For 12 days leading up to Christmas, I will be reviewing 12 Christmas-themed films from across the many decades of film. These will not, however, be your ordinary movie reviews. These will be Social Impact Reviews, providing insight into the various ways several beloved films, cult classics, and new faves have potentially made an impact on viewers like you! My research (for a PhD in political science) looks at the impact of fictional, entertainment media on social, political, and policy attitudes. This set of holiday-themed reviews is my first foray into sharing my research with the public – you! And what better way to start than with holiday favorites?
This 2019 reimagining of a 1974 horror flick may just be my new favorite non-traditional Christmas movie. This contemporary remake takes the story of an escaped maniac terrorizing sorority girls and bumps it up a lot of notches on the social impact scale, bringing it into the post-Me Too era. Not only does the film deliver a diverse, interesting cast with realistic relationships, but it also scores big as an excellent horror film!
The movie stars Imogen Poots as Riley, an orphan and undergrad senior at Hawthorne College in New England. A well-liked sister of Mu Kappa Epsilon, we soon discover four of Riley’s sisters have a prank planned for the Greek holiday talent show at Delta Kappa Omicron, where Riley was raped by a DKO fraternity brother the year before. We also learn the perpetrator, Brian, who graduated the year prior, will be returning to campus to oversee the show. When Helena gets too drunk to perform, Riley must step in – for one helluva anti-rape culture Christmas song! Replacing the lyrics of “Up on the Housetop” with a more feminist flair, Riley and her sisters Kris, Jesse, and Marty regale the room of Greek students with phrases like “I didn’t lead you on for goodness sake, I couldn’t have ‘cause I wasn’t awake,” evoking whoops and cheers from the women and boos from the boys. (Check out “Up in the Frat House” here!)
The film also passes the Bechdel Test in the very first scene, providing audience members with healthy, realistic female relationships throughout the movie. Though based around a holiday largely marketed in America for white Christians, the MKE sorority has several non-white sisters and at least one Jewish sister, Franny (Spoiler Alert – sadly, the first MKE sister to die). Riley appears as the clear main protagonist, but her close friend Kris gets nearly equal screen time. Kris (Aleyse Shannon), one of the MKE sisters and a Black woman with clear activist leanings, is the one who pushes Riley to keep standing up for herself against Brian and the other DKO brothers.
Even before the night of horror begins, Kris encourages her white sisters to keep fighting against the patriarchy no matter the threats the receive or how few people listen to them. Kris, we discover, not only petitioned to have the bust of the college’s founder, racist and misogynist Calvin Hawthorne, removed from the public eye, but she is now also petitioning for the school to fire Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes). Gelson teaches classic literature at the college, and he apparently argued in class previously with Kris over her frustration that he refuses to teach literature written by “women, queer people, or people of color.” Gelson also serves as a faculty advisor of sorts for the DKOs, where the Hawthorne bust ended up after its removal.
Kris embodies the real world persona of the Black female activist who is confident and outspoken, but without pushing her into a stereotype or caricature of that persona. Kris keeps her hair natural, comes from money, stands up for her sisters, speaks truth to power, and belongs to a mainly-white sorority. She maintains composure during the most harrowing scenes, and it’s her self-assuredness that her close, white friends come back to when they’re up against a wall. Or, in this case, a cult of black magic practicing frat boys. Some of my favorite lines in the film are Kris’s. When asked about her petition to remove the Hawthorne bust, for example, she effusively explains the founder was misogynist and racist – “he even owned slaves,” she exclaims, “in the north!”
When Gelson pushes back against her claims that he needs to expand his teachings, he makes the point that, “there is no way of writing that is inherently male or female” but that the classics just happen to be largely written by white men. Upon hearing this, Kris counters, “Whose classics are they? They aren’t mine.” This explicit message alone is one worth watching the film to hear. The classic literature many of us grew up with in school was indeed largely white, male, and European. When I was growing up in the city of Atlanta, my beloved 5th grade teacher Ms. Georgia Tillman introduced me to Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, and my 6th grade literature class included Zora Neale Hurston and Mildred D. Taylor. Yet when I moved and attended a rural Georgia high school, it didn’t include one single required book from a Black author – and very few from female authors. It wasn’t until this film that I truly took a moment to wonder why Chinua Achebe or Gabriel García Márquez weren’t in my required reading list in high school. Or college, for that matter. It’s a sad state of American education that we’ve been so focused on white male writers for the past few centuries that we’ve failed to introduce young minds to the many brilliant and important perspectives out there.
