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Black X-mas

I skipped BLACK X-MAS for six years ’cause everybody told me it was bottom-of-the-barrel, but after I heard Brian Collins and some guys discuss it on some podcast about their favorite horror remakes I decided to try it out this year. Of course it’s a disgrace to the pioneering original Bob Clark BLACK CHRISTMAS from 1974. But it’s a fun disgrace.

Like the original it’s about some sorority sisters (and one sorority den mother, or whatever it’s called) staying in the house on Christmas break, being harassed on the phone by some weirdo named Billy who stalks them and suffocates one or more of them with a plastic bag and leaves her in the attic in a rocking chair and nobody finds her for a while. It skips the original’s thread about a father going around trying to find his daughter, preferring to keep the cast mostly male-free and most of the running time isolated to the one location. But the biggest and boldest change was to give the killer a backstory.

See, one of the most distinct touches in the original is that you never find out who the hell this Billy is or what his deal is. When I heard about the remake I assumed they’d have to fill that in and that it would be a terrible idea. But now that I’ve seen it I actually think it’s what saves the movie, because the focus on the backstory – told to us in flashback and conversation with asylum guards and longtime neighborhood residents – completely changes the content and tone of the story, making it easier to not compare it to the original and instead to enjoy it as trashy fun.

It turns out Billy did not have a good childhood. There was all kinds of cruelty and Christmas-related trauma. His mom locked him in the attic of what is now the sorority house. She made him the father of his own sister Agnes, then taunted him with her, yelling to him through the ceiling while celebrating Christmas with the new baby. His stepfather told him he wouldn’t get presents because Santa was dead, shot down by the Russians. Eventually when Billy was grown he killed his stepfather, ate his sister’s eyeball, strangled Mom with Christmas lights, beat hear with a rolling pin and made cookies out of her skin. When the cop showed up he was sitting there eating them dipped in a glass of milk.

The cast includes Katie Cassidy (who’s also in remakes of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and REVENGE OF THE NERDS [unfinished]), Michelle Trachtenberg (HARRIET THE SPY), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Lucy McClane), Lacey Chabert (Party of Five), Crystal Lowe (DRIVEN TO KILL), Jessica Harmon (A CHRISTMAS STORY 2, ANYTHING BUT CHRISTMAS), plus Kristen Cloke (who happens to be the director’s wife but is a real actress) as an older estranged sister of one of the missing and SCTV’s Andrea Martin plays the sorority mother lady. I actually forgot she was in the original but not knowing it was an homage it seemed pretty cool that she was in this.

At first the girls worried me, they have that manufactured horror movie bitchiness, sniping at each other because one’s the rich girl and one’s supposed to be a redneck or whatever. But the obnoxious ones die quick, and there are a few good jokes that won me over, like the awkward moment when the weird girl  gives Winstead a glass unicorn as a gift, saying “I know you like the Bible and stuff.” Or when they think their friend is calling, but it’s a clearly male voice who yells and threatens and acts crazy and then one of them states very confidently, “That was not Megan.”

And this is a little thing but I like that when a bunch of the sisters encounter their friend’s severed head at the same time one of them, Trachtenberg, yells “HOLY FUCK!” It seemed like a believable type of reaction you don’t usually see in horror movies, which are usually more fond of high pitched screaming.

Alot of these characters don’t get a chance to develop (it’s a pretty violent movie) but I like how for those who stick around for a while there’s a theme of sisterhood: the actual sister who refuses to leave until she finds out what happened to her sister, the girl who does the same for her sorority sisters because “we’re supposed to be sisters!”, and they’re banding together to fight this guy who went psycho partly because of jealousy of a siter. And he wants the girls to be his sisters too, but to him that means hanging their eyeballs from a Christmas tree.

Because of his childhood confinement Billy knows how to sneak around the house and spy on the rooms. He does it in the attic, behind the walls, under the floorboards, through not just obvious Norman Bates style peepholes but even thumbtack holes from the girl’s posters. In one weird creep-out moment we see a small bathroom tile move to reveal an eyeball under the floor, checking out a drunk girl’s ass in the shower. At the end the girls take the battle to him and we get to see it in there, how he climbs around. Barefoot, too.

It’s kind of clever in the way it updates the original’s prank phone calls to modern cell phone technology where you can see who’s calling you. There’s a good scare where one of them gets a Billy call and calls back, only to hear her friend’s ringtone through the ceiling. Creepy! He’s right up there!

