AS BLACK AS COAL
Running Time: 84 minutes
Directed by Glen Morgan.
Starring Michelle Trachtenberg,
Lacey Chabert, Mary Elizabeth Winstead,
Katie Cassidy and Andrea Martin.
It probably will come as a surprise to no one to learn that the remake of the holiday slasher semi-classic Black Christmas is nowhere near as entertaining or accomplished as Bob Clark’s 1974 original. It may, however, come as a surprise to learn that this remake is nowhere near as entertaining or accomplished as such other Bob Clark joints as Rhinestone, Turk 182, and the Baby Geniuses series entire. Simply put, this is an utterly worthless retread that is too repellent to be entertaining, too boring to be offensive and/or transgressive, and too derivative to provide even trace amounts of thrills, chills, or creative bloodshed to the easiest-to-please fans of the genre.
While the original, a smash hit in its native Canada and a cult favorite in the States, was hardly a beacon of narrative originality—it told a simple story of a group of co-eds riding out the holidays in their isolated sorority house who are first harassed by a series of increasingly creepy phone calls and then picked off one by one by an unknown assailant—it did contain enough solid creative elements to justify the accolades it has received over the years.
For starters, the film had a better-than-average cast, consisting of well-known actors (Keir Dullea and Olivia Hussey), cult favorites (Margot Kidder and John Saxon), and up-and-comers (Lynn Griffin, who would play the female lead in Strange Brew, and Andrea Martin), and was shot with a certain style and flair that lent the production a more professional air than normally found in a low-budget slasher film (hey, Clark did also make A Christmas Story).
It intriguingly contained many of the conventions of the genre—a holiday-based setting, a subjective visual point-of-view that put viewers into the shoes of the killer and menacing phone calls that appear to be coming from inside the house—years before the release of films like Halloween and When a Stranger Calls that were credited with inventing them. Best of all, it dared to give us an ambiguous finale in which evil was not defeated, the killer’s motives were not explained, or even hinted at, and there was no sense whatsoever that any of the precious few survivors would be living happily ever after.
For this version, writer-director Glen Morgan (whose previous directorial credit was the not-uninteresting remake of Willard with Crispin Glover) retains the basic premise and then “improves” it into the ground. The cast this time around consists of several B-level starlets (Michelle Trachtenberg, Lacey Chabert, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a few relative unknowns (Katie Cassidy and Crystal Lowe), and one depressing in-joke homage to the original (Andrea Martin, a sorority girl the first time around, pops up here as the house mother) and the characters that they play are so stridently sullen, snide and bitchy that we don’t care about their fates for even a moment.
In lieu of any true filmmaking style, Morgan gives us a gracelessly shot and indifferently edited pastiche that is so sloppily put together that it is almost impossible to tell what is going on from one scene to the next. And while it would be asking too much to expect this film to come up with the same kind of genre innovations that the original contained, Morgan never even manages to find a consistent tone for his story—he can’t decide whether he is making a straight-forward shocker or a more ironic and self-aware tale a la Scream (several of the ickier moments are scored to beloved Christmas music), and he tries to cover up this indecision with gallons of gore—eyeballs are gouged and eaten, bodies are pierced, and skulls are split open with ice skates—in the hopes that viewers will be too grossed out by all the viscera flying to notice.
The biggest failing of this film is one that has become far too common in the recent spate of horror remakes—the inexplicable urge to provide an elaborate back story in order to explain the motivations behind what is going on. (Was the terror quotient of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake really heightened by the revelation that Leatherface had a skin disease who started chainsawing people after being laid off at the meat-packing plant?)
In the original Black Christmas, we didn’t really know much about the killer other than that his name was Billy and he used to live in the house years earlier. This time around, Billy is an escapee from an insane asylum with yellow skin (courtesy of a liver disease) and a strange fetish for Christmas. If that weren’t enough, we also learn that he not only killed his hideous mother years before, he cut out parts of her flesh with a cookie cutter and snacked on them. And if that wasn’t enough, we also learn that Billy fathered his own sister, Agnes, and that she hasn’t been seen in years.
Aside from upping the “yuck” factor considerably and potentially allowing for the killer to seemingly be in two places at once, there is no discernible purpose to any of these innovations as far as I can see—all they do is reduce the killer from the mysterious and unknowable force that cast a shadow over the original to a one-stop shop of horror cliches that cannot be taken seriously for even a second.
2006 has not exactly been a banner year for the horror genre—for every mildly intriguing entry such as Tamara, Nightwatch, or Silent Hill, there has been two or three dreadful rip-offs or retreads that pop up for a couple of weeks to soak easily entertained kids for the price of a ticket before heading to DVD—and I suppose that it is entirely fitting that a time period that kicked off with a coarse, dumbed-down and utterly pointless remake of a perfectly good 1970's scare film (When A Stranger Calls) should end with another one. However, there is a very good chance that Black Christmas could be the low point of this year’s crop—an abysmal and ugly failure that will debase anyone who encounters it for more than a few minutes.