Christmas break is approaching, and the students at Hawthorne College are getting ready to party. And by party I mean the men are picking off the women because they’re possessed by the evil magic practiced by the founder of the college, Calvin Hawthorne. It’s up to a feisty band of fighters (with traditionally masculine names, ’cause it’s a slasher) to save the day: Riley (Imogen Poots), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), and Marty (Lily Donoghue).
The film has garnered multiple complaints that the filmmakers chose “agenda over plot“, the “agenda” being a woman-centered, girl power, call-out regarding the #metoo movement. A major plot point is that Riley has been raped by big man on campus Brian (Ryan McIntyre), and no one but her friends believe her. It is a female-fronted film, including writer/director Sophia Takal, writer April Wolfe, and most of the cast (even the sorority’s cat, Claudette, was changed from a male to a female–not just the character, but the actual cat). I consider myself a feminist, but I have to agree with the critics, to an extent. In some places the message is so dumbed-down that it’s insulting.
It opens thoughtfully enough, with the bust of the founder, Calvin Hawthorne. The name Hawthorne evokes Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the many dead white males still worshiped in universities today. Then all subtlety is thrown out the window. Men say things like, “You bitches are all the same,” and “It seems Miss Waterson’s passion for equality cannot be bridled” and “We need more than feelings in this business” and “Boys’ll be…well, you know.” Even a bit of symbolism is driven into the ground; Marty mentions that she likes ants because they’re strong and cannot be separated. Then later she really emphasizes the point: “We’re ants, Kris.” I heard you the first time!
Of course, rape is not a subject to be taken lightly or glossed over. I used to be a writing tutor, and once I was helping a student write an essay about rape on college campuses. She was focusing on ways to prevent it, but when we were researching online, all we could find were tips on dealing with it once it happened. I am one hundred percent serious and speak with no hyperbole. There was nothing about preventing it–it was all about coping. The very college we were at has a history of women getting groped in stairwells and assaulted in the parking lots. Active students get notices about it by text. Again, I am totally serious. Non-feminists, this is why some people say we live in a rape culture. But the frat dudes in the movie are cartoonish supervillains–they literally go through a “supernatural hazing ritual”, which really undermines the seriousness of the message the filmmakers are trying to convey, that rape is bad. Instead we get something more like “the emphasis on the superiority of males in colleges makes all men rapists, and if they’re not rapists then they’ll stick together anyway, because brotherhood.”
Men are absolutely vilified. There are only two guys in the movie who aren’t total scumbags: Marty’s boyfriend Nate (Simon Mead) and Riley’s potential love interest Landon (Caleb Eberhardt). Even Nate has his issues. He’ s initially supportive of Marty and her friends, until he gets drunk and explodes that not all men are bad. The scene ends with Marty forcibly kicking him out, Nate all the while complaining about double standards. Landon is a skinny, gangly nerd prone to ugly sweaters. He’s clearly infatuated with Riley, but he’s shy and indirect and nonthreatening. You know, a good guy.
There’s an attempt to be racially diverse, though of course Riley, the main final girl, the one around whom the movie really revolves, is white. She screams at Kris for being too woke (yes, that is actually a thing here–we hate men, not racism): “You’re so pushy, Kris!” Kris is the sassy best friend, the wacky gal who is pissed that Hawthorne was a slaveholder, who questions standard college reading material: “Whose classics are they?”
Despite all my gripes, there are a lot of things I appreciate, especially compared to mainstream slasher movies. The female characters are strong and not given to the helpless hysteria you usually see in the genre. They’re not fashion plates, or scantily dressed–they’re not objectified. They solve their problems without running to men for help. (Except for Landon, who’s practically an honorary lady.) There is a really poignant scene close to the beginning, when sorority gal Lindsay (Lucy Currey) is walking to her grandmother’s house. She’s being harassed by phone, and getting nervous about her surroundings, especially since there’s a dude walking right behind her with his phone out, so she slips her keys between her fingers. This is a scene bound to resonate with women; we’ve all been alone on a dark street that may or may not be dangerous, but sure feels threatening, and many of us have felt safer by trying to weaponize our keys. To male viewers who are paying attention, it conveys the vulnerability that women can experience. No other scenes evoke empathy as skillfully.
To be fair, I did read that Takal edited the movie heavily in order to market to impressionable teenage girls. In that sense, the movie is a success.