The primary implicit, and sometimes explicit, message of the film is one of female empowerment and standing up to men as oppressors. In true fourth wave feminism, the focus is not on destroying men, but on raising up women while requiring men to recognize gender equality. Most of the men we see onscreen are indeed part of the “Deke army” that hopes to use black magic to restore the patriarchy and push women into subservience. However, the men who actually speak onscreen are more evenly representative of the gender. Professor Gelson and DKO brothers Brian and Phil are clearly anti-woman, but MKU sister Marty’s boyfriend Nate (Simon Mead) and newcomer to the group Landon (Caleb Eberhardt) both represent the more feminist side of the male persuasion.
Unfortunately, both Nate and Landon get sucked into the “alpha male” sorcery of Hawthorne, though both of them push to fight its grip on their minds. (Spoiler Alert!) Nate apologizes after snapping at Marty and saying largely misogynistic things to the sisters when the founder’s magic begins to take control over him, just before he dies at the hands of a DKO pledge. Landon – another non-stereotype character of color – fights his DKO conversion to the very end, beating off Brian from hurting Riley the second after she has broken the bust and, therefore, its hold on the boys. Possibly the most insidious implicit message comes in the mayhem after the broken bust. Pulling Landon out with them, Kris sets fire to the DKO house, and she, Riley, and other sorority members lock the brothers in as they escape the flames.
The positive explicit message in this final scene comes with Riley admitting to Kris that, “You were right, I should have been fighting the whole time.” It has long been the burden of women of color to keep fighting for equality long after their white compatriots have stopped once they’ve achieved another step up. To paraphrase something I heard from a friend recently, white women have a bad habit of accepting their place as second at the table when they’re sitting next to the table’s head. When white women gained suffrage through the 19th amendment, for instance, they stopped pushing for their fellow women to share in that right during the final four decades of Jim Crow’s 90-year hold on America.
The positive implicit message of this statement goes deeper than the need of white women to keep pushing back against patriarchal fervor. At the beginning of the movie, Riley couldn’t stand to even speak to a DKO brother, so riddled with fear from her harrowing ordeal with Brian. This is certainly understandable! She was raped, and when she reported the incident, only her sisters believed her. But her fear, and her continued self-perception of perpetual victimhood kept her from fighting back. Kris is the one who wrote the prank version of “Up on the Housetop.” Kris is the one who doesn’t back down from Gelson or the DKO threats. Kris is the one who pushes Riley to stand up, let go of her victim identity, and keep fighting. This message for women to keep fighting, through the threats and the fear, is necessary for social progress toward gender equality.
Unfortunately, during all this positive social impact, there is a potential negative implicit message in the final scene of the film. Beyond my nitpick that there are no dark-skinned people of color as main characters, my one holdup to giving this movie a full 100% social impact endorsement is the message that men can’t change. Landon, who showed himself to be feminist from the start, is the one man they allow to escape the DKO fire. Even though we saw how Hawthorne’s black magic could corrupt the least patriarchal men (Nate and Landon), the women don’t give the other men a chance to escape and change. This works great for the end of a horror film where we definitely want to see all the monsters burn! But it doesn’t promote the mentality that men, too, can learn and grow as people.
Other implied messages include: all men who join fraternities are alpha-male patriarchal jerks, men are willfully terrible at deciphering consent, white women will back down when they don’t feel safe but Black women won’t, and Cary Elwes will always and forever play creepy white guy villains since The Princess Bride.
In all, I give this move a solid A+ on social impact. Director and co-writer Sophia Takal (Into the Dark) really came through on bringing this concept into the post-Me Too Era. I especially applaud her push to keep a PG-13 rating for the film, making it accessible to a wider audience while still diving deep on the injustices of sexual assault, especially on college campuses and in the Greek system. Given the film’s poor ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and CinemaScore, I’d be curious to know just how many of those polled were men. Yet another reason to update who decides our “classics”!