Bob Clark (1974)
Glen Morgan (2006)
Olivia Hussey - Jess Bradford
Keir Dullea - Peter Smythe
Margot Kidder - Barb
Andrea Martin - Phyl
Maria Waldman - Mrs. MacHenry
James Edmond - Mr. Harrison
John Saxon - Lt. Fuller
Douglas McGrath - Sergeant Nash
Katie Cassidy - Kelli Presley
Kristen Cloke - Leigh Colvin
Mary Elizabeth Winstead - Heather
Michelle Trachtenberg - Melissa
Lacey Chabert - Dana
Andrea Martin - Mrs. MacHenry
Oliver Hudson - Kyle
Crystal Lowe - Lauren
Genre - Horror/Slasher/Suspense/Mystery/Remake
Running Time - 97 Minutes (1974)/92 Minutes (2006 Unrated Cut)
Even though it hasn't really felt like the Christmas season this year for several personal reasons, I still like to take time and enjoy Christmas television specials or Christmas movies during this time of year. From Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, SCROOGE, to MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS, entertainment is pretty rad in December. My favorite Christmas film has to be A CHRISTMAS STORY. Who doesn't love Bob Clark's classic of little Ralphie constantly being warned that he'll shoot his eye out with a B.B. Gun? That 24-hour marathon is a must every Christmas!
It's kind of funny that A CHRISTMAS STORY tends to overshadow Clark's other Christmas classic - 1974's BLACK CHRISTMAS. One of the films that genuinely ushered in the slasher film, even if HALLOWEEN does get all the credit, BLACK CHRISTMAS doesn't get much love outside the horror fanbase. Hell, even some of the horror fans tend to discredit BLACK CHRISTMAS, calling it "overrated", "slow", "boring", and "not bloody enough". I personally think the film is charming, mysterious, and uses its atmosphere and mood so well that some of it even comes off as creepy, even to this day. In fact, BLACK CHRISTMAS is one of the many examples of how great horror was in the 1970s.
Unfortunately like every other popular horror flick, BLACK CHRISTMAS got the remake treatment back in 2006. Dubbed BLACK X-MAS, the remake took away the great mystery of the original's narrative, turning the story into a generic, semi-entertaining, teen slasher flick that focuses more on shock and gore than atmosphere and telling a good story. While neither version was a box office smash, the original got all the praise while the remake has been on many "Worst Remakes" lists that I've seen.
Having watched both films in a two-day period, I can see that both have their pros and both have their cons. But one of these films is definitely more watchable than the other. So let's deck those balls and see which BLACK CHRISTMAS will come on top. Will it be 1974? Or will it be 2006? Looks like it's another installment of Original vs. Remake! Let the battle begin!
The films basically share the same plot: It's Christmas Eve and a group of sorority sisters prepare to head home for the holidays. Unfortunately, the girls start receiving really strange phone calls about two people named Billy and Agnes. While they're scared by this weird caller, they have no clue that someone dangerous has broken into their sorority house and has taken shelter in the attic. When the killer strikes one of the sisters, causing her disappearance, the girls try to get the police involved. When the cops are incapable of helping them due to weather or lack of urge, the girls must deal with the killer in their home on their own. As the girls get killed one-by-one, the remaining girls realize that this Christmas may be the blackest of them all.
BLACK CHRISTMAS is considered one of the best, if not the best, Christmas horror film ever made. And it's hard to disagree with that statement. BLACK CHRISTMAS has a lot of things going for it. The narrative is well-written and well-paced. The direction is great. And the acting is very good. Plus it tends to be pretty creepy at times as well. For horror fans, BLACK CHRISTMAS should be a annual Yuletide tradition.
The strength of BLACK CHRISTMAS comes from the screenplay by Roy Moore. While the film does have slasher elements that may seem cliche for modern audiences, the movie plays out more like a mystery-thriller where you're never really sure what's true and what's not. The mystery element comes from the killer himself, who's name we don't really know [people suspect it's Billy himself, but we're never really sure], who's face we never see, but who's voice [or voices] we always hear on the phone. All we see of him is his silhouette and his eye through peep holes. And when he calls the girls on the phone, he uses multiple voices as if he's suffering from a massive case of multiple personality disorder, creating a very creepy vibe that could send chills up and down your spine. There even points in the film where we wonder if all of the murders are even being done by this shadowy person, or if another main character is involved in some of them.
