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The 1974 Bob Clark film, "Black Christmas," was an inventive and atmospheric attempt to create a slasher film where the killer was never revealed. The 2006 remake barely contains a single frame where the film isn't exploring the killer's motives, appearance, or trail of dead.
Stuck inside their sorority house for the holiday season, a group of college girls (including Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lacey Chabert, and Michelle Trachtenberg) are having trouble finding the Christmas spirit as their personal lives and general hatred of the holiday cloud the festivities. What begins as a yawn-inducing evening soon turns into a fight for their lives when the former occupant of the house, the murderous Billy, returns home to begin his killing spree again.
It's not like the Clark film was rocket science, but it had such a sense of reserve and patience, and to attempt to coddle that sensation for today's "we'll see anything" pushover horror crowds would be pointless. It seems director Glenn Morgan and producing partner James Wong agree, and they scrape out most of what turned the 74 picture into a cult triumph; the film that arranged the genre pins for "Halloween" to bowl over and kick off the slasher tear of the 80s. Morgan and Wong want to make an idiotic gorefest, and they've achieved their goal with a vengeance.
There are so many artistic miscalculations in the new "Christmas" that it would take until the new year to list all them in detail. The major blunder, the ultimate sin if you will, is taking the murderer Billy and reducing him to a backstory of inconsequence and silliness. Clark didn't expand much on what made Billy tick, or even who the guy was. He was this threat that existed in the attic of the sorority house who could strike at any minute and loved to prank the ladies with phone calls, taunting them with promises of death and secrets revealed. He was an enigma, and lord almighty, it worked. The film took immense pleasure in scaring you with the unknown.
Morgan and Wong pitch most of the plotting of the original film to make room for Billy's sordid history. He's now an abused child with yellow skin (think Ferrigno's Incredible Hulk with a lighter shade of paint) and a Christmas fetish. His momma hated him, bore a child with him, and eventually turned him into a cannibal. It seems to be the fad in horror today to neuter evil by stripping away its sinister purposes (The "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" prequel, "Saw III"). Heavens, my screening of "Christmas" was preceded by the theatrical teaser trailer for "Hannibal Rising;" yet another production that promises more tedium by cracking open the dark heart of horror. What ever happened to nutjobs for the sake of nutjobs?
Because the focus is entirely on Billy, there's no room for sorority characterizations. These actresses are barely distinguishable from each other (a common trait of today's new wave of youthful talent), and the filmmakers don't help matters by adding more and more characters to the mix. Sure, they're just meat for the slaughter, but Clark successfully engaged the viewer with roles that communicated a hornet's nest of paranoia and carefully portioned fear, and he kept the clutter to a minimum. "Christmas" 2006 thrives on amateurish confusion, perhaps hoping the viewer won't notice the plot gaps, logic leaps, and complete lack of suspense.
The remake also turns up the dial on the bloodletting, again for reasons that scream incompetence. Eyes are gouged, heads are used as ornaments on Billy's tree, and icicles, candy canes, and glass unicorns (one of the few references to the Clark film) pierce the flesh like a hot knife through butter. Morgan and Wong forget to add the genre zest and exhilaration to any of this, turning this exercise in yuletide chills into an agonizing endurance test at the cinemas.
It seems poetic to close 2006 with a horror film that perfectly summarizes the direction the genre turned this year: "Black Christmas" wasn't screened for film critics out of fear that audiences could be able to make an informed moviegoing opinion, and it's desperately punch-yourself-in-the-face awful in every single way. Why oh why couldn't Billy gouge my eyes out?