A Scary Christmas to All, and to All a Good Fright
Time for a little trivia. What movie is famous for its first-person perspective from a killer’s eyes? And what movie has the famous quote, “We’ve traced the call… it’s coming from inside the house”? If you answered Halloween (1978) and When a Stranger Calls (1979), you would be right; those movies are “famous” for those things. However, they were not the first movies to use them. Instead, it was the 1974 cult classic, Black Christmas. Watching it today, you might think that Black Christmas stole ideas from any number of other horror movies, but it’s important to remember that it actually predated them. The problem is, not many people saw it when it was first released; it has only become appreciated over time.
Another interesting fact about Black Christmas is that it was directed by the late Bob Clark, who is more well-known for another holiday classic, A Christmas Story, as well as a classic of a far different genre, Porky’s. Comparing the types of movies he made, it’s clear that Clark was better with comedy than he was with horror. Or it could be that he was better directing movies that he also wrote; Black Christmas was written by Roy Moore. In any case, while Black Christmas may not hold up against what has been seen since it was made, it remains required historical viewing for anyone who claims to be a horror fan.
It is the night before Christmas holiday and the boozy, foul-mouthed women of a college sorority are gathered for a party, soon to be terrorized by obscene phone calls and a deadly stalker. That’s about it for the plot, except for the fact that one of the girls (Olivia Hussey) is pregnant, creating a suitable red herring in her violent boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea). But while the characters aren’t sure who is doing the stalking, the audience is: we saw him climb through the window in the very first scene.
We also know that since the stalker is in the house, that’s where the phone calls originate. When the characters learn that fact, it’s truly surprising for them, but not so much for us. This represents the primary problem I have with Black Christmas. It is full of (at the time) revolutionary ideas; however, they are mostly poorly executed. There is very little real suspense and, surprisingly, very little gore. Also, most of the movie is slow, composed of long, lazy scenes.
On the positive side, Black Christmas seems a little smarter than most horror movies. Most of the actions and reactions of the characters are natural; you don’t have to suspend your disbelief too often. For example, great care is taken to explain why the police don’t react when the girls first report their fears. But when a local girl is found murdered in the park, they begin to pay attention. Horror stalwart John Saxon is particularly good at investigating the occurrences in a logical manner while his incompetent sidekick adds comic relief.
In proper context, Black Christmas is a lot of fun. Margot Kidder is great in a role that eerily foretells her later real-life breakdown. SCTV comedienne Andrea Martin is great acting super-serious, although I kept waiting for her to ask, “Can you dahrect me to der hotel?” But it’s Marian Waldman as the housemother who could teach the girls a thing or two about being boozy who really steals the show.
The obnoxiousness of the sorority girls and housemother is played down in the 2006 remake, also called Black Christmas. And in a nod to the original, Andrea Martin returns, this time playing the housemother. But there is little else reminiscent of the source material. While Black Christmas (1974) is deliberate with its mystery, Black Christmas (2006) plays fast and loose with violence and gore.
Interestingly, Black Christmas (2006) also seems to borrow less from its predecessor than it does from that other holiday horror movie granddaddy, Halloween. In the original, the killer is never identified; we are never told who it really is. But the remake takes the telephone rants from the 1974 version and constructs an elaborate back story for the killer. It’s clever, and awfully gruesome (Christmas cookies, anyone?), but basically comes down to a childhood psychopath who escapes from a mental institution, returning to his old stomping grounds to terrify people on the holiday associated with his insanity.
Not that it’s a bad thing. When done right, a familiar story can still be entertaining. Helmed by The X-Files alums Glen Morgan (writer, producer and director) and James Wong (producer), Black Christmas (2006) is a solid horror movie, full of chills and thrills. It’s no better than its peers, but certainly no worse. It’s made even stronger by the creepy Shirley Walker score, the last before her death.
As the remake of When a Stranger Calls (also 2006) showed us, advances in technology can be a bitch for a great horror hook. But Black Christmas (2006) actually does a better job than it did using cell phones to keep the old “caller is in the house” trick relevant. (By the way, the tracing a call plot point in the original Black Christmas is hilarious to watch today; I never knew that to trace a call someone had to physically follow the wires deep in the bowels of the phone company.)
Black Christmas (2006) is one of those movies full of pretty, young TV stars both past and present: Lacey Chabert, (Party of Five; wow, little Claudia is all grown up now), Katie Cassidy (Melrose Place and Gossip Girl), Michelle Trachtenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gossip Girl) and Oliver Hudson (Dawson’s Creek and Rules of Engagement). They are adequate during whatever screen time they’re given, but the body count is much higher in this one than in the original.
Perhaps one other sign of the times is that the abortion subplot from Black Christmas (1974) has been replaced by a sex video scandal in Black Christmas (2006). Both are designed to cast suspicion on a shady boyfriend, but the original makes much more of it; it doesn’t have much of a point in the remake. (By the way, I feel like an abortion subplot in a 1974 movie may have also been revolutionary. To be honest, I’m not sure a horror movie today would event attempt to get away with it.)
With very different styles and areas of focus, there are strong points and weak points in both versions of Black Christmas. I actually like them about the same, but for different reasons. Black Christmas (1974) is a must-see, but will also offer its rewards. Black Christmas (2006) is by no means a must-see; however, I would recommend keeping it in mind as an alternative to the 24-hour loop of A Christmas Story at this time of year. Either one is sure to provide a scary Christmas to all, and to all a good fright.