Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Movie Review: Black Christmas (2006)

Note: Some sarcastic, semi-spoilers ahead…

While I admit that I’m a sucker for slasher films and remakes, the idea of tackling a gem like Bob Clark’s 1974 understated slasher opus Black Christmas is a gutsy move for any director. But Glen Morgan, working from his updated treatment of the original Roy Moore-penned script, would have been better served by taking the Rob Zombie route with his upcoming Halloween redo by calling it a “re-imagining”. To call Morgan’s Black Christmas (or Black Xmas, if you want to follow the studio’s marketing abbreviation) a remake does both the original film and Morgan’s slick update little justice. While the story is essentially the same, Morgan’s update offers much more in the way of back story and motivation, while simultaneously asking its audience to suspend disbelief to a greater degree than the original. And, while Clark’s low-budget masterpiece of insinuating suspense essentially wrote the slasher film formula and established the benchmark for myriad slashers that followed, Morgan’s big-budget campy retelling effectively deconstructs the genre while posing as a viable, glossy post-modern entry.

Little Billy Lenz (played in flashbacks by a very creepy Cainan Wiebe) has suffered years of cruelty at the hands of an indifferent, abusive mother (played with gleeful amounts of wretched abandon by Karin Konaval). When his kindly father and only saving grace is struck down and buried beneath the front porch crawlspace by his mother and her lover, Billy is banished to the attic while his mother begins anew with her new husband and a new baby girl, named Agnes. Billy slips into a deep psychosis during lonely days and nights in the attic that stretch into long years of nurtured fixation that take root in the fertile soil of solitude, apathy, and incest. Christmas seems a particularly difficult time for poor Billy, so it’s no surprise when he eventually escapes captivity and dispatches with his mother and stepfather and disfigures his little sister/daughter. By the time the police arrive, poor little Agnes is minus an eyeball and Billy is calmly dunking his own twisted variation of homemade Christmas cookies in a glass of bloody milk.

Flash forward to present day as Billy’s childhood home now serves as dormitory to a generic gaggle of sorority sisters – Kelli, Heather, Dana, Melissa, Lauren, Megan, and Claire. As the snowbound girls and their kindly house mother prepare to open presents under their well-coiffed, Martha Stewart-variety Christmas tree, Billy (played as an adult by newcomer Robert Mann) prepares his own holiday homecoming with an escape from the sanitarium he’s been confined to. Before you can say “Santa Claus is coming to town”, Billy is back creeping between the walls and under the floorboards of his childhood abode and making menacing phone calls to the interloping coeds. But in a twist from the original film, the Yuletide body count actually begins before Billy’s arrival home, and viewers are left pondering the red herring presence of creepy coed Eve, a lothario boyfriend (who annoyingly refers to the sorority sisters several times as “You bitches”), and a former sorority alumna who shows up in the middle of a snowstorm claiming to be the estranged sister of one of the missing coeds. Of course there’s also one-eyed, inbred little sister Agnes whose whereabouts are largely speculated throughout the film ~ and it won’t take a genius to place bets on the psychotic sibling/spawn.

It will take a genius, however, to wade through the multiple inconsistencies in the updated script. Where Clark’s original played to realism with the extension of the action to outside the house and the logical involvement of the authorities, perhaps sacrificing a bit of the claustrophobia in the process, Morgan and company eschew external forces altogether with the confounding absence of law enforcement - despite the glaring facts that a) Billy kills at least two people in his escape from the sanitarium and would be logically expected by authorities to return to the scene of his former crimes and b) at one point in the film, one of the characters calls the police, reports finding an actual dead body and the missing status of several of her friends, but is unceremoniously told that there will be a two hour delay in sending anyone out because of the inclement weather(!).

