***WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE 1974 and 2006 BLACK CHRISTMAS.***
If you pay attention to movies at all, you’ve noticed the proliferation of remakes. Since the beginning of the film industry, producers and directors have recycled and revamped material. The remake has proved itself a trusted Hollywood standby, combining a tried-and-true formula with an audience that is (hopefully) willing to pay to see a rehash of a popular film.
To a degree, it makes perfect business sense. The story is already written. The original is already embedded in pop culture. And sometimes, a cult classic could use an upgrade, especially with a bigger budget and more experienced filmmakers taking the reins.
But more often than not, it seems that the opposite is true, and that many remakes are unnecessary, paling in comparison to their storied predecessors. Such projects smack of opportunism and audiences can usually see right through it. We’ve all been there, rolling our eyes when a trailer for the remake of Poltergeist lumbers on screen or snickering to ourselves when we learn that Nightmare on Elm Street is getting second reboot.
As a horror fan, it seems that remakes are a particular stubborn blight upon one of my favorite genres. If audiences loved Halloween, they’ll surely love it a second, unnecessary time around, right? And since Americans are obviously incapable of appreciating foreign horror films, they’ll surely eat up Americanized versions of Martyrs and A Tale of Two Sisters, right?
As a horror fan, on the other hand, I’d be lying if I said I loved all originals and hated all remakes. I’m a firm believer that I should at least try to judge individual movies on their own merits, even if a remake is so bad I switch to the original halfway through (looking at you, The Wicker Man).
For a while now, I’ve been toying with the idea of a blog series that would compare and contrast horror originals and remakes. With all this news of remakes from It to The Birds to Interview with the Vampire, I figured there was no better time to start than the present.
And because it’s almost Christmas, I thought it appropriate to kick of my Originals vs. Remakes series with wondrous tale of holiday mayhem and murder, Black Christmas.
In this corner, the defending ORIGINAL!
Title: Black Christmas
Stars: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder (the original Lois Lane!), Andrea Martin, Marian Waldman, and John Saxon.
Director: Bob Clark (who also directed Christmas classic A Christmas Story)
Plot Synopsis: During their Christmas break, a group of sorority girls are stalked by a stranger.
What the Critics Say: Upon its release, The New York Times hailed Black Christmas as “A whodunit that begs the question of why it was made.”
Upon further reflection: “Perhaps more than any remade title so far, Bob Clark’s 1974 Black Christmas deserves the recognition, since much of the language of modern horror films—the first-person “killer cam,” the “last woman standing” convention, the calls coming from inside the house—originated within its grisly confines.”
Iconic Scene: Where to start? The glass unicorn death scene epitomizes the best kind of slasher camp, and the dry-cleaning bag scene is infamous for a reason, but I have to say that the scene where Jess encounters the killer hiding behind the door is terrifying and amazing and iconic.
And in this corner, the REMAKE:
Title: Black Christmas
Stars: Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Hudson, Lacey Chabert, Kristen Cloke, Andrea Martin
Director: Glen Morgan
Plot Synopsis: An escaped maniac returns to his childhood home on Christmas Eve, which is now a sorority house, and begins to murder the sorority sisters one by one.
What the Critics Say: “’Black Christmas’ smothers terror beneath a blanket of unnecessary information, revealing too much and teasing too little.”
Iconic Scene: There are a lot of very Christmas-y kills, but I personally appreciated the simplicity and elegance of the candy cane murder scene, which was full of the holiday spirit.
Let’s start with the original:
Black Christmas, despite being widely credited as one of the first slashers and a direct influence on Halloween, is criminally underappreciated. It is an old movie, and its age shows in some regards (like the fashion, the lack of gore, and the general gritty 70s-ness). But despite its dated appearance, Black Christmas is timeless and original. Even if you haven’t seen a ton of slashers, you can trace the film’s influence throughout the subgenre.
There are lots of things I loved about this movie, especially the story structure, the characters, and the scares.
As far as structure goes, Black Christmas is very straightforward. The film takes place over the course of one 24-hour period, beginning during a Christmas party at the sorority house and ending when the final girl makes her last stand. The plot is streamlined: an unidentified mad man hides himself in the attic of a sorority house, luring victims up, venturing out to murder pick off girls, and terrorizing them in other ways. The killer is so stealthy and the pre-holiday rush to go home is such a good distraction that the girls don’t even realize Clare, who goes missing, has even been murdered. They spend most of the film searching for Clare and trying to convince the police that something very bad is happening, what with missing girls and disturbing phone calls.
