Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Cult Classic Corner: Black Christmas (Original vs. Remake)

**Spoiler Warning! Key plot details from the 1974 original and 2006 remake are revealed in this review**

"Midnight Movie." You've heard the term. There's even a DVD series named after it that you may have come across in your travels. The term rose to prominence in the 1970's (with its roots actually dating way before) to describe low budget cult films that were screened theatrically in major cities late at night. Now the term is being thrown around regularly to describe any campy low budget horror movie that may air late at night on one of your cable channels. You know the ones that you discover when you can't sleep and you're flipping through the channels at midnight. Most of them are bad. Sometimes really bad. But the joy in watching them comes from the fact that they can often be so bad, they're considered good.

The Canadian horror classic Black Christmas flew under the radar upon its release in 1974 but over the years has picked up a huge cult following and has enjoyed many midnight screenings, especially on Christmas Eve. If it is to be considered a midnight movie, it's definitely not a bad one. In fact, time has revealed it to not only be a great film in every sense of the word, but a revolutionary one as far as suspense and horror.

Pre-dating John Carpenter's Halloween by nearly four years, it introduced us to what is now commonly used horror techniques such as "the caller is inside the house," "the final girl," and the frightening camera angle from the killer's perspective. The director, the late, great Bob Clark (A Christmas Story, Porky's) is responsible for all of this, but rarely got the credit. So when over thirty years later the movie is taking its rightful place among the greats and finally starting to get the respect it deserves, why remake it? Furthermore, why all this talk about midnight movies? I'll tell you why. Bob Clark's original Black Christmas may remain the ultimate midnight movie, but Glen Morgan's 2006 remake of it could be considered one as well.

You see I had it all planned out. I would watch the original followed by the remake and compare them in my latest cult classic corner column. It would turn into another one of those rants about how these money hungry studio executives should leave these original masterpieces alone and hire people to, you know, actually come up with some new ideas. I would pit the remake head on against the original to further my venomous point that these worthless remakes only prove how far horror filmmaking has devolved over the past few decades. But the producer/director team of James Wong and Morgan (the guys behind the Final Destination films) decided to throw a hatchet in my plans.

They took the basic idea of Black Christmas and decided to make a completely different movie that bears absolutely no resemblance to the original other than its title. You can't compare them because they're not on the same page. They're not even reading the same book. Oh, and I'm forgetting the most important detail about this remake. It's awful. Gloriously awful in the best way possible. To call it bad would be like calling ice cream cold. Of course it's bad. It's supposed to be. Is it scary? No way. But it sure as hell is funny and entertaining. In its own twisted way the remake of Black Christmas works, as a goofy over the top tribute to B-movie slashers. If you can put your remake bias and the original's reputation aside you're in for a wild ride. If the 1974 original is an exercise in pure terror, then the 2006 remake is an exercise in pure camp.

The 1974 original tells a story that takes place over the two days before Christmas of young college women who must contend with a deranged killer lurking in their sorority house, whose original and terrifying method of execution is asphyxiation by way of a plastic bag. The movie became infamous for the killer's obscene, deranged phone calls, which were revealed to be coming from inside the house. As the film progresses the phone calls themselves (and there are a lot of them) progress from being just merely vulgar to genuinely terrifying. Of course the call from inside the house is now commonplace and has been ripped off in many films (namely When a Stranger Calls), but at the time this was a shocking revelation and a first for any film of that genre. Now it seems almost funny to see just how difficult a time the police had back then tracing the phone calls, but it does create a great deal of suspense for the film.

The movie also makes great use of score, lighting, and an almost total lack of gore to add to the suspense and terror. The film actually contains some big stars (at least for that time) in the important roles. Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet) stars as the heroine Jessie, while Margot Kidder (who would go onto fame as Lois Lane in Superman) gives a very memorable turn as the loud, vulgar obnoxious Barbara. A creepy Keir Dullea (a long way from 2001: A Space Odyssey) co-stars as Peter, Jessie's loose cannon boyfriend and the main suspect in the murders. Horror vet John Saxon rounds out the cast as the surprisingly smart police Lieutenant investigating the case.

Clark does an excellent job establishing all the sorority girls' personalities and actually gives us a lot of time to get to know them before they're picked off one by one. This is a forgotten art, only recently resurrected to full effect in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. The film is methodically paced and the murders are widely spread out throughout the film with long stretches where you wonder if there's even going to be another one. That's not to say the film is at all boring because it's not and actually has a clever sense of humor as well. Subplots involving the loony house mother Mrs. Mac (memorably portrayed by Marian Waldman) hiding liquor throughout the house and the comic interplay between the cops investigating the case all work really well and add a grounded reality to the film, making the killings seem that much more horrifying when they do come.

