Merry Christmas. If horror and the Yuletide season aren’t synonymous with one another, they’ve still combined to produce a handful of standout movies. Arguably, no other Christmas horror movie has stood the test of time quite like Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. Before John Carpenter’s Halloween, Black Christmas joined The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as one of the early precursors of the slasher movie. Not surprisingly, like just about every horror movie, this horror classic got the remake treatment in the 2000’s. And then again in 2019. But while the 2019 remake generated controversy, it was also quite good as its own movie. Comparatively, the 2006 Black Christmas, which has its fans, is less good.
Black Christmas is a Chilling Proto-Slasher
When horror fans discuss the slasher movie, they often cite John Carpenter’s Halloween as the sub-genre’s benchmark. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre also justifiably get a lot of credit as early influencers. Discussed far less often is Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, which is unfortunate given how damn disturbing it is in spite of its age. Clark’s ‘The Killer is in the House’ shocker does so many things right.
Little hints of patholgy are dropped here and there in the phone calls. Not enough to identify the killer, but more than enough for your imagination to run wild.
First and foremost, ‘The Caller’s” phone messages, which are sparingly interspersed over the movie, are more frightening than any special effect. Whether it’s what’s said or the voice itself, the obscene calls still shock and disturb even after 40 years. Little hints of pathology are dropped here and there in the phone calls. Not enough to identify the killer, but more than enough for your imagination to run wild. And it’s here where Black Christmas works best. So much is left to the imagination. The death scenes suggest more than they show. You never see the killer’s full face. One terrifying scene shows you the killer’s wild eyes, but that’s as much as you get.
A Lot of Christmas Music Is Depressing and Downright Creepy
Let’s face it. Roughly half of all Christmas songs are kind of a downer. In fact, some Christmas songs are downright creepy. It may seem counterintuitive, but Christmas songs make for pretty decent horror movie scores. And Bob Clark uses Christmas carols with an almost simple effectiveness to elicit a nightmarish atmosphere. Margot Kidder’s death scene juxtaposed with carollers singing O Come All Ye Faithful is one of several movie highlights. Like the rest of the movie, the score is minimalist but so good at evoking a feeling of dread.
Like the rest of the movie, the score is minimalist but so good at evoking a feeling of dread.
Not everything works in Black Christmas. Some of the humour feels oddly misplaced.It works in some cases, but disrupts the flow of the movie in others. But this is a pretty minor quibble. Black Christmas boasts a strong cast that includes genre favourite John Saxon, Olivia Hussey, Kier Dullea, and a scene-stealing Margot Kidder. Canadian comedy legend Andrea Martin also turns up in one of her earliest roles.
The 2006 Black Christmas Remake Is a Humbug
Of all the horror remakes released in the 2000’s, Black Christmas may be the worst. The Stepfather, Prom Night, When a Stranger Calls – they were blandly inoffensive and forgettable. The Wicker Man remake was just gonzo enough to be of the ‘so bad, it’s almost good’ variety. But Black Christmas is a bad movie that dances all over the grave of the original. It’s too bad because writer and director Glen Morgan is certainly talented. Nonetheless, he gets little to nothing right with his remake.
Perhaps the biggest crime committed by the 2006 remake is its complete misunderstanding of what made Black Christmas work.
Perhaps the biggest crime committed by the 2006 remake is its complete misunderstanding of what made Black Christmas work. Re-imagining or subverting an original movie is one thing, but Morgan’s screenplay gets everything wrong. Those creepy phone calls crying out for ‘Billy’ and ‘ baby Angus’? Somewhere along the line, Morgan and probably a room full of Hollywood executives asked, ‘What if we, like, gave those snippets like a full backstory?’
The idea of reading into “The Caller’s” rantings and expanding them into their own story wasn’t necessarily a bad idea. Yes, it erases the haunting ambiguity of the original. But you can’t fault a filmmaker for wanting to carve out their own vibe. Unfortunately, Morgan’s story for “Billy” and “Agnes” isn’t just stupid, it borders on tasteless without any of the necessary dark humour. The movie’s backstory is the equivalent of a long fart joke.
This Remake Makes the Naughty List
If Black Christmas relied on atmosphere and suggestion, Glen Morgan’s remake is an over-the-top gross-out effort. On the one hand, the remake is completely devoid of scares or tension. If you’re surprised by the movie’s lazy red herrings or you find yourself biting your nails, you probably haven’t watched many horror movies. Yet in all fairness, the remake doesn’t seem interested in generating scares. Instead Morgan focuses on testing your gag reflexes with cheap-o gore effects. Some of the death scenes almost reach a level of playful inventiveness. The killer carving out Christmas cookies from a victim’s flesh using a cookie cutter is admittedly wild stuff. But most of the other death scenes look like a tenth grader cooked them up after watching one of the Saw movies.
Lost in Black Christmas is a talented young cast. Michelle Trachtenberg, Katie Cassidy, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead were among some of the up-and-coming stars paying their dues in this Christmas turkey. No expectations are placed on these actresses other than looking attractive and scared. Andrea Martin also shows up in what should have been a clever bit of casting. Somehow Black Christmas manages to waste her talent as well on tiresome expository dialogue. If you want proof of Martin’s talent, check out old re-runs of SCTV.
Keep Your Gift Receipt for the Black Christmas Remake
No movie is safe from the remake treatment. Nevertheless, Black Christmas did not need a remake. There is little anyone could say to convince me that the original Black Christmas hasn’t retained its ability to chill and scare in equal measures. This was one of the first horror movies to give me nightmares. In contrast, the 2006 remake is an ADHD-fuelled mess that’s more interested in insulting your intelligence than scaring you. Take my advice, keep your gift receipt, and return the 2006 remake.