Written and directed by: Glen Morgan
Starring: Katie Cassidy, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lacey Chabert, and Andrea Martin
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"Everyone should be home for Christmas! I'll be home for Christmas, and I'm going to bury the hatchet in your head."
Once the horror remake craze began, one knew it was only a matter of time before Black Christmas received the redux treatment. Released in 1974 and considered by many to be a precursor to the slasher film, the original film was a mix of suspense and mystery coupled with an unnerving tone from Canadian maestro, Bob Clark. Taking the reigns for the remake are Glen Morgan and James Wong, best known the genre fans for their work on The X-Files and Final Destination. It soon became apparent that Wong and Morgan would take a decidedly different approach to the material by actually embracing the aesthetic of the many slashers spawned by the original Black Christmas. The end result is something that feels familiar, yet is ultimately quite different.
The film itself contains many of the familiar trappings of the original: the girls of Alpha Kappa Gamma are gathered just before Christmas and are eventually terrorized by a psychotic killer. However, the film goes beyond these familiar trappings by giving the killer a detailed back story based up on the "conversations" about Billy and Agnes from the original film. Whereas Clark's original film never explained (or even revealed) the killer, the remake explodes this notion by giving Billy Lenz a backstory that involves a troubled home life that eventually led him to kill his mother and her lover fifteen years before the events of the film. Now, Billy has made good on his annual promise to escape Clark Sanitarium and has returned to his childhood home: the Kappa Gamma Sorority house and what follows is a grisly, somewhat over-the-top "slay ride."
Taken solely as a remake, Black Christmas doesn't quite do the Clark's film much justice in the sense that it dramatically alters the tone of the original, which is at times a genuinely unnerving film. The redux, on the other hand, is a lighter, less serious film; it's almost as if Wong and Morgan decided to actually mimic the full-fledged slashers of the 80s instead of Black Christmas itself. And from this perspective, the remake actually works quite nicely because it delivers pretty much anything you'd want from a good slasher film: some skin, a decent body count and innovative, gory kills.
While the film starts out with a creepy, suspenseful sequence that could be found in the original film, it soon spirals into something a bit over the top. The story of Billy's childhood seems quite disturbing on paper, but it's so over the top that it's hard not to chuckle a little bit. I'd not seen the film since its theatrical release a couple of years back, and watching it again reminded me that this film really beat Rob Zombie to the punch in terms of creating a trashy history for a killer. Zombie was criticized for that move in Halloween, but it seems like I rarely see this same complaint levied against Wong and Morgan. I suspect it's because Black Christmas isn't as sacred as the original Halloween, but the creative decisions are quite similar and it seems as though history repeated itself with the respective remakes.
Ultimately, it does seem like the additional backstory (as outrageous as it is at times) does work better here than it did for Zombie's Halloween, partially because the original left so much room for interpretation as far as the killer goes. Sure, the troubled, disturbed childhood is a cliche story device that's been worn out, but Wong and Morgan really have fun with it in a sick sort of way. Plus, the backstory also allows the main narrative to take a few twists and turns, and there are even a few red herrings thrown in there that will keep you guessing. I also enjoyed the fact that the Christmas season is an integral part of the film from both a plot and atmosphere perspective, as there are plenty of Christmas sights and sound to be seen and heard. From a direction standpoint, the film is more polished and sleek than Clark's original, which was a pretty gritty affair, and it's a change that fits nicely because the film isn't meant to be disturbingly realistic. Instead, it's meant to be fun, and it succeeds at being so for the most part.
As far as the main cast of characters go, none are as memorable as the characters found in the original film; however, there's not a lack of eye candy to be found in a cast featuring Lacey Chabert, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Crystal Lowe (among others). I wouldn't say any of these provide the depth of character provided by Olivia Hussey or Margot Kidder in the original, they do get the job done. Plus, in a nice nod to the original film, Andrea Martin plays the house mother here. Surprisingly, a decent subplot does develop between the main girl, Kelli, and Leigh, the older sister of one of the sorority girls. However, there is a decided lack of John Saxon, which can never be a good thing.
In the end, though, it's all about how the cast is dispatched in a slasher film, and Black Christmas does a decent job here, as the film is quite gory and has some interesting kills. Let's just say that there are kills involving a falling icicle and a sharpened candy-cane, which tells you all you need to know about how over-the-top the film gets at times. Hell, there's even a bit of a cannibalistic element thrown in for good measure. The film also gives a couple of nods to the original here by repeating the infamous strangulation and unicorn ornament kills. For the most part, the kills come at a decent pace as well; however, if there is a major weakness to the Black Christmas redux, it's the fact that it wears out its welcome by sticking around about ten minutes too long. Up until that point, it's a pretty decent little slasher film that happens to have a Christmas theme, which is something you just don't see very often.
So, while it's pretty much unrecognizable as a remake of Bob Clark's original, Black Christmas succeeds as a slasher film. Of course, it has to ultimately be judged as both, which is probably why the film has had a somewhat notorious reputation in horror circles since its release. As previously mentioned, I saw it when it was released in theaters and found it to be a quite disposable piece of entertainment. The advent of the "12 Slays of Christmas" here at OTH gave me a good excuse to check it out again, and it went down a little bit easier a second time because I knew not to look at it as a faithful remake. If you're one of those who wrote it off after one viewing, another look might help things out. Dimension gave the film two releases on DVD: one is a full-screen transfer of the theatrical version, and the other is an unrated widescreen edition. I don't think I need to implore you to check out the latter, which features an excellent, sleek visual transfer, and a nice, atmospheric 5.1 soundtrack that's quite aggressive at times. The disc also features a couple of behind-the-scenes documentaries, deleted scenes, and three alternate endings. All in all, it's a pretty decent little package that's worth at least one look at some point because let's face it: Christmas slashers are a bit of a rare breed, and this one's pretty good. Hop in your old front-wheel drive sleigh and Rent it!
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