I like a good holiday horror, including dumb ones like this, the more ridiculous the better. I especially respect them when they’re careful to make use of all the holiday trappings. This one gets high points in that department. There’s the cannibal cookies, gory tree decoration, ornament stabbing, candy cane stabbing, Christmas tree impalement, wall-to-wall Christmas music, “Jingle Bells” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” ring tones, ominous presents, spooky Nutcracker snow globe. At the hospital, a nurse’s help buzzer is not heard because of Christmas carolers. During the murder of Billy’s mother there’s a JURASSIC PARK style shot of Christmas cookies vibrating on a table. My favorite is probly the shot of blood splattering into a glass of eggnog. I could be wrong, but off the top of my head I think eggnog might be a holiday tradition not really explored in the SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT series.

There’s also a snow storm happening, which is a procedural move for a horror story like this (keeps police away, limits cell phone range, makes transportation away from dangerous location difficult) but it also allows for various winter themed gruesomeness: ice skate beheading, icicle stabbing, murder while scraping ice, marshmallow skewer eye poke, etc.

The writer/director is Glen Morgan, who co-write some of the FINAL DESTINATIONs with his long time partner James Wong, who directed them. They were writers together on X-Files and a bunch of stuff but Morgan’s only other directorial work is the I-remember-being-good 2003 remake of WILLARD starring Crispin Glover.

Man, I know this is a tough sell, they shouldn’t’ve remade BLACK CHRISTMAS, but that’s why I’m calling it by its altered video title. Just think of it as a different thing. I know some of you like this sort of shit as much as I do. Have yourself a merry little x-mas, everybody.

This entry was posted on Monday, December 24th, 2012 at 12:37 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

31 Responses to “Black X-mas”

  1. Whoah… I wonder why the blu-ray is so rare? It’s coming up on the Amazon ad with only one copy available, and that’s for $99.99. (Somebody’s also trying to sell it on HD-DVD.)

  2. yeah, I did not even know that this was on blu ray

    anyway I actually did see remake of WILLARD a long time ago, I remember it being better than I expected but it was not the most memorable of movies either

  3. Loads of cheap copies of the Blu-ray on eBay, and it appears there’s a German edition for $20 with English DTS-HD and the proper aspect ratio.

  4. I always wonder what happened to Glen Morgan and James Wong. SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND was everything that that horrible BATTLESTAR GALACTICA remake tried to be, “their” season of MILLENNIUM was the best IMO, FINAL DESTINATION was maybe the best teen horror movie of the 90’s, but today? Oh well…

  5. I was under the impression Battlestar: galactica was universally praised. I think we might have an In Bruges situation with this opinion of CJ and Battlestar.

  6. CJ: I saw Wong’s name in the credits for AMERICAN HORROR STORY. If I remember correctly, he’s a writer/producer of some episodes. The last time I saw his name attached to Morgan’s was on some MEDIUM type show that I was tempted to watch because Al Leong was in it.

  7. Ugh, stay away from me with AMERICAN HORROR STORY. I love all kind of bizarre shit, but I had to give up on that show after 3 episodes*, thanks to its headache inducing visual style and the fact that despite they throw LOTS of bizarre shit into it, I didn’t care for any of it.

    And I really talked about BSG on here several times and don’t wanna bother anybody with it again, because it’s christmas after all and I don’t wanna hold a grudge to a show that stopped its run several years ago and apparently lost a lot of goodwill from most of its fan during its runtime and through the spin-offs. So whatever.

    Merry Christmas! Here is some music. http://snd.sc/TlZuw4

    *Of ASYLUM. Haven’t seen season 1.

  8. I totally agree, Vern. BLACK CHRISTMAS is probably my favorite horror movie ever, a perfect mix of creepiness and humor, not to mention way ahead of its time in its filmatism and subject matter. So I approached the remake with a great deal of apprehension, only leavened by the fact that I’d really enjoyed WILLARD. I was happy to see that, by doing the exact wrong thing, they managed to make the movie its own monster, not some half-assed retread. It has a crazy, manic energy all its own that borrows almost nothing from the original except a few in-jokes, which were not too egregious. Plus, it features a truly stunning assortment of hot brunettes. Finally, a horror movie with the guts to defy the tyranny of the blonde.

    Speaking of Morgan, did anyone else watch the special features on the DVD? It was the first time I’d ever seen a director be so brutally honest about what the success of the movie he’s working on means to him and his career. He was a nervous wreck, saying that since WILLARD made no money, if BLACK XMAS tanks, then his career as a director is pretty much over. And sure enough, it did tank and nobody’s heard from him in years. (Which is a shame, since his more successful partner, James Wong, might be better in a technical capacity, but I find him to be kind of cold and empty compared to Morgan’s heart-on-his-sleeve weirdness.) Most of the time, directors put up this front of Alpha male confidence and invincibility, which is probably how they convinced a bunch of assholes in suits to give them millions of dollars in the first place, so it was refreshing to see one who allowed himself to seem vulnerable and human. Too bad that approach didn’t seem to work out for him, but if anything, it makes me like BLACK XMAS more. He could have played it safe, made a by-the-numbers slasher that probably would have turned a tidy profit, but instead he made a a go-for-broke Hail Mary that was probably too macabre and bizarre for most audiences. He paid the price, but I think the movie is better for it. I keep waiting for him to turn up in the DTV realm. I think he’d really excel in an arena where the stakes are lower and idiosyncracies are rewarded.

