In the interest of full disclosure, I had intended to reviewSilent Night Bloody Night today, but that film was sucking the Christmas spirit right out of me faster than people scalping Zhu Zhu Pets to the highest bidder. Instead I went with a film from Glen Morgan, a former TV scribe who had broken into film with his script for Final Destination. He finagled that break into a crack at directing and sat at the helm of the disappointing 2003 remake of Willard with Crispin Glover. Now, the original Willard is a much remembered film, but it would be a stretch to call it beloved. On the other hand, Morgan’s next project, a remake of Bob Clark’s seminal Christmas slasher Black Christmas, could be described as respected, loved, hailed, and game changing. So did Morgan manage to do the original justice? Well, I’m not going to say right yet, but there’s a good chance that I might have to recommend that Santa fill some bad boy’s stocking with coal.
Morgan’s film, like Clark’s, centers on a killer who is stalking the few remaining girls who haven’t left their sorority house for Christmas break. Unlike Clark’s film, we know the whole time that the killer is Billy (Robert Mann), an escaped lunatic who killed his family in the same house fifteen years ago. Naturally, there’s a twist involved that is telegraphed from so far away that it must have come in on the transatlantic cable, but I won’t spoil it just in case anyone wants to sit down with this flick. One by one the girls get picked off, and it probably goes without saying that the whole thing boils down to a final girl who must put an end to the slaughter.
It’s the standard stuff that slasher films are made of, and that’s the real problem. Clark’s 1974 film was anything but standard. Even now 25 years after it made its debut, the image of the girl who’s been suffocated by the bag over her head is still chilling. Clark’s film also made groundbreaking strides with the use of the POV shot, and the phone calls that the killer places to the sorority sisters were filthy, curse laden, and perverse. In the 2007 film, they still get calls, but all the threatening voice seems to be able to muster up is a tired “get out of my home” style threat. The most important difference between the two films is the killer himself. In Clark’s film we don’t know where the killer is coming from, who he is, or why he’s doing it. Morgan, who was directing from his own screenplay, could not help but tell us.
Billy was abused. Billy was jaundiced. Billy was locked in an attic for years. Billy’s in an insane asylum, well, until he breaks out by killing a guard with a candy cane. Ok, sure, that last part is pretty awesome, but I really don’t give two jingle bells where Billy came from. The flashbacks that delve into his personal tragedies don’t add anything to the story as a whole, and they sure as hell were not going to make Billy a sympathetic character. In many ways, the Black Christmas remake suffers from many of the same flaws as Rob Zombie’s Halloween. They both took classic horror films from the seventies that were simple, straightforward, and terrifying and bogged down their remakes with pointless back story that pads the film and doesn’t move the story forward. Morgan makes the most of his flack back scenes by peppering them with some pretty brutal violence, and I couldn’t help but like seeing young Billy use strands of Christmas lights as a deadly weapon. Clever use of strands of colored lights aside, there wasn’t anything in the back story that could not have been completely left out of this film.
There are two things that save this film from being a complete travesty. Now don’t get excited, it’s still a travesty, just not a complete one. The first thing is the fairly sizeable amount of gore on display. While I could have done without the recreation of the classic smothering from the original film, I quite enjoyed seeing people dispatched with crystal unicorns, ornaments, and even a Christmas tree. Then there’s the eyeballs. This film nearly has more close-up shots of eyeballs experiencing one trauma or another than the whole of Lucio Fulci’s filmography, and fans of Fulci can tell you that is quite a feat. Morgan even managed to put in one scene which nearly turned my stomach along the way. The gore made up for many of the shortcomings of the film as a whole, but it would not nearly have been enough on its own.
Thankfully, Black Christmas gains some more traction thanks to the ensemble cast of actresses. Though they are lead to slaughter fairly quickly there is still enough time to get to know each of them a bit. None of the girls turned in weak performances, and it’s to their credit that they made the most of the script and its shortcomings. The two that really standout were May Elizabeth Winsted, who folks might recognize from Live Free or Die Hard, Death Proof, or Final Destination 3, and Kristin Cloke, who starred in the short-lived series Space: Above and Beyond. Winsted always turns in a rock solid performance, and my only real criticism comes from her demise occurring off-screen. Cloke, playing one of the girl’s older sister, provides a strength that left me hoping she had some action films on her resume. Sadly, she doesn’t seem to have any, but she did appear in a run of the show Millennium starring Lance Henriksen and I will be tracking that down. The cast is also bolstered by Katie Cassidy, soon to be seen in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, Michelle Trachtenberg, a.k.a Dawn from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Lacy Chabert, who played Gretchen Wieners in Mean Girls. The most inspired piece of casting was getting 1974 Black Christmas alum Andrea Martin for the role of the house mother. It was a nice touch and one of several nods to Clark’s film.
There’s really nothing to say about the directing, cinematography, or score of Black Christmas as each seems to fit right into the mold of the modern horror film aimed at a teen audience. We’ve all seem films just like it, and if you’ve seen this year’s Sorority Row then just add Christmas lights and a yellowish killer and you’ve basically got it. Even if there were no original film to compare it to, then it would still be a run of the mill slasher that runs way too long because it fetishizes the killer’s past for far too long and with no payoff. I suppose it is supposed to distract you from the aforementioned twist, but it just brought more attention to it in my mind.
If you’ve seen the original classic, then there’s really nothing here to make you want to see this one. It’s devoid of the charm that Bob Clark’s film had, and while the actresses are all very good, I’d rather watch Olivia Hussey get offed. (Notice that I said “get offed” and not “get off” though the latter would be acceptable.) My grade on Black Christmas might seem a bit generous, but I did find a few things to like here. As far as holiday horror goes you could do much worse. After all, unlike Silent Night Bloody Night, I actually made it though this film. So while director Glen Morgan surely deserves a lump of coal, I think he might have been good enough to get a little present. Maybe a box of eyeballs for his next film.