There's a lot of debate about the fact that the mystery is never solved, leaving the ending of the film to be very ambiguous. Some people hate it. Others love it. I personally think it's cool that we never really know who this person is and why he's murdering these girls. Did he even kill that little girl in the park or is that a red herring? And what is the final fate of the final girl anyway? It just makes the film creepier to me. We're afraid of things we don't understand, and BLACK CHRISTMAS sticks to that motto. "Less is more" sometimes.
The narrative is also strong because of the characters. Instead of coming off as stereotypes, they're all fleshed out with distinct personalities. Jess is the quiet, sweet one with the hot accent. She also has to deal with the fact that she is pregnant and doesn't want the baby, as she feels she's not ready for motherhood. Barb is the drunk with the filthy mouth who says whatever is on her mind, even if it is during the most inappropriate times. She even curses around children and feeds them booze on the sly! I need to hang out with this chick! And Ms. MacHenry is a hysterical lush who has a bottle of booze hidden in every corner of the house. Even the cops have personalities, especially Nash, who may be one of the dumbest and most naive cops ever on screen. And all these characters deal with the whole issue of their friends going missing, either by living in denial about it or drinking themselves to potential alcohol poisoning. You can definitely relate to each one of these characters in some way, making us care about their survival. It also helps that we spend a lot of screen time with each one, letting their personalities shine through. These characters are more HALLOWEEN slasher characters than FRIDAY THE 13TH slasher characters, which benefits the film greatly.
I also dig that the issue of abortion is used in the right way. An amateur screenwriter could have used this plot device cheaply, or just have brought it up and tossed it aside to be forgotten for much of the running time. But the issue of abortion threatens the relationship between two of the characters, which causes one of them to lose it to the point where we wonder if he's a threat to the remaining characters. While it's still a controversial issue, I'm pretty sure it was major back in the mid-70s. And to see it used the right way is a good thing in my book.
I will say though that some of the characters behave in ways that seem pretty illogical at times. Instead of running out of the house to escape danger, they stay inside to confront it. If the police are coming to your home and telling you to leave the house, why not listen, especially if the calls are coming from WITHIN the house? Also, one character breaks into the house at the end to confront another character in the basement so they could talk? Not only is this desperate, but it just seems odd. How would this character even know this person was hiding in the basement anyway? The windows were foggy and there was no way of knowing this person's whereabouts. And the resolution to the whole scenerio happens offscreen, which bugs me as well. I'm just left confused by the whole thing.
And while I love the comical scenes, such as the classic "fellatio" moment that still makes me laugh to this day, the shifts in tone can be a bit jarring to some. It's obvious Bob Clark and Roy Moore wanted to make a creepy film with a side of black humor about Christmas. But some people might get put off by it and it does make BLACK CHRISTMAS a bit disjointed at times, especially when you go from that "fellatio" scene to a very serious moment where Jess and Peter argue over Jess' decision to abort their baby. I don't really mind it, but I know others do - so I'm just putting it out there.
Bob Clark does a fantastic job directing BLACK CHRISTMAS. Being a horror director before going into comedies such as PORKY'S and A CHRISTMAS STORY, Clark creates a very dark and unsettling mood from the very first shot of the movie. It's obvious John Carpenter was inspired by this film for HALLOWEEN, as both movies begin with the killer POV shots and use the visual mood and atmosphere to tell their story, rather than the dialogue. I also noticed a moment where we shots of different rooms in the house where the killer has probably been during the running time of the movie, which reminds me of HALLOWEEN's ending with its varied shots of different locations. I do think Carpenter did it slightly better, but Clark was definitely the guy who did it first for North American audiences. I think the editing works. I like the grittiness of the cinematography and the film grain. I loved that one shot of the eyeball, which is haunting. I love that we only see the killer in shadows. I just think the visuals work from beginning to end. And while the film isn't graphic at all [besides the plastic bag and unicorn stuff], I think imagining what happened during the murders is creepier anyway. Clark does a great job here.
