Twice-Told Tales #3: Black Christmas

Black Christmas

Twice-Told Tales is a feature in which I compare horror remakes to their originals. My goal is to find the remakes that justify themselves beyond the cash-in. Wish me luck.

Black Christmas (1974)

Sometimes movies take a while to find their audience. Canadian filmmaker Bob Clark probably knew this as well as anyone, having directed two not-quite-hits that gradually gained enough fame and acclaim to become classics. Interestingly, these were both Christmas movies spaced a decade apart with very different takes on the holiday: Black Christmas (1974) and A Christmas Story (1983).

A Christmas Story has been inescapable for a generation; the cable networks TNT and TBS have been running twenty-four-hour Christmas Story marathons on the holiday since 1997. At this point, it’s hard to believe this charming family-friendly comedy wasn’t always so popular. It was released before Thanksgiving in 1983 and was largely out of theaters by Christmas. More viewers discovered it when it came to cable, however, and within a decade Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB Gun had become as familiar as Rudolph and the Grinch.

Black Christmas will never enjoy Story’s mass appeal, but it did undergo a revival of its own. Warner Bros. retitled it Silent Night, Evil Night for its 1974 U.S. release because the studio thought “Black Christmas” might be mistaken for blaxploitation fare. The movie didn’t make its way to New York until late 1975 – as Black Christmas again – and received a condescending drubbing from the Times. It was retitled once more for its network TV run (Stranger in the House), only to return to being Black Christmas yet again.

Such a spotty distribution history doesn’t exactly scream “blockbuster,” but Black Christmas’ cult following grew over time. Word of mouth brought viewers back to it, as did cable and home video, as did the Halloween and Scream slasher booms. By 2006, Hollywood deemed it marketable enough to warrant a remake, and of course I’ll have more to say about that.

Black Christmas opens with the point of view of a mostly unseen heavy-breathing male figure. He prowls around a sorority house on a snowy Christmas Eve and sneaks into the attic while the sisters are preparing for their holiday break. Some will be leaving the house, others plan to stay. Among those staying are Jess (Olivia Hussey) and Barb (Margot Kidder). Together with other sisters, they receive a hysterical, obscene phone call that ends with a death threat. Clare, a sister who plans to leave, goes to her room to pack. The unseen figure attacks her in her closet, killing her and taking her corpse to the attic. When Clare’s father arrives the following morning, the sisters realize that she’s missing and something strange is afoot.

Meanwhile, Jess and her high-strung boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) are dealing with their own private crisis. She’s pregnant and leaning toward abortion, to which he’s intensely opposed. Jess receives more obscene phone calls from someone who seems to speak with multiple voices. Jess reports the calls to the police, who are aware of Clare’s disappearance as well as the murder of an adolescent girl in the neighborhood.

Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) decides to tap the sorority house’s phone. The unseen figure in the attic has killed the house mother and sneaks down to murder a drunken Barb in her bed. Jess receives another call, and this time her stalker quotes a phrase Peter used in her last argument with him. The call doesn’t last long enough for the police to trace, but it does cast suspicion on Peter. Jess takes one more call after everyone else has turned in for the night, and the police are able to trace it. You may see where this is going, but if you don’t, I’d hate to spoil it for you... 

There’s plenty to like about this movie. Clark does a wonderful job of creating tension and suspense, and the payoff delivers a kick. Those phone calls are still unsettling all these years later. There are at least four vivid characters: Hussey’s warm and likable Jess, Kidder’s brash but vulnerable Barb, Saxon’s humane and competent Fuller, and Marian Waldman’s comic-relief house mother, Mrs. Mac. The sorority house itself provides a great horror setting; it’s elegant but ominous, full of shadowy nooks where a killer could hide.

What’s more, Black Christmas’ influence has been strong and ongoing. There’s no doubt it laid the groundwork for Halloween, from the opening killer’s POV shot, to the holiday setting, to Jess as the final girl forerunner to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie, to the ambiguous ending. (Clark also stated that he and John Carpenter had talked about a storyline for a Black Christmas sequel, set on Halloween, before Carpenter had made Halloween. So there is that, too.) Its big twist (spoiler!) also deserves credit for being fresh at the time, even if it has since become a cliché.

Black Christmas isn’t perfect – the attempts at humor don’t always work, there’s at least one lapse in logic during the climax – but who cares, really? It’s a well-crafted and effective film, and its tropes were durable enough to inspire the entire slasher subgenre. Granted, slashers aren’t reputable, but twenty years after Scream, filmmakers and fans are still exploring and debating what they are, what they mean, and what they can do. In other words, if you love horror movies, or just want to understand them, Black Christmas is pretty damn canonical.

So why not remake it?

Black Christmas (2006)

I’ll try not to belabor this. The 2006 version is awful for many reasons, but here are the top three:

1. There’s not a single worthwhile character. These sisters have two modes: vapid and bitchy. They’re so unlikable and interchangeable, the movie practically prods the viewer to root for their deaths. In the original, Jess struggles with the decision to have an abortion, and Barb shows genuine remorse over her failure to protect Clare. This version skips such grown-up problems or emotions or anything else that might give these characters some depth. They’re simply grist.

This isn’t surprising considering that writer-director Glen Morgan had also written and produced Final Destination. That movie, too, was a thin excuse to stage death scenes, but at least it had a halfway-novel premise. This Black Christmas doesn’t, nor does it offer any reason to care about anyone onscreen.

2. It ramps up the gore because of course it does. When you can’t generate tension or suspense, or create atmosphere, you can always go for the gross-out. This time around, the killer likes to gouge out the victims’ eyeballs, so we get plenty of that, along with more garden-variety stabbings, slashes, and some cannibalism. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not opposed to gore in and of itself, but it’s tiresome when used as a crutch. The original isn’t very bloody, and it doesn’t need to be. This version needs to be because it has nothing else going for it.

3. Worst of all, it overexplains the villains with flashbacks upon flashbacks. Aside from a glimpse of his eye, we never get a clear look at the killer in the original. He calls himself Billy and refers to an Agnes in his maniacal rants, but we never know if Billy and Agnes even exist outside of his head. We can try to piece together a backstory if we want – it makes for a fun guessing game – but it doesn’t really matter. The killer is unknowable; the mystery of his identity and his lack of motive do much to make him frightening. If nothing else, it’s disturbing to think that people like him really do exist.

Not so in the remake, which can’t stop dropping loads of unnecessary backstory. Billy was born jaundiced and rejected by his mother, who later molested him in an incestuous affair, which produced his little sister/daughter, Agnes. Billy gouged out Agnes’ eye to spite his mother before killing and cannibalizing his mother. Got all that? The institutionalized Billy escapes custody early on (by stabbing a security guard with a sharpened candy cane). He scurries around in the crawlspaces of the sorority house, where Agnes is already hiding out and bumping off the sisters. The brother-sister/daughter duo act as a murderous tag team, but the movie portrays them as cartoonish freaks, which strips away their power as characters.

Morgan has claimed that studio head Bob Weinstein pushed for more of a torture-porn movie, which muddled the end product. That may be true, given the storied Weinstein history of browbeating directors, and it might account for why this Black Christmas never knows what it wants to do. Sometimes it tries to be brutal and disgusting; sometimes it tries to play the carnage for laughs (again, sharpened candy cane).

Whatever the remake’s intent, there’s no mistaking it for the original, which remains a quality movie for all its flaws and imitators. The remake is more like a filmed checklist of reasons why non-horror fans think horror movies suck: cardboard characters, unoriginal and predictable premise, gratuitous gore, silly villains. And in this case, the non-fans aren’t wrong.

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