It was with some trepidation I arrived at the movie theater some ten years ago to see the latest remake of a beloved horror classic, Black Christmas. After all, for every solid remake like The Thing, The Fly and Dawn of the Dead, there were a host of others that flat-out sucked, such as Prom Night, The Fog and Day of the Dead. Which type of remake would this be?
To be honest, I wasn’t blown away by Black Christmas, but time has been kind to the flick and hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. Now that some time has passed, it’s easier to see the film for what it is: a reasonably entertaining, fun little slasher, with solid direction, an incredibly attractive cast and loads of gore for fans of such things.
In the grand scheme of things, the film falls around the mid-point of quality remakes – it is to Bob Clark’s Black Christmas what Rob Zombie’s Halloween is to John Carpenter’s original, for better or for worse. If you prefer your horror more on the restrained side, then this is probably not the film for you. The remake is about as subtle as a sledgehammer.The gore is so over the top it’s ridiculous, but for those who like that sort of thing, it’s a lot of fun. Although, I should mention that all my subsequent viewings of the film apply to Black Christmas’ “Unrated” DVD cut, just in case some of you don’t recall it being all that gory.
I also love the way the film is shot. The lush cinematography is by Robert McLachlan- who went on to also shoot the underrated slasher series Harper’s Island, as well as episodes of Game of Thrones and Westworld. It is filled with more primary colors and off-kilter camera angles than you can shake an Argento at, only this time it is more justified, what with all the Christmas lights providing ample reason for it.
The producing team of Glen Morgan and James Wong, who together were responsible for some of the best episodes of The X-Files and Millenium, as well as the much-beloved Final Destination series (itself inspired by an idea originally intended for X-Files), do a bang-up job of updating the original for a new generation. As seen in the making-of documentary, a lot of the staging and framing was indeed director Morgan’s idea.
The cast is jaw-droppingly attractive almost entirely across the board – save, of course, the killers, who aren’t meant to be. Black Christmas is filled with familiar genre faces, including the return of Andrea Martin, who actually looks better some twenty-two years removed from the original, where she portrayed a bespectacled nerdy girl. There’s Final Girl Katie Cassidy, in easily the best of her series of horror remakes, which also include the lackluster Nightmare on Elm Street and the meh When a Stranger Calls; Michelle Trachtenberg, then-hot off her turn as the sister of the titular Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Lacey Chabert, post-Party of Five and Mean Girls; then-up-and-coming starlet Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who had just appeared in Final Destination 3, alongside co-star Crystal Lowe and another Final Destination vet, Kristen Cloke, aka Morgan’s real-life wife.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The film has its faults, to be sure. As with the aforementioned Halloween remake, the “enhanced” plot line goes too far into trying to over-explain things best left unexplained in the original. Speaking on a personal level, horror is scariest when your mind is left to fill in the blanks instead of everything being spelled out for you. Here, a memorably creepy shot of an eye from the original blossoms into a full-blown ocular obsession, with eyes popping up – and out – practically everywhere you look. At one point, one of the killers actually eats one, for no real discernible reason!
Speaking of which, a simple mention of Billy and Agnes on the freaky phone calls made by the killer in the original is enough to launch a full-blown back-story of, you guessed it, a young Billy and Agnes, and what led them to become wackadoodle killers that enjoy making cookies out of their mother’s flesh and mounting a head on top of a Christmas tree instead of a star. Don’t get me started on the inherent faults in inner plot logic that leads the mother in question to have sex with her own son in order to have a second child, despite the fact that she loathes him primarily because of his inexplicably yellow skin. She wasn’t worried her next child would come out the same way, if not deformed as a direct result of, you know, incest?
Also, how not one, but both killers, managed to be “mistaken” for dead and transported to the hospital in body bags to wreak more havoc is a head-scratcher, for sure. To be fair, we see in the deleted scenes that Billy was brought in with severe burns, at least, and died on the operating table, but subsequent reshoots obviously changed that in favor of one last series of attacks, logic be damned. It’s also worth a mention that, like many a slasher movie, the characterization is thin at best, with most of the girls assigned minor traits, most of which seem to involve being bitchy to one another. This is a shame given the level of talent the actresses exhibited elsewhere in better projects. Indeed, the first time I saw it, I literally had no idea who the lead was, until there was only one of the main girls left.
