In 1974, director Bob Clarke delivered audiences Black Christmas, exploring a group of sorority sisters who become the target of harassment and violent encounters for a mysterious reason, with the film going on to inspire the slasher craze that dominated the late '70s and '80s. The film earned a remake in 2006, which largely focused on recreating some of the original's narrative beats, while embracing a much more gruesome tone. Director Sophia Takal is unleashing her take on Black Christmas this weekend, which injects a sense of cultural urgency into the concept, while also making itself accessible to a younger audience.
In the film, Hawthorne College is quieting down for the holidays. But as Riley Stone and her Mu Kappa Epsilon sisters — athlete Marty, rebel Kris, and foodie Jesse — prepare to deck the halls with a series of seasonal parties, a black-masked stalker begins killing sorority women one by one. As the body count rises, Riley and her squad start to question whether they can trust any man, including Marty’s beta-male boyfriend, Nate, Riley’s new crush Landon or even esteemed classics instructor Professor Gelson. Whoever the killer is, he’s about to discover that this generation’s young women aren’t about to be anybody’s victims.
ComicBook.com recently caught up with director Takal, who also co-wrote the script with April Wolfe, to discuss her approach to reviving the premise, the necessity of offering audiences more than an entertaining story, and its PG-13 rating
ComicBook.com: The first project I saw you in was V/H/S back in 2012 and, while many people involved with it went on to do a number of other horror projects over the years, you gravitated towards other genres. What was it about doing New Year, New You for Blumhouse's Into the Dark series and now Black Christmas that brought you back to horror?
Sophia Takal: I do not consider the movie I made after V/H/S, Always Shine, to be a straight-ahead horror movie, but I think a lot of people took it as a psychological horror film, which it is, but it's definitely less straight-ahead horror.
I really love Blumhouse. I'm a fan of what they do, so the opportunity to work with a company that I think is making really interesting work in any genre, regardless of if it's horror or not, was an opportunity I was going to automatically say "yes" to.
One of the things that's so great about working with them is that they really trust their filmmakers and the vision of their filmmakers and the stories those filmmakers want to tell, and they helped make the best version of the movie I wanted to make possible. The opportunity to work with a bigger budget with a studio and on a much bigger scale than I've been able to do on my own with independent films, and still have that same support and independent way of thinking about movies, was really exciting to me.
There's no real reason to craft a remake merely to copy everything about it, so what was your approach to embracing the spirit of the Black Christmas while also offering a new perspective of the source material?
I was a really big fan of the original, I saw it about 10 years ago for the first time, and the primary thing that I loved about that movie was how well-drawn the female characters were and how, basically since that movie was made, at least growing up for me, the depiction of sorority sisters was just so flat and two-dimensional and judgmental. What struck me when I was watching the original was just, "Oh, these are real human beings who have real conflict with one another and who are smart and sassy and sharp and not just ditzes."
That was the first thing that was exciting to me, was the opportunity to make a horror movie with fully-realized female characters in a mainstream horror movie.
When Blumhouse asked if I wanted to remake this movie, I went back and rewatched the original movie and asked, "Well, what is its connection to now?" It was important to me to be able to answer the question: Why make this movie now? Why remake it now? Why take a movie that I consider to be so perfect and so fantastic, how do I move the conversation forward?
Watching it earlier this year, at the end of the movie, the main character, who's a woman who is fighting with her boyfriend because she wants to get an abortion so she can have a career — which, in the 1970s, was just so radical to be making a movie about in the first place — she kills her boyfriend, who you've come to think is a bad guy. Then after all the cops leave her alone, a man comes out of the shadow, a faceless man, and you realize that she didn't kill the right person and that the killer is still out there.
In 2019, that resonates for me as a metaphor for misogyny in general. In the #MeToo era and with Time's Up and all of these women and marginalized people's voices coming together to speak out against terrible things, I still had this very uneasy feeling that sexism was not something that could ever be fully eradicable. This was informed by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and his confirmation and just feeling like, "Oh." It was like a replay of Clarence Thomas with the same results. People had spoken out against what Louis C.K. had done and then he started to do comedy shows again.
There was just this feeling of all these people who have engaged in predatory behavior coming out of the woodwork, so this idea that women can never feel fully safe or feel like the battle is totally won and that there's always going to be the bad thing out there was, for me, seeing the connection to the original movie, and that idea was the "why now?" for me, of remaking this movie.
In terms of the story that I took, I wanted to make a movie where the bad guy represented unkillable misogyny, in a way.
Was there any pushback from Blumhhouse about how overt those themes were, possibly asking you to tone those elements down to make it more accessible?
Blumhouse never pushed back on it. They were always totally, totally excited by what we were trying to do. This project came together really, really quickly. We didn't have a script in March of this year and now it's coming out in December. I think because of the fast timeline, we weren't able to second-guess ourselves.
April Wolfe, my co-writer, and I, were really tapped into this energy ... a little bit of rage, a little bit of, I don't want to say "excitement," but just energy, feeling galvanized in a community of other women. I'm trying to think of if ever on set I was just like, "Oh, are we going too far?" I never really did.