  9. I like AMERICAN HORROR STORY. It’s relaxing. It’s just one goddamn thing after another, and you don’t have to worry about any of it because it’ll change next week. Normally, I prefer TV shows where you fall in love with the characters and can’t wait to spend time with them, but AHS is the exact opposite. It’s refreshing to watch a show where you honestly don’t give a shit if anyone lives or dies because they’re so stupid and nebulous anyway. I’ve never seen a show that makes less sense. I just watch it for the retardedness.

  10. That’s pretty blunt, but it’s sort of why I like it too. I think it’s clever how they mix the classic horror tropes mixed in with social commentary. This past season featured a scene that’s essentially a comment about homosexual conversion therapy, but shown for being as horrific as most of us might think it might be. It can be as clever as it purports to be, and as stupid as people say it is, all at the same time. THIS IS SPINAL TAP got it right, there can be a thin line between the two things.

  11. I haven’t seen the second season yet, but I’ll grant that individual scenes in the first one can possess a certain on-the-nose cleverness. It’s just trying to fit those scenes into the overall patchwork of the mythology that makes you realize that they’re really flying by the seat of their pants on this thing. It’s just a campy horror poo-poo platter: a little sampling of a bunch of tasty shit with no nutritional value, not a coherent and healthy meal.

  12. Agreed. I like TRUE BLOOD for a lot of the same reasons too, but I can appreciate AHS having a thinner rope to cross because it’s not on a premium channel and thus not having the ability to cross certain boundaries (of gore, and sexuality specifically). I listened to a thing with Lorne Michaels awhile ago about producing television and how he really isn’t as interested in doing something for HBO or one of the premiums as he is doing SNL, because he can appreciate the boundaries of being on a network. I think the point was that he found more creative opportunity in working with less than more, if that makes any sense.

  13. I feel the same way about TRUE BLOOD, although it’s slightly more character-based. I do care what happens to a few of those sexy morons, which is not something I can say about AHS.

    As for the Lorne Michaels quote, I have an ex who likes writing sonnets because she finds the rigid structure inspiring. To the truly creative (not necessarily lumping Micheals in there), limitations are opportunities.

  14. Any Lorne Michaels quote about SNL should be taken with a grain of salt since Dick Ebersol ran the best seasons of SNL and Michaels prevents them from being released on DVD or play in heavy syndication.

  15. Clubside: I have to respectfully disagree with you there. While Ebersol did give us Eddie Murphy, most of his SNL was considered pretty lackluster until he started hiring people like Martin Short and Billy Crystal, who were already pretty well established by SNL standards. I’m not saying that there isn’t some great stuff in the Ebersol years, and I’m not necessarily a big fan of Lorne Michaels, but I think the original cast, the Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman years, even the Farley/Sandler/Spade years to a lesser extent all hold up just as well as Ebersol’s cast.

    Just my opinion, though.

  16. Nothing you say is wrong Dtroyt, but I think it’s a matter of perspective. If you want SNL to represent emergent talent/comedy then Michaels deserves all the credit for both the birth of SNL and its continued relevance (to some). If what you want is just good comedy, like I want of an “institution” that had already outlasted the critics by the time Ebersol replaced Doumanian, I don’t think there’s any question. The Crystal/Short year benefitted from so many skilled writer/actors that it didn’t even matter how different their comic sensibilities were, you got nearly 1 1/2 hours of good stuff every episode where today’s SNL needs a year to compile that much material. And while Murphy came before him, Ebersol was hands-off enough to the writer’s room he assembled that Piscopo and Murphy could flourish with other greats like Kazurinsky. Stuff like the kids addicted to video games short, the Belushi game tickets, the escalation of running gags and characters are all legacies of Ebersol, since Michaels got obsessed with less is more before his return.

    Anyway you can almost always find something to love in SNL before the turn of the millineum but for sheer entertainment value, for something that was worth staying awake/somewhat sober for at the wee hours of Saturday night, Ebersol was the man. It just irritates me that Michaels has the power/NBC caves to him to deny us his full years. I’m telling ya, getting the Crystal year alone would be MAHHHHVALOUS.

