Director: Glen Morgan
It seems as if the horror genre runs in cycles. The genre dies down for a little while, then boom, it returns to prominence with the next big trend for the genre to follow. One of the more famous examples of this, I believe it goes without saying, was what I call the "great slasher boom" of the early 1980s. After the success of influential movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th, every aspiring filmmaker who could assemble a cast and crew cranked out their own slasher movie. But among the hundreds of slasher movies released over the course of the '80s, one from the '70s managed to develop an underground following and the respect of hardcore horror fans. And although it doesn't have the mainstream notoriety that other, higher profile slashers have, Bob Clark's 1974 holiday horror flick Black Christmas is often noted as being the precursor to the entire slasher sub-genre. Though while not a slasher movie of the purest sort, it does craft many motifs that would eventually become the sub-genre's most enduring clichés. Unfortunately, it remained a lesser-known chapter in horror's pantheon until another big genre trend remakes (or "re-imaginings," as many in the business are wont to call them) emerged at the turn of the twenty-first century. Produced by the team behind the Final Destination franchise and the grossly underrated remake of Willard, Glen Morgan and James Wong's fresh take on the tale of sorority girls being stalked by a demented killer wasn't exactly a success with critics or at the box office here in America. But you know what? I didn't really think it was all that bad.
It's Christmastime at the Delta Alpha Kappa house, and despite the best efforts of housemother Mrs. MacHenry (Andrea Martin), the sorority girls just can't seem to get along. Megan (Jessica Harmon) isn't feeling too much Christmas spirit, thanks to a sex tape of her and her ex-boyfriend Kyle (Oliver Hudson) turning up online. And to top it off, Kyle is now dating bubbly sorority sister Kelli (Katie Cassidy). Meanwhile, drunken loudmouth Lauren (Crystal Lowe) is making a point of antagonizing everybody, while Melissa (Michelle Trachtenberg) responds with sarcasm, self-centered Dana (Lacey Chabert) just wants to open presents, and rich, religious southerner Heather (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) isn't in that happy of a mood.
You see, the sorority's "Secret Santa" program has developed something of a tradition, where one girl is selected to purchase a present for Billy Lenz (Robert Mann) as a joke. Heather was his Secret Santa, but flaked because she was offended by the idea. The reason why? Billy grew up in the Delta Alpha Kappa house. Born with an extreme case of jaundice, he was horribly abused by his alcoholic mother (Karen Konoval), who left Billy locked away in the attic while she showered Billy's little sister/daughter Agnes (played as an adult by Dean Friss) with affection. Yes, you read that right. There's some inbreeding in the Lenz home. Billy finally cracked one Christmas, escaping from his ersatz prison in the attic and violently murdering his mother and stepfather before baking his mother's flesh into Christmas cookies. Because nothing really says Christmas quite like eating your family members. Agnes dropped off the face of the earth, while Billy spent the fifteen years that followed in a mental institution. And unbeknownst to the girls, Billy and Agnes have decided that to return home for the holidays. The sorority girls start receiving bizarre telephone calls, and when two of them go missing, the ones that remain soon begin falling victim to the psychotic ghosts of Christmas Past.
Truth be told, comparing the original Black Christmas to its remake is like comparing apples and oranges. They may share the same title and a few of the same elements, but they're completely different moves. In the original, we sat around for an hour in the middle of the movie while practically nothing happened. [Though I will admit that when something did happen, it was awesome.] In the remake, practically all of the superfluous subplots have been dropped or drastically altered so the movie could be transformed into something resembling the kooky holiday horror movies from the 1980s. A lot of people hated the remake, but so help me, I actually liked it. I thought the new Black Christmas was really entertaining, something that really goes a long way in helping this particular online reviewer overlook a movie's flaws. So let's jump right in and see exactly what made me feel that way.
Let's start with Glen Morgan's direction, which I thought was quite good. Though I thought the pacing was a bit inconsistent at times, everything else that Morgan does here is great. He gets some great camerawork from cinematographer Robert McLachlan, with much of the movie shot from odd angles and lit with Christmas tree lights. Morgan and McLachlan also make a point of reusing the creepy point-of-view shots that were a hallmark of the original Black Christmas. While they weren't as scary as they were when Bob Clark did them in 1974, they're still quite effective. Helping enhance the visuals is the excellent music composed by Shirley Walker. Walker's music is tense and frightening, while the use of certain Christmas carols during the movie added a bit of much-welcomed dark humor.
And then there's the screenplay, penned by our fearless director. As I said earlier, Morgan has altered or pretty much dropped all of the subplots from the original movie with the intent of making a more streamlined motion picture. No longer do we have a sorority girl freaking out her high-strung boyfriend by wanting an abortion, and a worried father leading a police search party to find his missing daughter has become a blasé sister arriving at the sorority to look for a sibling she hasn't heard from lately. Some elements do remain untouched, such as the phone calls, the idea of the killer hiding in the attic, and some of the weapons at the killer's disposal. But other than that, the movie is its own beast.
I noted in my review of the original Black Christmas that the killer is a complete enigma. We knew absolutely nothing about him, which made him even scarier. Instead of following in the original movie's footsteps, Morgan tells us, via flashbacks, the origin of the yellow-skinned lunatic haunting the sorority house. While the story is scary, unsettling, and after a certain point pretty gross, it's thoroughly unnecessary and a bit too complicated for its own good. I really don't see why there needed to be such a deep, extensive backstory. Does knowing the villain's full history make any real difference regarding the scariness? Because sometimes, less is more. I'd have been satisfied if they'd found a way to sum things up in a few sentences or a short little monologue. Maybe in another thirty years, they can do another remake and try reigning it in.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the script is the sheer number of characters that aren't very sympathetic. I'd expect to dislike Billy, his mother, and the token belligerent drunk chick, but it seems as if practically every one of the sorority girls are rude, catty bitches that don't get along at all. If none of them get along, then why would they all team up in order to survive at the end of the movie? I'd almost expect them to be proponents of the old horror movie rule of survival, "You don't have to outrun the villain, you just have to outrun everybody else." On second thought, the fact that the characters are both unsympathetic and one-dimensional might be the point. Because if that's the case, then maybe it's because it's more fun to watch them all meet their painful, violent demises. And really, isn't that what most slasher movies are all about?
And then there's the cast of victims. It's kind of hard to really point out any standouts when practically everyone is playing the exact same cookie-cutter character. And it's also tough to actually like any of the performances when all of them are mean-spirited shrews. The performances would have been more notable had there actually been a little variety. Some of them do make a good go of things, as Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Lacey Chabert aren't all that bad, and I thought Andrea Martin was charming. And although the makeup affects applied to them make them look more silly than frightening, I thought Robert Mann and Dean Friss were good as our villains. Unfortunately, the majority of the cast was pretty mediocre at best. The worst offender is Kristen Cloke, who played the blasé sister I referred to a few paragraphs ago. She's so dreadful in the role, I think the only reason she's in the movie at all is because she's married to Glen Morgan. Yeah, that's right, I went there.
Okay, so the remake of Black Christmas isn't a great movie. However, it's an entertaining throwback to the goofy holiday slasher movies that made being a horror fan in the early '80s so much fun. Sure, it's got its fair share of flaws, and there's plot holes that you could drive an 18-wheeler through. But I thought the movie made for a great guilty pleasure that you might not be proud to like, but still like all the same. My fellow fans of the genre may have my head for this, but so help me, I liked the remake of Black Christmas. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go hide in somebody's attic and make some obscene phone calls.
Final Rating: ***