With ‘Black Christmas,’ Sophia Takal Makes a #MeToo Slasher

With ‘Black Christmas,’ Sophia Takal Makes a #MeToo Slasher
By: WNG NYT Posted On: December 12, 2019 View: 85

With ‘Black Christmas,’ Sophia Takal Makes a #MeToo Slasher

GLENDALE, Calif. — In the new “Black Christmas,” a remake of the 1974 horror film, Cary Elwes plays Professor Gelson, a priggish classics instructor who spends a lot of time with frat boys, laments the good ol’ days when men ran everything, and goes into a rage when he thinks women are trying to usurp his power.

“The Brett Kavanaugh hearings had just happened, and I think I was really struck by how emotional he was, how aggrieved he was,” said Sophia Takal, who directed the movie and co-wrote the script with April Wolfe. In the original, a foul-mouthed weirdo terrorizes and murders a group of sorority sisters during the Christmas holidays. So: the guy who may be the villain of Takal’s slasher remake is patterned after … Justice Kavanaugh? “Yeah, pretty much,” she said.

And thus, a slasher movie for the #MeToo movement is born, one where women take center stage in front of and behind the camera.

Opening on Dec. 13, “Black Christmas” is the latest release from Blumhouse Productions, the Los Angeles-based company behind Jordan Peele’s 2017 Oscar-winning hit “Get Out,” and the franchises “Insidious” and “Paranormal Activity.” After 10 years making scary movies, Blumhouse had never hired a woman to direct a theatrically released horror film — until now. “My gender was definitely part of the conversation, where they thought a woman would tell this story well,” Takal said. “But yeah, no one said, you’re the only woman we’ve ever hired.”

On a recent afternoon, Takal was having a late breakfast at Foxy’s, an old-school diner that reminds the actor/director of her native New Jersey. “I love that they have toasters on every table,” she said. Takal was discussing all things horror, from “The Exorcist,” which she considers the scariest movie ever (“I’m too scared to even say the name of the movie, or even refer to the thing that the movie is about”), to the first-look deal she recently signed with Blumhouse, to why she may not make the best horror-movie companion (“I’m the person in the theater you hear screaming like crazy”).

Takal’s tenure with Blumhouse began last year, when the producers Marci Wiseman and Jeremy Gold enlisted her to direct “New Year, New You,” a feature-length episode for the Hulu horror anthology series “Into the Dark.” Her first two features, “Green” and “Always Shine,” which had successful debuts at South by Southwest and the Tribeca Film Festival, hadn’t skimped on the tension and creepy moments. But Takal had never directed a straight horror film before. For “New Year,” she assembled an all-female cast to create a psychological thriller that explored the toxic nature of social media and the self-care movement, among other things.

In November 2018, when Takal was wrapping production on “New Year,” the Blumhouse founder and chief executive Jason Blum was asked in an interview with Polygon why his company hadn’t hired a woman to direct one of its horror films. “There are not a lot of female directors period,” he replied, “and even less who are inclined to do horror.”

When Takal found out about it, “my reaction at the time was, this was such a weird thing he said, because I’m making something for them right now! And he was developing another horror movie with Shana Feste, ‘Run Sweetheart Run.’ It just seemed like a not particularly thought-out way of articulating something that actually really resonates with me.”

Blum apologized soon after, and again, repeatedly, during a recent phone interview. “It was a stupid thing to say,” he told me. “I am guilty of saying dumb things, and this is one of the dumb things that I’ve said.”

Four months later, Blum approached Takal to direct “Black Christmas.” The 1974 original had inspired countless slasher flicks to come, from John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (the Christmastime setting; seeing the action from the perspective of the killer) to 1979’s “When a Stranger Calls” (the killer’s calls are coming from inside the house). Blumhouse had just scored big with its recent remake of “Halloween,” pulling in over $255 million on a reported $10 million budget. Why not reboot the film that inspired it?

The offer was tempting, but it came with a pretty big caveat. “They said, you can do whatever you want as long as it’s called ‘Black Christmas,’ but it has to come out this December,” she recalled. “This was in March, and there was no script.”

To prepare, Takal watched the original film (“I liked that it wasn’t just about a bunch of sorority women who were bimbos”), and ignored the 2006 reboot. She screened a clip reel of scary movies sent over by Blumhouse, and became a student of the jump scare (in a 2017 Times interview, Blum listed a number of foolproof ones, including “door swings closed, someone is now standing behind you in the room”), and the more difficult and labor-intensive “dread-building scare.”

At the end of the original film, Olivia Hussey stabs her sexist boyfriend to death with a poker, believing he’s the killer, but — surprise! — the real murderer is still very much alive, and eager to kill again. Takal was struck by how much the ending of that film mirrored what was still happening in 2019. “All of these men were being exposed for all the terrible things they had done, like Louis C.K. or Mark Halperin, but then they were coming back into the public sphere,” she said. “I was like, what’s happening? We felt like we had had a victory where women had finally found their voices, and then these men kept popping back up.”

Inspired, Takal tweaked several slasher-film traditions in this latest version, including the trope of the “final girl” (think: Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween”). “I really wasn’t interested in making a movie where men just kill a bunch of women,” she said. “It didn’t feel like the movie I wanted to make in 2019.”

Outsider takes like Takal’s are becoming more and more common at Blumhouse, whose horror films have tackled a range of social issues over the years, from racism (“Ma”) to income inequality (“The Purge”). “Jordan Peele is an excellent example of somebody who has really brought the conversation about race and racial privilege into the horror genre,” said Aviva Briefel, a professor of English and cinema studies at Bowdoin College. “‘The sunken place’ has become a phrase that people use and think about, even if they haven’t seen the movie.”

Even so, Blumhouse isn’t shying away from creating horror for horror’s sake, with sequels of franchises like “Halloween” and “The Purge” in the works. “I love movies that have bigger ideas behind them, but I also love straight scary movies,” said Blum. “With ‘Black Christmas,’ I think we’re lucky to have both.”

In the end, Takal found working on the film cathartic, particularly working alongside guys who, she said, didn’t look all that different from some of the film’s villains. “These were, superficially, the same types of men who might be characters in the movie, but they were all so supportive and engaged and encouraging,” she said. “I think it allowed me to explore this anxiety I have about misogyny, and to work through my fear that, underneath it all, men just really want us all dead.”

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