  17. James Wong probably ruined his career by directing that awful Dragonball movie

  18. Clubside: all good points. At the end of the day, every season of SNL has things I both love and hate about it.

  19. The BLACK X-MAS redux is a fine example of a well done bad movie

  20. The original Paul

    December 25th, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    I did see this one, and sorry guys, but I don’t agree. The sorority girls were just too unlikeable, the acting and script too amateurish, and the whole thing just felt – to use Jareth’s word – “unnecessary”. Not by any means the worst horror movie I’ve ever seen, and certainly better than “The Pool”, it just didn’t manage to hold my interest at all. It committed the worst sin a horror movie can: it was boring without being scary. Sorry. The “Sorority Row” remake – even though the payoff and the killer’s identity were incredibly lame – still managed to be about ten thousand times more interesting than this one.

    In short, see “Detention” instead. There’s a scene where two characters have a fight using the styles of Steven Seagal and Patrick Swayze.

  21. I figured this is as good a place as any to say, Merry Christmas to Vern and the rest of you guys!

  22. This sounds a bit like that Tobe Hooper remake of The Toolbox Murders. Again, not great but likable. Actually, excellent opening scene not withstanding, it’s probably an improvement on the original. Pretty fucking far from his best work but worlds away from that shambolic crocodile movie he made in the early noughties. Jesus, that was bad. Boom mikes and shit looming into screen. It’s like watching this great director’s soul dissipate on camera. Heartbreaking.

  23. CJ, I also deeply heart Morgan and Wong’s SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND run, along with MILLENNIUM Season 2. Both were so ahead of their time that we’re still seeing echoes of their story lines in modern shows. That being said, I dug the new BSG, especially the early seasons.

    As for Morgan and Wong, it’s too bad they never took off in cinema the way they did on the small screen. However, I never really liked anything they did for the former format, so it’s not surprising that they faded away.

    P.S. Glen Morgan’s brother Darin was a brilliant writer in his own right: that Scientology episode he penned for MILLENNIUM Season 2 was amazing.

  24. Say Vern, in your review for the original BLACK CHRISTMAS you doubt that the remake will use the “c-word.” Were you right, or did they go for it?

  25. Yes, Subtlety, they say Christmas several times…

  26. Apart from writing some of the best episdodes of THE X-FILES, like the one with Dr. Bambi, Darin Morgan was also pretty funny as an actor in that episode where he freaky-fridays Mulder and tries to seduce Scully (not to be confused with the other episode where Michael McKean freaky-fridays Mulder and strands him with his awful family). No X-FILES writer delighted in ridiculing Mulder the way Darin Morgan did.

    Paul: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of PULSE (KAIRO), has a little film called CURE that is just waiting to scare your pants off.

  27. I totally forgot about that so I wasn’t looking for it, but no, I’m pretty sure they didn’t.

  28. Well, I guess they’ll just have to remake it again as BLACK XXX-MAS to keep up with today’s modern profanity. I guess they’d better throw a sex scene or two in there too, or people will feel lied to.

  29. Watching this now for the first time since its theatrical release, and I’m realizing that has been ravaging our country for the last 30-50 years that’s gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream media. It’s the decline of facilities whose names end in “…For the Criminally Insane.” Where are we keeping all these people now that there are no more “homes for the criminally insane”? Are they just roaming the streets? I don’t want a “Home for the Criminally Insane” in my neighborhood (NIMBY), but then we need to put these Homes for the Criminally Insane somewhere, am I right?

    Also, at the very least, if a guy ever breaks out of a high-security forensic inpatient unit and murders me, is it too much to ask that the newspapers and any future dramatizations refer to that place from which he escaped as a “Home for the Criminally Insane”?

  30. This is a fun little snowbound Christmas slasher potboiler that holds up very well to a second viewing 10 years later. There’s a compelling, weird, X-filesy killer (or is it killers?). Most of the action takes place at sorority house in the middle of a winter storm, and there is a great cabin fevery vibe, and the house and its nooks and crannies are well-exploited, if sometimes implausibly so. There’s a delightfully over-the-top gothic horror backstory that’s told in flashback. That part is very Tales from the Crypty and fun, and the actors playing Billy’s mom and ill-fated dad are both great. The kills are gory and nasty but in a playful way– this is deliberately campy fun, and the movie shows a pretty good sense of humor throughout without undermining the creep factor. It also looks and sounds great–great cinematography, lighting, sound, camera angles. It’s a carefully put together film that creates real atmosphere. Finally, the actors are all solid (and the fact that they are hotties across the board certainly doesn’t hurt the throwback slasher mirth). The characters are babes but generally not classical bimbos–they’re tough, sassy, witty, and endearing. Truthfully, I think this is every bit as good as Krampus but has gotten virtually no love as far as I can tell.

    I don’t think it deserves to go down as one of the horror classics of all-time, but neither does it deserve to be wholesale forgotten, as generally seems to be the case. it’s a pretty good time.

  31. Also, #candycaneshiv

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