Speaking of disturbing phone calls, I was not prepared for just how awful those phone calls were. Before watching Black Christmas, I’d heard that the phone calls were a big part of the plot, but I assumed that they were “obscene” by 1970s standards in the same way that Halloween was viciously violent back in the day.
I was wrong.
Those phone calls were awful—aggressive, invasive, malicious, filthy. If I ever received a phone call like that, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d be torn between locking myself in the bathroom forever or arming myself to the teeth in preparation for a fight. This torn reaction is a really good example of how the sorority girls approach the situation. Some are rightfully creeped out by the phone calls and while others deciding to defiantly enjoy their party.
At first glance, the girls embody the stock characters we’ve come to expect from slashers. There was skittish prude Clare, rebellious bad girl Barb, nervous and “smart” girl Phyll, and self-possessed final girl Jess. But despite their clearly defined roles, I never felt that the characterizations rose to stereotype.
It helped that the girls were also low-key hilarious and lent levity to an otherwise bleak film. They aren’t “likeable” or “ladylike” characters, drinking and swearing and having fun. Margot Kidder stole scenes as the pithy Barb, who let little kidsdrink booze at a breakfast with Santa and told dirty jokes to scandalize the men around her. The house mother, Mrs. Mac, was a treasure, constantly griping about the girls as she took pulls from the various whiskey bottles hidden around the house. Even good girl Clare earned disapproval from her father for dating boys. Final girl Jess was the most interesting, quiet, confident, and Han-Solo-ing her whiny boyfriend like a pro before taking the film into a surprising abortion subplot.
For being such a stripped-down feature, I was impressed by how real the characters felt. The acting wasn’t the best, but I believed that they could have been real people. We have all met every single one of these young women (hell, you might be one), which makes the movie all the more disturbing.
Counterintuitively, the lack of characterization for the killer made him feel even more terrifying. There wasn’t anything supernatural about him; but without details of his identity, past, and motivations, he became something monstrous, omniscient even. We have no idea who he was, who the hell Billy and Angus was, what he wanted, and why the hell he picked the sorority house. Black Christmas isn’t like other slashers that spend chunks of runtime setting up the killer’s motivations, be the revenge or just unadulterated blood lust. How can you stop someone who has no discernible weakness, no emotional weakness to exploit, no motivation to manipulate? He is too quick, too silent, too brutal to be reasoned with.
And he was brutal. I don’t want to spoil too much, but between the savage murders and the phone calls, the killer terrorized the girls, lurking in the shadows, picking off victims, and hiding bodies in the attic. Because Black Christmas was filmed in the 70s, the violence is restrained but effective. It’s what you don’t see that disturbs and Bob Clark is very good at suggestion.
While I really liked this movie, I was disappointed that there wasn’t more holiday cheer and Christmas kitsch in the movie. It didn’t need to be over the top, but there were certain parts where it was easy to forget that the film took place during Christmas. I think that by making it a bit more obvious, the tension between Christmas and bloody serial murder would have been more uncomfortable. It would have highlighted the horror of an unstoppable dark force intruding into what should be a joyous and safe time of year.
All in all, the original Black Christmas is an excellent slasher and cult favorite that has earned its status.
Fast-forwarding thirty-two years to the remake, I knew going in that it didn’t have a good reputation. I knew that this version of Black Christmas would probably continue horror’s tradition of shitty remakes. But there was opportunity here.
The original left certain elements undeveloped. I knew it was a long shot, but I did have a small hope that the remake would surprise me and go after those dangling plot threads. Maybe we would get a little bit more about the abortion subplot. Maybe it would develop the conflict between the female-dominated space of the sorority house and the male world. I had a little fantasy that Glen Morgan, who also wrote the screenplay, had a list of all the ways he would improve upon the original. I really hoped the remake would at least attempt to address these things (because sometimes all I can realistically hope for is an attempt).
I admit that, initially, I was onboard with the concept of giving the killer a backstory. A killer who hides in the attic of a sorority house and murders the inhabitants will no doubt have some morbidly fascinating past. Usually I’m all for an intense backstory, with narrow exceptions. I was eager to see how the remake would handle things, and if the small clues from the original would be incorporated into the new backstory.
At least I wasn’t disappointed on the Christmas front. It became immediately clear that the remake would incorporate a ton more Christmas iconography. Jaunty Christmas carols made up the bulk of the soundtrack. The sets were all deck-out in every kind of Christmas decor you can name – garlands, trees, tacky Christmas sweaters, Christmas lights, angel cookies, presents, and candy canes. Christmas camp filled every frame from the first to the last. I loved it at first, given my feelings on the original’s lack of holiday cheer.