The acting is pretty solid. Olivia Hussey as Jess looks and sounds hot with her British accent. Plus I believed her conflict over the abortion stuff, and her fear towards the end with the phone calls and the killer. Keir Dullea as Peter creeped me out a bit with his neurosis. I totally bought his breakdown. Margot Kidder, as Barb, cracked me up. Her chain smoking and alcoholic character definitely brought humor to the film when it needed it. I wish she was in the film more though. We'll always have that moment of "fellatio" though! John Saxon is always welcome, playing the same cop character he usually plays. I can't hate the guy at all. If he's in a movie, I'm gonna watch it. Love that dude! Maria Waldman made me laugh as Ms. MacHenry. Wish she was in the film more as well. And Doug McGrath as Nash cracked up as the stupid cop, Nash. I think he may be related to Dewey from the SCREAM series. Wouldn't surprise me.
While the original BLACK CHRISTMAS took the mystery-thriller route, the BLACK X-MAS remake ignores that, instead going into a predictable slasher route that's focused on gore and blood rather than tension and suspense. The remake does maintain the more vital elements that make BLACK X-MAS what it is, but tries to update it for modern audiences. Is it a success? Not really. But it's not the worst attempt at a modern remake either, no matter how many people out there would love to see me really bash this one.
The screenplay by Glen Morgan is pretty lame for the most part. Comparing it to the original, the only things that stay the same are the sorority sisters, the killer in the attic, the dumb cops, the plastic bag and unicorn murders, and the Ms. MacHenry character. Everything else has been updated, especially the whole Billy and Agnes deal. Like I wrote in the review for the original, we have no idea who Billy or Agnes are. We believe that Billy is the shadowy killer in the original, but we're never sure. Well Morgan decided to give us the answer to our questions. ALL the answers - more answers than I would want from this film. Like the fact that Billy was born with some sort of liver disease that makes the pigment of his skin look yellow, which caused his mother to despise him. Like the fact that this same woman decided to have sex with Billy, which lead to Agnes [Billy's daughter/sister - ew] being born. Then we also get stuff with Billy's mom killing his dad with her lover, Billy pulling out Agnes' eye, and then killing both his stepfather and mother, making cookies out of her skin. It's so over the top and silly, that it's kind of hilarious in a sick way. Is this whole ridiculous backstory needed? Not really, but I understand why it was done. We already have a mystery that was unsolved in the original film. Why keep that mystery going in the remake? You might as well reveal it all. And it's not the worst backstory I've seen in a horror film, so I can't really hate on it. I do think giving it all away in the beginning takes away the suspense and tension, especially when characters think other characters are the killers [dramatic irony at its finest]. But it's a new wave of horror. Horror fans like to know why their killers do the things that they do. So I can't complain about the backstory.
What I can complain about is [SPOILER ALERT] that Billy isn't even the damn main villain of the story! Oh no, someone else is doing all the killing and Billy is just the accomplice. You can pretty much figure out who it is since it's so damn predictable. Why put so much stock into the backstory of this person if he isn't even the reason why these stupid sorority sisters get it? And why would this person even help Billy? They should be Billy's enemy for previous actions, but instead is loving and wanting to help him. Huh? It makes no sense really, like much of this film. [END SPOILER ALERT]
Another thing, why are all these sorority sisters such fuckin' bitches? All of them are on the damn rag it seems for some reason! Am I supposed to like or even relate to catty bimbos who share the Christmas spirit by hating on each other all night? I can understand if one or two of them are bitches. There's always one in every horror film. But all of them!? Sure they're all on different levels of HBIC, but this is too much! Sure they were hot and that helped me tolerate them somewhat, but these girls deserved to get murdered just on horror principle! And the fact that we can never really focus on most of them for more than five minutes throughout the entire film really limits our connection to our "protagonists". Even the girls from THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW were nicer to each other and actually more intelligent than these bitchy airheads. And all the guys in the film were assholes and condescending. Yeah, what a group of people I just want to watch for 90 straight minutes...
I won't even go into the dialogue. I guess this is how girls talk nowadays, but it just left me shaking my head - and my body in laughter at how badly written this script is. I can't type some of the lines from the top of my head, but I have to admit, some of it made me laugh because normal people wouldn't really speak like this. So bad dialogue equals entertainment value. So I guess clouds do have silver linings.
