Glen Morgan makes horror movies with a difference. The skeptical of you out there may, at this point, be responding with something along the lines of "yeah – they all SUCK!", but that's not really fair. This former X-Files anchor, responsible for guiding the sensational second season of Millennium as well as the fun Final Destination franchise, has only stepped behind the camera twice, and both times he had a remake in his sites. The first was the sensationally twisted killer rat retread Willard. Featuring a fearless performance by superstar psychopath Crispin Glover, it was well received by critics, but failed to generate much commercial buzz. After a few years in the creative wilderness, his next project seemed equally promising – an update of Bob Clark's genre-defying slasher epic Black Christmas. Though the original was considered an underground classic, a redux seemed like a solid bit of dread reckoning. But similar to the situation with his mouse macabre, the reaction was less than enthusiastic. In fact, many found the film to be one of 2006's worst. Now, with its arrival on DVD, it's time to set the record straight. Not only is Black Christmas a clever slasher spoof, but it argues for Morgan's place as a solid scare maestro.
It's Christmas Eve, and the girls of Delta Alpha Kappa are preparing to celebrate. But their Noel has a slightly sinister undercurrent, considering the history of the house they live in. Decades before, a jaundiced young man (literally) named Billy Lenz murdered his mother and stepfather, and then mutilated his step-sister all in a hideous spree of parental payback. Captured and placed in an insane asylum, tradition mandates that the gals give homage to Billy during the holidays, providing him with a gift each and every year. As housemother Mrs. Mac gets everything ready, those ladies left behind indulge in your typical adolescent infighting – mostly about boys, relatives, and the artificiality of the season. At first, no one notices that a few of their fellow housemates have gone missing. Then, odd calls start coming from the MIA girl's cellphones. It's not long before the would-be victims realize that someone else is also in the house, stalking and killing them. Is it Billy back for revenge – or is there another with an agenda against the girls and their unsettling legacy? Whatever the case may be, it appears that this will indeed be a Black Christmas for all involved.
It really does defy explanation. Or maybe it's just a continuation of the critical community's reactionary bias toward the horror genre. Whatever the case may be, this almost Pavlovian paradigm between a scary movie's release and the universal hatred heaved at the filmmakers continues unabated. In 2006 alone, five films fell under the ridicule radar, and each one definitely deserved better. Hostel was not merely a nauseating slice of violence porn (well...). Instead, it was a trendsetting title that will end up becoming the Halloween of its generation. Silent Hill was slammed for being a vile video game retread, but Christophe Gans actually reinvented the visual language of terror with this terrific creepshow. Then there was Alexandre Aja's no nukes nod to America's A-bomb past, The Hills Have Eyes. Leave it to a Frenchman to find the political thread within a standard cannibal holocaust. The latest installment of the Saw series – number "III" to be exact – was roundly dismissed as a geek show stumble. But the fact is that writer Leigh Whannell and director Darren Lynn Bousman pushed the boundaries of the franchise to bring the tale of Jigsaw and his addled apprentice Amanda to some manner of cruel closure. But the largest amount of bile was heaved upon Glen Morgan's update of Black Christmas. From those who argued that it failed to maintain the original's narrative-challenging choices to the complaints that it was simply Friday the 13th moved up about 11 days, it became the Plan 9 of the paranormal, a slice and dice dud worthy of derision.
Which again, begs the question – why? Why was so much hate leveled against what is, in essence, a wonderfully wicked take on the entire '80s oeuvre of slasher spectacle? Until it made its DVD entrance a few years back, no one except a chosen cult was championing Bob Clark's film as a forgotten masterwork. In fact, when it was discussed, most confused it with the Santa as slayer sleazefests that resided along the bottom shelves of video stores during the Greed decade. So hating this marvelously dark effort from a filmmaker who really wants to deliver the fear factors seems patently unfair. Besides, if Morgan had made the decision to merely mimic the original, making Billy an unknown and unseen predator and employing lots of archetypal POV cinematography, the complaints of copycatting would be loud and long. Instead, this version of Black Christmas gives our murderous madman a nicely noxious backstory, filled with abuse, incest, and Yuletide flesh eating. During these incredibly well done sequences, Morgan explains the connection between Billy (now given the last name Lenz) and his mysterious sister, Agnes, as well as making some sense out of those unsettling obscene phone calls that the sorority sisters receive during the course of the storyline. Morgan does downplay the importance of these communications. Back before cellphones and caller ID, these sequences were incredibly disturbing. Now, they lose a lot of their novelty.
At its core though, the 2006 version of Black Christmas is really just an old school slasher film, a bent and brazen throwback to the "gals in crisis" slaughter spectacles that redefined the genre. But what we have here is more Halloween than Hell Night. Morgan makes every effort to imbue his cast (mostly nameless media maidens getting by on looks and lucky TV showcasing) with recognizable dimensions, removing the singular notation from each one's character arc. He's mostly successful. Then he brings in a couple of supporting adults (including the return of original Clark girl Andrea SCTV Martin) to provide the stern and sober warnings this manner of movie demands. With a brilliant production design that turns the sorority house into a character all its own (got to love the ominously blinking Christmas lights) and a mood that uncovers the pagan underpinnings in the standard holiday celebration (including an excellent use of those badly baroque carols), the result is a movie with many minor (and a couple major) delights. That they don't all add up to some kind of fright flick masterpiece is not Black Christmas' fault. Morgan simply wants to make movies that accurately present his overriding concepts and themes (in this case, the power inherent in the human eye, and the devastating impact of family) and flesh out their terrors with a little bravura bloodletting. He's not out to redefine fear, and he shouldn't be penalized for not attempting same. Black Christmas is a nice little horror romp. If you're looking for scary movie classicism, stick with the original.
Presented in a wonderfully evocative 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, this update of Black Christmas looks amazing. As stated before, Morgan went out of his way to make his horror as visual as possible, and the marvelous use of color and light really helps to define his artistic intentions. The balance between shadows and your typical Yuletide glow is flawlessly maintained, and the movie manages to stay well within the boundaries of its decided dark vision. It has to be said that Morgan makes interesting looking films. The image offered for Black Christmas illustrates this perfectly.
(Note: This is indeed an UNRATED version of the film. But without prior knowledge of the R edition, and no indication from the DVD where said edits/additions may be, this critic cannot comment on any extra gore and/or plot points).
Since the aforementioned phone calls – and their supposedly shocking point of origin – are now downplayed in this version of the story, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix on aural display here is reserved for another omnipresent element of the film; the constantly creaking floorboard. Using the back channels very effectively to recreate the concept of far off footfalls, the soundtrack is literally alive with mood managing and enhancing elements. The dialogue is always discernible, and the musical score by Shirley Walker is nicely contrasted with holiday standards. Overall, it's a highly effective ambient presentation.
Genius Products and Dimension Films deserve praise for providing as much added content to this title as they do. Considering its major belly flop at the box office, fans probably expected more of a bare bones ideal. What we get instead is almost an hour of Behind the Scenes footage, spread out over two very insightful production EPKs. The first is entitled "What Have You Done", and deals with Bob Clark's original film (he's on hand to drop hints about his own Billy and Agnes backstory) and Morgan's attempts to update it. Perhaps the most compelling element discussed is the filmmaker's highly personal reaction to the success (or failure) of his films. He talks about how he was depressed for almost three months" when Willard failed to take off. So prophetic are these admissions that they instantly make us wonder how he took the tanking of Black Christmas when it hit theaters in December of 2006.
The second Making-Of featurette deals with the various facets of filmmaking. Entitled "May All Your Christmas' Be Black", we hear from the cinematographer, special effects crew, and various cast members. They discuss the secrets to successful scary movies, and describe the work that went into realizing Morgan's Christmas vision. It's an intriguing bit of backstage intrigue. Toss in a collection of deleted scenes (nothing really definitive of necessary to the narrative) and three alternate endings (each one providing a different potential payoff to the story) and you've got an excellent assortment of cinematic complements.
There will be individuals who question this critic's reaction to Black Christmas, taking him to task for supporting something that they found dull, dumb, lifeless or lumbering. They will question his membership in the forces of fear and wonder what his definition of meaningful macabre truly is. But no amount of scary movie soul searching will change the fact that – at least in one reviewer's considered opinion - Black Christmas remains an efficient slasher revamp. It is Recommended for everything it gets right, and for the ambitions director Glen Morgan shows throughout. Certainly it remains an imperfect film, the kind of effort that entertains more than it endures. But one thing is certain – this is not the fabulous fright flick disaster that initial reactions make it out to be. In a year of some outstanding genre work, Black Christmas legitimately deserves to sit alongside the best of them. It's not misguided or mediocre, just misunderstood.
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