This was also one of, if not the very first horror film to employ an ambiguous ending, where we're not given a clear-cut resolution to the story or any closure. Even today this is still considered a risky proposition that creates much "love it" or "hate it" debate whenever filmmakers use it. The film's final shot, which pans back to reveal an image that would adorn the promotional posters for the film is now legendary. The reason the film is considered such a classic is largely because of Clark's clever "less is more" approach to leaving nearly everything up to the audience's imagination, including the killer's identity and motives. There's hardly any blood or gore to speak of as he wisely surmised this would make the film scarier. Unfortunately this technique is all but forgotten today and Clark's film has become not only a glaring example of what he did right, but what modern horror movies do all wrong.

The only recent horror film I can recall really using this "less is more" method is last year's The Descent. Otherwise, it's become all but extinct in Hollywood filmmaking and something hardcore horror fans would love to see return. Today, more casual filmgoers and studio executives have developed an obsession with gore and as long as these movies continue to rake in the dough we're not likely to see Clark's method make a big comeback any time soon. It would be nice if we found some kind of middle ground in satisfying our appetite for gore and still telling a tight, suspenseful story. Horror filmmakers such as Eli Roth (Hostel) and Darren Lynn Bausman (The Saw films) seem to be heading in that direction, which should give us some hope. Don't think for a second we would have seen Roth's Thanksgiving trailer in Grindhouse if it hadn't been for Bob Clark. Clark, along with Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, could very well be considered the founding fathers of the slasher genre, but I think Clark's film is superior.

If you're looking to pick up this film on DVD, the special edition that was released in late 2005 has unfortunately removed the director and actor commentaries from previous releases due to licensing issues and replaced them with a couple of sit down interviews. They're entertaining (especially Margot Kidder's), but it would have been nice to have the commentaries, since a film as revolutionary as this really begs for a play-by-play account. Also the DVD transfer is quite bad. I know the film didn't look great to begin with (which only adds to its appeal), but it seems like they put no effort into restoring the print. They claim the film looks better than ever, but that's a stretch. At times I felt like I was watching a VHS tape. It seems bizarre they wouldn't give this classic the royal DVD treatment it truly deserves. Still, from what I've heard this will likely be the definitive DVD release of this for a while, so it's definitely a must own for not just fans of horror, but fans of classic films in general.

It's understandable that Black Christmas' loyal cult fan base would have big problems with a modern day remake and Glen Morgan finds himself in a no-win situation. Veer too far from the original and you could have a disaster. Copy it and it's pointless. Whereas the 1974 version strongly focused on letting us know the characters and each had identifiable personalities these girls, while definitely distinguishable, aren't as fully developed. But if you watch carefully Morgan does make an effort early on, albeit a small one, to get you to know these girls. Unlike the original though, this not meant to be a character driven film, so it's excusable.

While the original had a few big names, this version is made up of young, up and coming actresses Michelle Trachtenberg, Lacey Shabert, Katie Cassidy, Crystal Lowe and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. One of the smart things Morgan does with the casting is pick girls who are all at the same fame level so it becomes almost impossible to guess which order they'll be killed off in. In fact, I can guarantee you won't be able to guess which characters end up being the final two. Morgan also adds an extra character, (played by his real life wife Kristen Cloke), who comes to the house to visit her younger half-sister, but soon finds herself in as much danger as the girls. There was actually a vaguely similar parental figure in the original, but this film really exploits it and Cloke gives a hilariously bitchy, over-the-top performance.

The film actually starts off somewhat similar to the original in that there's a death right off the bat, but from there it goes in a completely different direction. Since the phone calls coming from inside the house is no longer a shocking revelation, Morgan wisely doesn't treat it as one, but instead just decides to have some fun. While the original film dished out its deaths slowly over the course of an hour and a half, here nearly everyone goes at once. Also, instead of the events happening over the course of two days, everything occurs in one night. This is a change that ends up being for the better, as this was always something that bothered me about the original. I wondered what the killer could possibly be doing in the house during the day when he waited to kill everybody at night. Just hanging out? It just made no sense and it's a welcome change. In fact, it may be the original's only true flaw.

The phone calls in the original film consisted of tortured male groans of "Agnes, it's me, Billy" and "I'm going to kill you." Pretty creepy stuff and it's still here in the remake (in smaller doses), but Morgan also makes a very controversial decision. He replaces the majority of them with actual flashbacks and gives us a backstory for the Billy and Agnes characters. It's fair to say this decision has given loyal devotees of the original a heart attack and is the primary criticism lodged at the film.

