This time last year, shortly after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court and Louis C.K. was announcing new shows at the Comedy Cellar, filmmaker Sophia Takal was writing a horror movie about the patriarchy.
“I just started to feel like all of this hope for change that I and so many women had, the trajectory was less clear,” Takal told HuffPost about writing “Black Christmas,” her modern retooling of the 1974 classic.
Directed by Bob Clark (“A Christmas Story”), the original “Black Christmas” is a deceptively simple exercise in sorority girl stalk and slash, but the holiday horror is also a rich and atmospheric gem, one that would set the standard for the scads of slasher films it ultimately inspired. Still, to the 2019 eye, the movie is most striking for its frank discussion of abortion just one year after Roe v. Wade was decided.
“Even though it’s the first slasher movie, it feels so modern in a way,” Takal said.
Takal’s version feels similarly immediate.
The film stars Imogen Poots as Riley, a sexual assault survivor whose abuser was protected by the school and largely went unpunished. Singled out by men in the university’s administration and supported only by her tightknit sorority, Riley is forced back into the school’s spotlight as she begins to suspect her fellow students are going missing over winter break.
“Black Christmas” isn’t immune to the kind of #SquadGoals feminism that feels ever flimsier as the decade nears its close, but Takal has an uncanny ability to depict the intricacies of girl world with striking specificity, making the movie’s DivaCup talk and obvious “Mean Girls” homage feel perceptive rather than passé.
“I wanted to make a movie where instead of feeling objectified or watched from a distance, the audience felt seen,” Takal said.
In an interview with HuffPost, Takal got candid about post-Me Too conversations, how she uses filmmaking as a way to process shame, and why she used Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” as a road map for her remake.
“Black Christmas” is one of my absolute favorites and was sort of famously poorly remade in 2006. I would love to know how you went about retrofitting this for 2019.
“Black Christmas” is one of my favorite horror movies as well. The first time I saw it, I was really struck by how well-drawn the female characters were, and how complex those relationships between the sorority sisters were.
Just generally, I was struck by how artful the violence toward the women was done, so that it didn’t feel exploitative or that women’s bodies are disposable. In slasher movies since then, it’s like a woman running around in her lingerie or being stabbed between the tits or something. I was just struck by how, even though it’s the first slasher movie, it felt so modern in a way. And also in terms of the sexual politics and the abortion plotline, it just felt ahead of its time in that way, [which] was really exciting to me.
So when Blumhouse [Productions] approached me about doing a remake, they did say, “You don’t have to do a straightforward remake, you can do what you want within the context of the sorority slasher movie.” So I decided to rewatch the movie and see where it landed with me now and see what the connection to 2019 was. Because that was the most important thing: Why do this remake now; what’s its connection to this moment in time?
What struck me the most this time was the end of the movie, where the main character has killed what we’ve come to discover is the bad guy; it seems as though she’s succeeded and we’ve won. But at the very end of the movie, once all the men who are supposed to protect her leave her home and she’s asleep and unprotected at night, the actual bad guy appears. And what that kind of represented to me or how I interpreted or read the end of the film this time was that the killer represented misogyny. And as a woman, you think you’ve won a battle, [but] toxic masculinity is still waiting in the shadows for you.
There are so many stylistic throughlines in this, even if it’s not a straight remake.
I was really inspired to do as much as I did with this movie because of Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria,” who did a great job capturing the essence of a movie that’s so great and doesn’t need to be remade in a shot-for-shot, plot point kind of way, but captures an essence and texture that feels so similar.
So both visually, in terms of shooting style and performance style, and little things like the props that were used to kill the girls in both movies, all of those I wanted to transfer. But in order to make a movie that feels as modern as “Black Christmas” did when it came out, it was important to change some things. Both the social message and the form. That was the first slasher movie. Slasher movies have gone all the way from exploitative and all the way to meta, and it’s about how you move that genre forward as well.
People have asked me what it means to make a feminist movie or what you bring to a movie as a woman. … It’s about women feeling seen.
In the first scene of this movie, when our first victim is being stalked, she notices a man behind her and puts her keys between her fingers. That’s something I have never seen in a movie, and yet every woman I know has done that at some point in their lives. There are so many small details in this that just made me feel so seen.
Oh, that’s so cool. [Laughs] People have asked me what it means to make a feminist movie or what you bring to a movie as a woman, and I feel like you kind of just articulated it so well. It’s about women feeling seen. And the specificity of it like the DivaCup or the keys, or laughing through your tears because you know anger won’t actually get you what you need, all of these things that I think feel so particular to our experience and sometimes they’re things that we don’t feel comfortable sharing with all kinds of people. That’s a perfect way to put it.
There’s another moment where a male character who’s previously been identified as an ally gets into a fight with his girlfriend because he feels lumped in with the bad men on campus. That’s such an interesting, difficult conversation to explore in a movie like this.
That, to me, is my favorite scene in the movie because it feels like so many arguments I’ve had with men in my life who are wonderful, great men. That’s an argument a lot of people get into.
I think there’s validity to what he’s saying, too. It’s not productive to think of men as a monolith of bad people. The most productive conversations I have with men who might want to be allies but sometimes have blind spots, was to just approach it in an open way. You don’t want them to have their guard up, because then they can’t hear what we’re actually trying to say.
The last three projects you’ve done (“Black Christmas,” “Always Shine,” “New Year, New You” for “Into the Dark”) could all be broadly classified as horror films, and yet it’s clear you don’t feel beholden to the “final girl” trope.
One of the most interesting things about this movie to me is that there’s not a single final girl, this lone woman who beats the bad forces and comes out on top. It’s that it does take a village, a community of women. And that speaks to the time we’re in as well. Marginalized people are lifting each other up and it takes a whole army, for lack of a better word, of people who are willing to speak out against all the bad things that are going on right now.
You also clearly have a fascination with the way women interact with each other. This is obviously a less toxic exploration of that than in “Always Shine,” but it still feels incredibly grounded.
I tend to want to make movies about things that preoccupy me, or things that we’re taught to be ashamed of or not talk about out loud. I find the more I bottle that stuff up, the more shame I have about those feelings. It’s sort of the way I free myself and hopefully liberate other people of the shame around jealousy or, in this case, the main character having gone through a sexual assault and that trauma having completely transformed her.
Up until this movie, I have been concerned with how women interact with other women, but considering the time we’re in right now, it was important to make a movie where we’re not each other’s enemies. Even if we have other ways to approach things, we all are working toward the same goal, for the most part.
I wanted to reflect this time we’re in and that seemed more true than the negativity I’ve felt in the past to other women. I don’t know if it’s me getting older and growing up, or that the scarcity mentality that women used to feel is evolving and changing and now we’re all trying to lift others up and support one another. But that was really important to me, to kind of shift the focus away from women being against one another.
This movie is so plainly about, among other things, rape culture on college campuses, which is something that strikes me as very cool and even brave to be so unequivocal about in a wide-release horror movie.
Did you have conversations about how far you wanted to push these topics? I mean, there’s a whole song and dance number about someone’s sexual assault.
There was never a conversation with anybody at Blumhouse about toning down that stuff. They understand that one of the great things about horror movies is that you can use them to do pretty bold explorations of social issues and still scare [people] and allow them to have fun.
My husband watched the movie last week at the premiere and one of the things he commented on is that, “This movie isn’t about a condemnation of men.” As you said, it’s about rape culture, it’s really about one bad guy and his enablers. I think I always felt that way, too.
To me, I’m not saying “men are bad,” but I do understand that there is, sometimes, a knee-jerk defensiveness to women talking about their own experiences and taking up that space. I’m really interested to see how people take this and if people can differentiate themselves from the characters I’m looking critically at on screen. I hope that they can.
I hope they can, too.
One of the things that was really important to me about this movie was to encourage a dialogue between marginalized people who have a different experience. The antagonist of this movie is old school, white male patriarchal privilege, and I just really hope it opens up a dialogue so people can vocalize experiences that they maybe haven’t been able to talk about in the past.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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