, they're balanced out by moments of women empowering each other: "Rebuild yourself, bitch."
A few twists overstuff the end, along with some silly college rituals involving hooded figures and choral music. The cat-and-mouse game eventually runs out of steam, lacking Happy Death Day's driving premise or the overall depth of feminist cult horror Jennifer's Body.
Black Christmas' strengths lie in Poots' layered performance as the thoughtful, brave and damaged Riley, who's clearly still affected by a past trauma. Her journey, taking us to places like how authorities deal with reports of rape, is just enough to keep us invested.
Still, the central men vs. women conflict won't be palatable for everyone. The one-dimensional villains go so far as to argue that they, the men, have been belittled, marginalized and their livelihoods threatened by women. They're unsubtle statements, but at least as big, blunt objects, they prevent the movie from pretending to be anything more than it is.
With what feels like an abrupt ending after 90 minutes, Black Christmas's loaded material doesn't leave more than a superficial mark. But its gung-ho heroines bring an entertaining, if disposable, diversion with holiday trimmings.
Black Christmas stalks into cinemas Dec. 12 in the UK and Australia, and Dec. 13 in the US.