Does actually showing Billy and Agnes rob the film of suspense and terror? Absolutely. Furthermore, does just having an extra killer also rob the film of suspense and terror? Probably. I can't say I'm thrilled with the decision, but we already had a movie that left everything a mystery, so why repeat it? Also this is not supposed to be a terrifying film like the original is and these flashbacks (which involve child abuse, incest, and jaundice!) are so ridiculous and the actors seem to have such a good time with them that they're actually memorable and entertaining.

And how about that Agnes character? She's played hilariously and in drag by (I'm not joking here) one of the movie's camera assistants. Better yet, the DVD's special features actually show this guy dressed in drag helping to film the movie and then seconds later stepping in front of the camera to asphyxiate these girls with plastic bags, deep voice and all. I'm sorry, but that's funny. Really funny. Every time she (or should I say he?) appears onscreen (and in Morgan's defense it isn't much) I nearly fell out of my seat laughing.

Complaining about the lack of terror in this film is like whining about the lack of laughs in Schindler's List. It's important to judge this for what it is, not what it isn't. I didn't hear people leaving Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror mumbling to themselves that it wasn't scary enough. However like the original, this could be a Grindhouse feature (or a spoof of one), if not for one problem: it looks too good. It may actually be one of the best looking bad movies I've ever seen. The production design is top notch and the cinematography is breathtaking.

Some films have a Christmas setting but it never actually feels like Christmas. Here they exploit the holiday visually to the max, maybe better than any other Christmas themed movie and much more so than the original. The house is completely decked out with colorful lights, the Christmas music is blasting and there's a real effort to make you believe this really is Christmas Eve. It adds a lot to the picture. You'll also be surprised how much the new house resembles the 1974 version as well as the visual details Morgan subtly throws in that pays respect to the original. His homage can also be seen in the casting as Andrea Martin (who played Phyllis in the 1974 version) is now the house mother in the remake and gives a fun little performance. Everyone in this movie looks like they're having fun.

Also marvel at Oliver Hudson's unintentionally(?) hilarious re-imagining of the Keir Dullea character as he pops into the picture at various points to call the girls "bitches" and leave. Morgan wisely doesn't even attempt to present this guy as any kind of suspect, and the abortion sub-plot from the original film (which would seem really out of place here) is replaced with an appropriately silly one involving cyber-porn.

Lately I've been complaining about the high amount of worthless special features and supplemental material on DVD releases, but here's a rare situation where the opposite is true. Accompanying the 2006 version of Black Christmas is a short making of doc entitled, What Have You Done?: The Remaking of Black Christmas and it actually increases your appreciation of what Morgan was going for with this film. Besides that hilarious revelation about the camera assistant, we find out that Morgan is actually a huge fan of the original and made it a point not to copy anything from it out of respect.

In a bittersweet moment, Bob Clark (who with his 21 year-old son just tragically passed away a couple of months ago in a car accident) actually appears on set and gives the remake his seal of approval. If he doesn't have a problem with this, how can I? Nothing Morgan does in any way steps on the toes of the original film, a horror masterpiece that will always be there for us to appreciate and enjoy. It's just a shame we won't have the opportunity to see Clark make another film because he was an incredible talent, but I am glad he got to see a remake of his film that's actually somewhat good and stands as an entertaining tribute.

You also have to give Glen Morgan credit for making this movie R rated and going all the way with its blood and gore. He easily could have wussed out and gone for a PG-13. He laments on the DVD that if the movie doesn't make any money he may never be able to direct another film again. Of course we all know now the film flopped, but interestingly, like the original, it's picking up speed on DVD. I really hope he does get to direct another film because after Willard, Final Destination 3 (which I loved) and this, I'm convinced Morgan has more than just a good bad movie in him. The remake makes a pact at the beginning about what it's going to be and keeps it right until the final credits. It's fun, mindless slasher movie and for that it works. Many could point to this remake as an example of how far horror movies have fallen in the past thirty years and I would agree with them. My only defense is that I had a great time. Is that wrong?

I recently slammed Dave Meyers' remake of The Hitcher, but that shamelessly attempted to recreate the original film. This movie's smarter than that. 1974's Black Christmas is arguably one of the most groundbreaking horror movies of all time and will always be there for us to enjoy and nothing this remake did is going to change that. It goes without saying the original is the superior film by a landslide, but give the 2006 version credit for at least making that point irrelevant. If you want good scare, watch the original. If you want to laugh your ass off, see the remake. Either way, you'll be entertained.

1974 Original: **** (out of ****)
2006 Remake:
*** (out of ****)

No comments: