Like the Dawn of the Dead redux, which didn't really have much of anything in common with the original aside from a mall and a big mess of zombies, Black Christmas almost isn't a remake. No drunken housemother. No abortion subplot. No whodunnit. An unrecognizably different tone. I was reared on '80s slashers, and that's how Black Christmas plays. Cram a bunch of sorority girls into a sprawling old house in the dead of winter, throw in a psychopath or two with the obligatory twisted, traumatic backstories, chuck out any chance of rescue, and knock 'em off one by one. That's your movie.
Black Christmas feels like a throwback to the slasher flicks from the mid-'80s, back when they stopped trying to be fingers-wiggling-scary and were more of a rollercoaster ride. The extras make the movie sound deadly serious, but Black Christmas is actually pretty campy, peppered with some gleefully ridiculous kills (I mean, our jaundiced teenaged nutjob carves off Christmas-shaped chunks of flesh off his mother with a cookie cutter, bakes 'em, and washes 'em down with milk), that Gremlins-flavored mix of mayhem and cheerful holiday music, and the most Dutch angles you'll see in a hour and a half without having to stare at Adam West in a pair of tights.
Drive-in totals! Sixteen bodies. (Okay, I didn't actually count, but it's something like that. Damn near everyone's mutilated and dismembered by the end.) One nekkid co-ed. Candy cane shiv. Cycloptic incest baby. Schram-style eye gouging. Eye mashing. Eye eating. So much ocular trauma that the movie jams an oversized fork into a glass eye just to liven things up. Light strand strangulation. Repeated rolling pin to the head. Milk and mom-jerky cookies. Spade-fu. Inkpen-fu. Ice skate-fu. Spade-fu. Bonesaw-fu. Defibrillator-fu. Armfuls of severed heads. High-velocity icicle. Christmas tree impaling. Healthy body count. A good bit of the red stuff sloshed around.
Okay, no one's going to be talking about this version of Black Christmas thirty-something years down the road. Morgan and Wong don't set out to reinvent the slasher, and if you were reared on flicks like The House on Sorority Row like I was, there's nothing here you haven't seen a couple hundred times before. Even though Morgan insists in the extras on this disc that characterization is key to the movie, swap around a line or two and the girls are pretty much interchangable. That's okay; it's popcorn horror, kind of like the last couple Final Destination sequels that aim more for a jolt and a laugh than sleeping with the nightlight on, and with as sadistic and mean-spirited as the genre's gotten lately, it's kinda nice to sit down with a campy, fast-paced '80s style slasher with a bunch of pretty girls and buckets of splatter.
And yeah, even if you can't stomach the movie, at least you'll have something to ogle for ninety-something minutes: Crystal Lowe, Leela Savasta, Jessica Harmon, Lacey Chabert, Buffy alum Michelle Trachtenberg, Katie Cassidy, and my favorite actress of the moment, the more-adorable-than-anyone-has-any-justifiable-right-to-be Mary Elizabeth Winstead. It's a better crop of actresses than the slasher red-shirts I grew up with, and since there really aren't any big names or much characterization to speak of, none of 'em are wearing a button that reads "I'm the Final Girl. Ask me how!" Anyone can die at any time, and...yup, they do.
Forget that Black Christmas is a remake. Put that out of your mind, settle in for some spam in a sorority house, and hopefully you'll have a good time too. Oh, and like pretty much everything from The Weinstein Company to date, this HD DVD sports an unrated cut of the movie with a good bit more splatter.
Video: Black Christmas is presented on HD DVD in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and the video's been encoded using AVC, the Weinsteins' codec of choice. I've seen all but a couple of the titles the studio's released in high-def so far, and this is by far their best yet. The image is remarkably sharp and detailed, to the point where sometimes it almost works against the movie, making one or two of the make-up effects look kind of rushed. (One fake head under the house isn't much of a step up from a melon with a smiley face painted on it.) There's a very thin veil of film grain, but it's tight and unintrusive, and no speckles or compression artifacts creep in. The palette is heavily stylized, casting most of the sorority house scenes in a heavy golden glow, and the eye-poppingly exaggerated colors in a flashback to the '70s look like something out of Suspiria. These skewed hues mean black levels aren't always as deep and inky as usual, but that's easily shrugged off considering how thoroughly impressive every other aspect of this HD DVD is. Great stuff.
Audio: The lossless Dolby TrueHD audio isn't as hyperactive or overly aggressive as a lot of recent slasher flicks, but it's still a strong mix with plenty of creaky ambiance in the sorority house and squishy sounds in the rear channels. There's a strong sense of imaging and directionality, and that includes some of the dialogue. Even with as much screaming as there is throughout the movie, none of the line readings or screams are bogged down by any clipping or distortion. No complaints, and the inclusion of lossless audio is always appreciated. There's also a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix along with subtitles in English and French.
Extras: Hey, an HD DVD with extras in high definition! Sounds like that'd be a given, but only a handful of the couple hundred titles out now have bothered with high-def extras. There are two HD featurettes here that clock in just under a half hour each, and the first of 'em is is "What Have You Done? The Remaking of Black Christmas". It's a better than average promotional piece, one of those rare making-ofs these days that ::gasp!:: actually shows the making of the movie. Highlights include an appearance by the late Bob Clark, a nod to serial killer Ed Kemper for inspiring Billy's extended backstory, and a detailed look at the production design. It's not as weighed down by clips from the movie the way most of these sorts of featurettes are, and it shows such random stuff as snickering at a crew member under the weather who called up Glen Morgan in a mock-killer voice, a grip showing off a fairly elaborate branch-shaking rig, and a bizarre coincidence about Lacey Chabert mauling her ankle during the shoot and being seen in the ER by co-star Katie Cassidy's stepfather. Mary Elizabeth Winstead also admits to being an Internet nerd and scouring the web for reviews and message board posts about her movies, so...if you're reading this, Mary, this is me waving hi.
I guess "May All Your Christmases Be Black" was chopped into a separate featurette just to avoid having an hour-long documentary on the disc. It's more candid than "What Have You Done?", opening with Glen Morgan bitterly quipping about Willard flopping at the box office and how this might be it for his filmmaking career if Black Christmas tanks too. Morgan's dry sense of humor follows through to statements like "for this movie, I tried to have more Jack-in-the-box scares...which I fucking hate." The featurette shows how much of a family Morgan and Wong's sets are, pointing out how many of the actors have been in their other movies and even spending some time with underappreciated crew members like a camera operator and the focus puller. Actually, focus puller Dean Friss gets a lot of attention since he's also playing one of the killers in the movie....and a female one to boot. Michelle Trachtenberg chats about popping up in a horror movie after her three year stint on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the featurette catches Lacey Chabert in a particularly glamorous moment as she has dirt in her teeth and muddy snot running down her nose, and there's even a shot of a box marked "Boobie Stuff" for good measure. Both featurettes are worth a look, but this is my favorite of the two.
A big chunk of deleted scenes and alternate endings round out the extras, and they're all offered in standard definition and in anamorphic widescreen. I guess the fourth time's the charm 'cause the three alternate endings here are all fairly disappointing: a talky bit with one last call, another one devoid of any real action that reads like sequel bait, and a third that lops the mayhem in half and shows a different aftermath to one of the par-broiled folks in the house. There are seven minutes of deleted scenes, which include a few quick character moments, a lengthy tracking shot that might've better established the geography of the house and where-slash-who the girls are, a smartly snipped-out red herring bit, and a couple of extended kills.
Conclusion: This probably isn't the first review of Black Christmas that you've stumbled upon, and I'm sure it's dawned on you by now that pretty much everyone the world over panned it. I'll be one of those guys on the other side of the fence. This remake of Bob Clark's Black Christmas has the spirit and playfulness of a mid-'80s slasher, and even if it doesn't exactly rank up with the genre's best from those days, it's still a hell of a lot of fun and a much-needed change of pace from the sadistic torture-porn that's all over theaters these days. Oh well. I like it. Recommended.