Morgan and production partner James Wong (they worked together on the Final Destination franchise and episodes of TV’s The X-Files) assemble a competent enough cast of seasoned screamers – ranging from semi-recognizable up-and-comers like Katie Cassidy (When a Stranger Calls remake and The Lost), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Final Destination 3 and the upcoming Grindhouse), Lacey Chabert (all grown-up from Party of Five), Michelle Trachtenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and Crystal Lowe (also from Final Destination 3, Snakes on a Plane, and the upcoming Wrong Turn 2), to Canadian unknowns Jessica Harmon, Leela Savasta, and Kathleen Kole. Thrown in for good measure are Andrea Martin (an original Black Christmas victim) now playing house mother Mrs. MacHenry in a clever nod to fans of the original film and peace offering to those furious over the idea of a remake in the first place, Morgan’s real-life wife, Kristen Cloke (Final Destination, and hubby’s Willard remake), in the significantly beefed up role of Claire’s sister (played as a father in the original film) who comes to pick up her little sis for Christmas break only to become reluctantly entangled in the murderous mayhem, and an oddly unrecognizable Oliver Hudson (of Dawson’s Creek fame and son of Goldie Hawn and brother of Kate Hudson) as one of the girl’s enigmatic boyfriends (in a bland variation of the red herring role played by Keir Dullea in the original). Where Clark’s original did a superior job of characterization, it’s difficult to differentiate between the ill-fated coeds here; with the exception of nerdy Eve, they all speak the same, have long hair (albeit of slightly varying colors), and have very little in the way of back story revealed to give them individual identities. To their credit, Morgan and Wong eschew the classic slasher formula here a bit by purposefully failing to pinpoint the Final Girl early on in the film, making it harder to figure out who will be off-ed next and who the ultimate survivor(s) (if any) will be.

Superior set decoration at the hands of Mark Lane lives up to the creepiness of the original, with holiday decorating staples (strands of twinkling lights, Christmas trees, candy canes, cookie cutters) put to more far more effective use here. Cinematographer Robert McLachlan does a good job with the shadowy interiors and wintry exteriors, while the late composer Shirley Walker creates an effectively jangle-y, pulse-pounding score to accompany the carnage. That said, it’s hard to judge film editor Chris Willingham’s work here - with purported interference by Dimension films with the final cut that reportedly continued up until the film’s release. There's already transatlantic Internet chatter about an alternate version of the film being shown in England. With illogical edits and annoying cutaways during action sequences, one can’t help but feel more than one set of hands on the film reel. If so, shame on the powers-that-be at Dimension for not relying on the vision of their director and his artistic and technical teams. With distracting moments of oddball pacing and trailer footage conspicuously absent from the final film, Dimension should take a page from competitor Lionsgate’s playbook on how to actually trust those you’ve entrusted to create a film. Let’s hope that they’ll be wise enough to offer Morgan an apology via the opportunity to present a director’s cut when Black Christmas hits DVD.

Genre fans will delight over the special make-up effects created by Rory Cutler and his team, who prove once again that latex and prosthetics trump CGI-generated special effects any day of the week. The kills are imaginative (at times over-the-top so), and whereas the violence in Bob Clark’s original was more implied, the blood and guts in this latest incarnation are explicit and unapologetically in-your-face. Suffice to say that eyeballs play a big part in this re-telling of Black Christmas, and there are bloody sockets and orbital entrails galore for gore hounds.

Morgan plays to the
Scream generation with his Black Christmas redux, which both works on a fun, campy level and fails at establishing the film as a serious contender in the slasher annals. As in Wes Craven’s Scream, there is self-referential black humor at work here – from nods to the original film with Martin’s casting, plastic bags as instruments of death, and an encore appearance by the infamous glass unicorn to the now-standard double-entendre dialogue that has populated the scripts of the post-modern slasher and an updated use of the telephone. Played as part homage, part sardonic roast, Morgan’s vision will undoubtedly bring the ire of Black Christmas loyalists while piquing the interest of diehard slasher fans. Conservative groups (like the tellingly titled Operation Just Say Merry Christmas) will reap the benefits of increased exposure for their puritanical agendas and log mucho air time publicly reviling the remake in an ugly bit of irony. Ultimately, it will be the ironists who win out if Black Christmas, take two, brings in cold, hard Christmas cash and generates enough box office action to warrant a direct-to-DVD sequel. For them, it will signify the delightful irony of crass holiday capitalism at its finest.

My advice? Approach the Black Christmas remake as a film in its own right versus a remake of a beloved slasher classic. Viewing the film in this manner will mean the difference between outright choking on your Christmas cookies versus merely needing a glass of milk to wash them down.

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