I was always really excited about the dialogue that this movie was going to create and, for me, the point of movies, especially horror movies, I think there's certainly a strain of horror movies that are mindless, but I think horror movies throughout history have been really political and sharp and are meant to provoke and are meant to entertain, first and foremost, but are also meant to bring a conversation to a community.
It was always really important to me to make a movie that would spark a dialogue and maybe make people feel a little uncomfortable, but also make some people feel less alone and use the art form and use the mass reach that a movie like this can have to entertain, to scare, to thrill, but also to make people think a little bit.
You previously did an interview about the film where you said you considered your take to be "fiercely feminist." While a lot of horror fans were thrilled with that approach, others expressed how they wanted their genre films to be devoid of political or cultural messages. Are you excited to see that the film is sparking these conversations ahead of release or is it more discouraging to see your artwork dismissed?
I want to speak honestly about this. Obviously it's discouraging to hear people dismiss something because there are ideas in it. I don't agree with the people who think that horror movies are inherently unpolitical. I don't think that they are. I think any move you make, there's something political about them, what you choose to tell, who you choose to make movies about, how you choose to tell the story. That's all political and personal.
I don't think it needs to be one or the other. I think a movie can be wildly entertaining, wildly scary, and still make you think about things. This idea of "I don't want to see a movie about that," there was something, I guess, I'd say disheartening, because it felt so closely tied into certain themes and the subject of the movie, too, of just people who don't feel comfortable absorbing a person's point of view that's maybe had a different experience than them and not wanting to be open to that.
I think a lot of this idea of space and marginalized people taking up space that some people feel is owed to them, like the guys in the frat house.
I want to also be very explicit that I don't consider this movie to be "anti-man" at all. There's plenty of good guys in the movie, but there's this frat house that is filled with a rapist and his enablers, it's a particular type of person who feels very entitled to basically owning everything and being in charge and the idea of other people coming in and speaking about their own experience is such a threat to them that there's a huge backlash and they're willing to go to these extreme measures to hold onto their power, which I feel is a reflection of what's going on in our society right now.
That dialogue reminded me of "I don't want to hear about women's experiences. I don't want a movie that 'shoves politics down your throat,'" but it's just that I'm talking about my own experience as a woman and what it's like to be a young woman right now. What I hope this movie will do is allow people who have gone through experiences, like the characters have, to feel safe to talk about it in their own communities, but also to talk about it with people who are different from them, as well. Maybe those people can engage in a non-defensive way and just hear about what it is to be a marginalized person in a space that they've been taught they're not allowed to have.
There were definitely a lot of ugly things being said, so I appreciate getting your take on it.
I was also really galvanized by all of the people. It was really exciting to see all of these people, for lack of a better word, sticking up for us and for the movie and for what the movie was trying to do and how it's really exciting that we've been given this opportunity to feel like there was a community of men and women who were largely opposed to this idea that horror shouldn't be political or that a movie like this shouldn't exist, was really heartening.
Fans were also concerned that your film earned a PG-13 rating, with some claiming that slasher movies couldn't be effective without an R rating. Do you think the final cut of the film is absent of anything you really wanted to accomplish?
No, I actually really don't. What's really interesting about the original is the reason it's rated R is not because of violence, it's really more because of language and sexual themes.
When April said, "We shot it with an R in mind," I think it was because we had always wanted it to be a movie that would appeal to young women and it was always really important to me that the violence didn't feel exploitative or that there was anything titillating or sexually exciting about women dying. That was always my idea when shooting the kills. That also is, again, the kills in the original Black Christmas, they're super creative and not particularly explicit or gory. That's something I love about the movie, so I wanted to honor that.
The reason we thought it might be R is because the main character's been sexually assaulted and there's, at least in my brain, this idea that the MPAA rates movies about female sexuality in a harsh way. I think we were always bracing ourselves for the MPAA coming back and being like, "You can't make a movie about this topic and have it be PG-13," but then it ended up not being true. The MPAA was fine with it being a PG-13 movie with those topics.
I was always pretty clear that that was the stuff that I don't want to file down or cut the teeth out of, or whatever the expression is. That was the stuff that was important to me, to make a movie that honored a woman's experience of sexual assault in an unambiguous way.
Then, with the violence, it's just my opinion, but I don't like the 2006 version of Black Christmas. I can see how people have fun with that movie, but I don't find the gross-out gore of those kinds of movies that scary. As a woman watching movies and as an actor acting in horror movies, I've always been very aware of how women can just feel bad watching a movie like that. I wanted to make a movie that young women and women of all ages would not walk away feeling like their bodies were disposable.
I had to lose some "fucks." There were a couple of shots that I was surprised weren't allowed that I would've loved to have had, but I don't feel that it changed the tone or how scary the movie is to have to go to PG-13. It was always something we really wanted to do, to make a movie that could appeal to young people, because it's about what it is to be young right now in such a complicated time. It made sense to make a movie for the people that it's about.
Black Christmas lands in theaters this Friday.
Image courtesy of Blumhouse/Rachel Luna/Getty Images