So, yes, Black Christmas is by no means perfect, and doesn’t hold a candle to the ambitious, atmospheric original, which not only featured vastly superior characterization, but remarkably enough, even found time to tackle the hot-button topic of abortion to boot. It also predates a lot of the tropes that would be commonplace in subsequent slashers, like the POV killer shots, the holiday setting, the whole “the killer is calling from inside the house” gambit, and trippy camera angles, making it a trendsetter, not a rip-off.
The Black Christmas remake may not reinvent the wheel, but it does have a few nifty ideas, such as updating the phone call thing by having the killers call the girls from the cell phones of each girl they’ve just killed, which is a cool touch, and incorporating a lot of Christmas-themed items into the killings themselves. For example, one girl is strangled with Christmas lights, another with an icicle and one of the killers dies by falling onto the spike of a star on top of a Christmas tree.
One could also make a case for the fact that the main actors all being fairly well-known makes it trickier to determine who will live or die, though, like I said, that doesn’t excuse them being thinly characterized. Finally, the effects are suitably cringe-inducing and well-done, so overall, the Black Christmas has a fair amount going for it, warts and all. If anything, it’s actually a decent throwback to the more exploitative slashers of the late 70’s-early 80’s, and I do mean that as a compliment.
Some Fun Facts
- The director of the original, Bob Clark, was invited to the set and gave his blessing to the proceedings, though, sadly, he died before the film’s release. Interestingly, Clark also directed what many consider to be one of the most quintessential Christmas-themed films ever, A Christmas Story, and if you look close, you can see that film’s famed “leg lamp” on a table in one of the living room scenes in the remake.
- Star Lacey Chabert would go onto to be declared the “Queen of Christmas,” thanks to her ever-growing resume of Christmas-themed flicks. Many of them were made-for-TV, which number at least seven at this point, which doesn’t even count the “Christmas Carol”-inspired Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and two animated Christmas-themed films she did voice-over work for as a child.
- Star Katie Cassidy would go on to appear in the aforementioned slasher homage Harper’s Island. She is also the daughter of David “I Think I Love You” Cassidy, of The Partridge Family fame, and recorded a version of her father’s best-known song at the ripe old age of 15.
- Star Michelle Trachtenberg is killed with the blades of a pair of ice skates in the film, an intentional homage to her previous role as a ice skater in the Disney flick Ice Princess. She went on to appear alongside fellow co-star Cassidy in the graphic novel adaptation The Scribbler.
- Star Mary Elizabeth Winstead went on to lots more Scream Queen-themed roles, appearing in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, the prequel to The Thing, as Mary Todd in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and starring in the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane. On TV, she had even more horror-themed work, including turns on the supernatural soap Passions and the series Wolf Lake, Tru Calling, The Return, the highly-underrated political/sci-fi/horror mash-up BrainDead and the TV movie Monster Island.
- In the unintentionally, and ironically, amusing making-of documentaries included on the DVD for the film, writer/director/producer Glen Morgan champions how he stressed “characterization” in the movie and wasn’t looking to make a “gore-fest,” neither of which is remotely true. He laments how he had to kowtow to studio pressures to deliver “jump-scares,” or else he might never be allowed to direct a movie again. Morgan hasn’t directed a movie since, though he did do an episode of the recent X-Files revival.
Black Christmas grossed $21.5 million on a $9 million budget- so it was hardly an outright flop, even if critics hated it. The “Unrated” cut runs some eight minutes longer, features various deleted and extended scenes, as well as gorier deaths and several alternate endings. In one version, which was shown as the actual ending internationally, Billy dies from burns suffered in the final showdown at the hospital and in another, he survives but doesn’t go after Cassidy’s character in the end, hiding in the walls of the hospital instead. In another, the ending is a direct homage to the original, ending with a phone ringing as the surviving killer calls Cassidy’s character from her boyfriend Kyle’s phone, the last character to be murdered. There’s also a deleted scene in which Crystal Lowe’s character is killed in a way more directly inspired by Margot Kidder’s death in the original, and shot in a similar way.
In summation, Black Christmas may not be effective enough to make you forget how superlative the original was, but it’s a fun-if-slightly trashy remake that’s perfect for watching while you hang with your friends during the Christmas season. As such, I’d give it about a C+ to the original’s perfect A+. If you enjoy a good, fast-paced gory slasher, with inventive kills and delectable ladies, you’ll certainly dig this!