Studio: Dimension Films
Director: Glen Morgan
Writer: Glen Morgan
Producer: James Wong, Glen Morgan, Marty Adelstein, Dawn Parouse, Steven Hoban, Victor Solnicki
Stars: Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Hudson, Lacey Chabert, Kristen Cloke, Andrea Martin
An escaped lunatic and his deranged sister terrorize the snowbound residents of a sorority house.
With occasional exceptions like John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and Gore Verbinski’s American version of “The Ring,” horror movie remakes are often lose-lose scenarios. Slavishly revere the original to the point of Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot rehash of “Psycho” and audiences will wonder why bother. Go the other way with tonal changes or perceived sacrilege of classic iconography, a la the 2010 reboot of “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and franchise devotees take it as a kick in the mouth.
Glen Morgan’s 2006 refresh of Bob Clark’s 1974 “Black Christmas” (review here) drives a middle road between the two that is still damned if you do, damned if you don’t territory. As a remake, there is enough of the original’s DNA on display to make it recognizable as the same story, even if its themes take paths oriented at 180 degrees. As a standalone slasher, this “Black Christmas” does not offer much aside from two lunatics offing coeds in an apparently labyrinthine sorority house.
The first head on the remade chopping block is a smart portrayal of college sorority girls. Gone are the heady topical issues regarding a woman’s right to choose and an adult approach to relationships facing divergent life goals. Filling their wake are troubles with a viral sex tape from a cheating boyfriend and portrayals of over-privileged rich bitches confused by the sight of a windshield ice scraper. There is no arguing this as anything other than a backward step for character development.
When kills involving a bag over the head and plucked out eyeballs start recycling, it is clear that the script ran out of creative gas early. Overstuffing the roster with too many sorority girls is not a worthwhile solution to that problem. As attractive as the plentiful female faces are, there are way more of them than necessary to keep the ball spinning in a movie that only runs 75 minutes deep.
Also pulling a disappearing act in this second go at Roy Moore’s original screenplay are the moody minimalist approaches to sight and sound. Bob Clark literally closed the door on several of his movie’s kills, allowing the viewer’s mind to fill in the blanks with unimaginable dread. Glen Morgan puts that subtlety in a figurative shredder in order to churn out bloody sprays of excessive crimson and ocular orbs popping from sockets.
Whereas the original made due on noisy piano keys only slightly stinging the visuals, the new Shirley Walker score features blaring trumpet orchestrations overemphasizing action in the style of Sideshow Bob’s theme from “The Simpsons.” Such deviations are creative choices, and not necessarily mistakes. But in light of how much more effective the alternatives were, this update to turn “Black Christmas” into a more conventional slasher lacks the heart, soul, and uniqueness that originally made the property an enduring classic.
In addition to the ramped up gore, the visuals aim for an over-the-top presentation. With so many oversaturated red and green Christmas lights washing each scene, “Black Xmas” starts resembling a Joel Schumacher “Batman” film. Cinematographer Robert McLachlan leaves the camera on the floor shooting upward so often that it is a wonder the actors were not constantly tripping over it.
Nothing about the remake is more over the top than the backstory developed for Billy and Agnes, the film’s featured maniacs. Unquestionably part of the brilliance in Clark’s film was the deliberate vagueness shrouding the story that made the disconnected phone messages and seemingly unmotivated kills even more terrifying. Those frustrated by the lack of explanation have the new film to provide answers to questions that never needed asking in the first place. That explanation turns out to be a retread of the poor, abused misfit whose savage childhood created a misunderstood monster.
“Black Xmas” 2006 has even less conviction in its red herrings than “Black Christmas” 1974. Half-hearted attempts to introduce mystery regarding Agnes’ true identity and to turn a random boyfriend into a suspect never make it off the ground. The movie says, “forget it” and forges ahead with an almost comical tale of yellow-skinned boys eating cookies of human flesh and sexy starlets choking to death on plastic bags.
It makes an appropriate bookend for a sub-genre that the original “Black Christmas” helped birth by showing how far the category has devolved in the decades since. Slasher films in 1974 held the promise of social commentary, empowered women, and tightly wound suspense. By 2006, too many of the subsequent offspring settle for being little more than popcorn fluff and forgettable entertainment.
Given everything that the film decides to do differently, it ends up being the version of “Black Christmas” that detractors claimed the original was not. Here is a version of the story that is in your face with the violence, more general in characterizing empty-headed sorority girls as future corpses, and fully focused on fleshing out the killers as featured characters with complete origins. And for all of these changes made, the remake of “Black Christmas” indirectly proves that Bob Clark had it right the first time around.
Review Score: 55