Also, I think the film did a good job adapting the obscene phone calls of the original in the age of cell phones. They weren’t anywhere near as scary, however, and Billy must have been a very quick learner to figure out how cell phones work after 15 years in an insane asylum, but I’ll let it slide. Because there are so, so many other things to trash about this movie.
Honest to God, that’s about all I liked, because the remake of Black Christmas is atrocious. It’s one of the worst mainstream horror films I’ve seen. Plot, writing, acting, special effects, scares—all of it was horribly done. I paused the movie several times to stare off into space, so deeply confused was I about how and why this movie had been made.
Billy’s whole backstory was horribly conceived and executed. It defied all logic. Seriously, I wrote in my notes: “THIS MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE.” I have tons of questions about what the hell they were thinking, so much so I could write an entire lengthy blog post dissecting the absurdity of Billy’s vulgar and nonsensical history. In true horror movie cliché, Billy’s mother is abusive in this movie, but to an insane, contradictory way. Billy’s mother does every single bad thing that a mother could do to her child. And on top of all that, he has some kind of made-up jaundice that lasts forever, so he’s literally yellow for the whole movie. All I can say is that somebody saw Sin City and thought, yeah, throw that in!
That is how I imagine how Glen Morgan wrote this movie. Instead of my sweet little dream of Glen Morgan and his list of things to improve, I realized he had instead compiled a list of clumsy homages to the original, various pop culture references, and Christmas stuff and turned it into a movie. It’s like he made a list of everything and anything he associated with Christmas and winter and then tried to figure out how to either a) kill someone with it or b) how to make it completely deranged. Cookie cutters? Check. Prison shank made out of a candy cane? Double check. Christmas tree? What if it was decorated with eyeballs, though I’ll never explain what Billy’s fixation with eyeballs is and why Angus is there decorating a tree with eyeballs.
Here’s the thing—if you are going to create a…detailed backstory for the villain, you have to make sure his actions align with his story. You can’t just slap together some messed up shit and then continue doing that if there’s no thread tying everything together. It confuses the audience. It would have been a lot more effective if they had skipped the flashbacks entirely and just had Billy committing heinous crimes without explanation.
Goddamn, this movie was bad.
Additionally, the sorority girls were boring as hell, not even fully formed stock characters. Some were timid, some were bitchy, others were just there to be the drunk girl who is ogled in the shower and then subjected to sexual assault while she tries to sleep off her drunken stupor. (In general, there was a lot more “sex” in this movie, with a nude shower scene, the aforementioned groping scene, and an unexplained sex tape that was, I guess, supposed to build characterization for the Final Girl). As characters, I didn’t care about them at all. I couldn’t relate to them. I couldn’t even remember their names, let alone the name of the Final Girl.
This is because too much of the film focused on Billy and Angus and didn’t even do that right. The remake of Black Christmas was successful in making me completely indifferent to both the killer and the victims while leaving me completely revolted though unscared.
I’ll try to be charitable and point out that the filmmakers were obviously aiming for over the top grotesqueries in certain scenes. The violence oscillated between disgusting and whimsical, but not in a good way, because in order to execute this level of pure nastiness yet preserve any sense of whimsy, a deft balancing act is required. It can be done. Tim Burton has made a career off of building worlds where strange and morbid things are to be expected. One has to create a world where catching an ice skate to the back of the head is both violent and dark funny. This demands a certain level of commitment and attention to detail that Black Christmas failed to deliver.
Black Christmas tried to have its cake and eat it too, veering between off-note black comedy moments and super gross-out, merciless murders. It comes down to understanding tone, which these filmmakers misunderstood entirely. The movie devolved into an exercise in creating Christmas-themed gore, which ruins any emotional resonance of setting the murders during the holiday. It also becomes cartoonish as hell, and I reached a point where I started laughing every time the Christmas kitsch reached a fever pitch. That happened a lot.
I just can’t believe someone thought that this remake of Black Christmas was an acceptable use of film. It was nowhere near as creepy and scary as the original, not with the phone calls or the actual murders themselves. It was disgusting and exploitive and messed up, and that’s all this Black Christmas was. If you like bad movie nights, this is a perfect film to watch. Just make sure everyone has had a few drinks first.
WINNER: With a stripped-down plot, solid story-telling, good camera work, and expert use of innuendo and suggestion, the 1974 Black Christmas blows its 2006 remake out of the water.
I hope you enjoyed the first installment of Originals vs. Remakes! I have a list of potential future titles to write about, but if you have something you’re dying for me to write about, leave them in the comments!