Black Christmas first published by Film4
These days retreads of seventies horror films are a dime a dozen, but so special is the place occupied by Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) in the history of horror that the prospect of bringing it back to life ought to fill any contemporary filmmaker with dread. Thanks to its combination of creepy phone calls, amoral co-eds, a holiday setting, and a muttering killer in the house (all years before the 1978 release of Halloween), Clark’s film has rightfully been credited as the film that spawned the entire slasher genre. But while Black Christmas seemed fresh and raw in its own time, today’s canny post-Scream generation has seen its generic legacy done to death in the eighties, disinterred, dissected and deconstructed in the nineties, and now left with little to chase but its own tail. Clark’s Black Christmas may have been altogether too mean-spirited ever to be labelled innocent, but it nonetheless embodied an era when the genre’s conventions were being invented on the fly rather than slavishly imitated. Trying to rediscover that lost era is like trying, after three decades of sex, to become all over again a virgin (for the slaughter).
Glen Morgan’s response to the challenge is ingenious. While his all-new Black Christmas has a similar set-up to the original – over the Christmas holidays, college girls are first menaced and then murdered one-by-one by a deranged killer hidden in their sorority house (his one-time home) – this remake does not pretend to be the same as its source, bringing events right up to a present day of laptops and mobile phones, and shifting the focus from brooding seventies angst to more gleefully gory slice-and-dice. Killer Billy Lenz’s troubled childhood, only hinted at in the original through his chilling phone monologues, is here presented in a series of graphic flashbacks taking us from his birth in 1970 to the domestic killing spree which saw him institutionalised in 1991. Despite their shocking parade of abuse, murder, incest, mutilation and cannibalism, these scenes also have a hilariously cheesy quality, as they not only mark the transformation of a little boy into a psycho-killer, but also ring the changes on the horror genre itself throughout the seventies and eighties.
In fact, this reimagining showcases with encyclopaedic relish just about every slasher convention and variation that has evolved over the last thirty or so years since Black Christmas first screened in your local drive-in. If Clark’s original was to inspire such rarefied offshoots as the sorority massacre and the killer santa films, then Morgan’s remake includes loving tributes to these subgenres. If the first Black Christmas, with its madman phoning from within the house, was a direct influence on When A Stranger Calls (1979), then this new Black Christmas stars Katie Cassidy, who featured in the 2006 Stranger remake. The presence of Andrea Martin (who played Phyllis in the original) as den mother Mrs Mac here may suggest a certain continuity with Clark’s vision, but her character’s almost incidental death by falling icicle is more reminiscent of Morgan’s own scripts for the Final Destination franchise. There are also allusions to the homicidal Chuckie doll of the Child’s Play franchise, the murderous tag-team of the Scream franchise, and even an homage to the shower scene from that granddaddy of all slashers, Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho.
Yet while at first this all seems admirably postmodern, the film quickly becomes indistinguishable from the films that it pastiches, as much as the sorority girls lined up as victims fast become indistinguishable from each other. Sure, their deaths are macabre, and might have some viewers squirming or even jumping in their seats, but what is missing here is a strong character to match those played by Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Keir Dullea in the original. Cassidy’s Kelli is as anodyne a ‘final girl’ as the genre has ever managed to produce, while her local squeeze Kyle (Oliver Hudson) has none of the chilling ambiguity of Dullea’s Peter, courtesy of changes made to the plot that render him beyond serious suspicion. Here it is less a case of who-done-it as how many will die before the credits roll.
Less subtle, but far bloodier, than its 1974 model, Morgan’s film does not flinch from transgressive acts, carnal feasts and endless eye-gougings, but curiously shies away from the abortion issue at the moral core of the original – perhaps a horror too far in Bush’s America. Still present and correct, however, is a merrily heretical approach to the season of cheer (“Fuck Christmas!”), and a vestige at least of the original’s anxieties about secularisation and family breakdown. It is also much funnier than its downbeat source – and at a mere 84 minutes, too short for Billy Lenz and his demented kin truly to outstay their welcome.
Verdict: While hardly an improvement in the original, this reimagined Black Christmas is a concise showcase of the changes in the slasher genre over the last thirty years. Where horror newcomers may squirm, hardened connoisseurs can at least smile wryly.
© Anton Bitel