More issues - the sex tape issue. What was the point of that again? It never went anywhere and just seemed to be in the film because it's such an "it" and "modern" pop culture item. If you're not going to use that for something meaningful, then don't bother. Also, the killer murdered people in the same exact way - plastic bag with the occasional stabbing. Ever heard of changing it up? It was a cool homage to the original at first, but it got really old after the fifth time I saw it happen. And the very end was a bit much. So stereotypical, so predictable, so unneeded. I hate the whole multiple ending shtick modern horror films seem to be on these days. If they provide a twist that actually works and feels believable in context to the rest of the film, then I'm all for it. But it just reminded me of GRADUATION DAY - the film would not end. That time and money could have gone to providing a better script.
What does work in BLACK X-MAS is the gore. We get some pretty sick stuff here. Eyes getting pulled out of their sockets, unicorn stabbings, icicles to the head, ice skates slashing off half of a face, and other sick shit. When your film is made by the guys behind the better FINAL DESTINATION films, you know you'll be seeing some blood. I dug what I saw. Also, we get to see hot chicks in tight clothing - even one showering. I can't complain about the eye candy. Yum...
The direction by Glen Morgan on this film isn't his best work, but it's not the worst job I've seen. While most of the film is the pretty simple point-and-shoot affair, there are moments where the shots are pretty stylish and slick. Also, there was an attempt at some sort of mood in this film, but it never fully hits its potential. I guess Morgan wanted less scary and more humorous to the situation. I will say he doesn't shy away from the film's brutality. And I actually like that this version feels more like Christmas than the original does. With the decorations, presents, and even the snowy setting, it feels more like a Christmas horror film. So kudos to Morgan on that.
The acting isn't all that memorable and no one really stands out. But I blame the script and direction for that, not the actresses. From Katie Cassidy, to Lacey Chabert, to Michelle Trachtenberg, and to Mary Elizabeth Winstead, all these girls have proven they can act if the material works in their favor. But when your character is pretty much "one-note bitch", how much depth can you put into your craft? These girls, Kristen Cloke, Oliver Hudson, and even Andrea Martin, deserved better. But they did the best with what they were given and I can't hate the work here. I just wish these girls had better material to play off on, that's all.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE MAKING SCARY PRANK CALLS TO A SORORITY HOUSE
- There's a strange dude hiding in the attic. Maybe he's waiting for his sister. After all, incest is a game the whole family can play - even on Christmas!
- Don't ignore the creepy looking guy in the closet. If it's not Lance Bass or Clay Aiken, then he'll probably want to suffocate you with plastic.
- Peter had trouble impressing scouts with his terrible piano skills. Keyboard cat, show him how it's done...
- Barb was drunk for much of the film. If she was this plastered during a great film, I can only imagine her state of intoxication during SUPERMAN III and SUPERMAN IV! What a mess!
- One of the girls was repeatedly impaled by a glass unicorn. Man, Rainbow Brite was a real bitch back in the 1970s!
- Lacey Chabert would love to bury the hatchet with her sister...in her head. Now we know who the real Ghostface killer was in all those SCREAM films.
- Billy loves making Christmas cookies out of human flesh. I know Hannibal Lecter approves of his cooking skills.
- Billy enjoys watching hot chicks shower through a peephole. What a pervert! Get a girlfriend, Norman "Master"Bates!
- Two of the characters were murdered by an icicle and an ice skate blade respectively. I didn't think these two characters were the sharpest of the sisters, but I continue to be proven wrong.
THE FINAL HOWL
Two different approaches to a single film, BLACK CHRISTMAS and BLACK X-MAS will appeal to different audiences. Personally, I love the mystery and atmosphere of the 1974 version and feel that the 2006 remake is a below average film with some entertainment value for its stupidity. But I know there are others who may feel just the opposite that I do. But this is my review and I definitely recommend BLACK CHRISTMAS for a rental and a buy. BLACK X-MAS is a rental at best. You wouldn't be missing much if you skipped it though. It could have used more Eric Freeman and his eyebrows, in my honest opinion. Oh well.
If I learned anything from these Christmas horror films, beware of crazy Santas and strange people in your attic. Those are two gifts no one wants under their tree. Merry Christmas everyone!
BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)4 Howls Outta 4
BLACK X-MAS (2006)2 Howls Outta 4
Winner: BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)