Collins’ Crypt: Movies I Love - BLACK XMAS

Yes, BC means the remake.

It's a tradition to go to the movies on Christmas Day, dating all the way back to 1994 when my mom and sister wanted to see something (Little Women?) and I tagged along to watch Van Damme go up river to kick Bison's ass in Street Fighter by myself. Ever since I've gone every year, and for whatever reason the movies tend to be dramatic: Cast Away, Finding Neverland, War Horse... but one notable exception was 2006, when I joined almost none of the rest of the country for the one day that Black Christmas (aka Black Xmas) had a reason to be playing in theaters.

Yes, Dimension - the same studio that releases most of the Halloween movies in the summer - opted to open their Christmas themed slasher movie ON CHRISTMAS DAY, giving it a shelf life of exactly 24 hours - I doubt there's a big audience for Christmas movies on December 28th, especially one that had a savage beating from critics. But critical hatred is nothing for a horror movie - it's practically a badge of honor in some cases, and the rare exceptions don't tend to be slasher remakes. However, this remake was treated with more scorn than usual from the horror fanbase, since Bob Clark's original 1974 Black Christmas is an underrated classic that we can call our own. Unlike more mainstream offerings like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Psycho, Black Christmas never really caught on with the masses, and remained a "cult" favorite for a lack of a better term (that it went under a few different titles, including the painfully generic Stranger In The House, probably didn't help its lasting legacy). So the fans were a bit more protective this time around, and keep in mind this was 2006 - the remake machine hadn't reached its nadir yet, and some folks were still naively thinking that movies like Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street would be left alone.

Plus, it was Dimension. No one has any faith in ANY Dimension production; original, sequel, remake - it doesn't matter. Bob Weinstein will micro-manage, re-edit, and reshoot it into a hollow shell of a movie, and if the mood catches him right, make it PG-13 for good measure. So there was literally nothing for fans to get excited about; even the team of Glen Morgan and James Wong was a question mark since they were coming off Final Destination 3, which made money but wasn't embraced as warmly as the previous entry (that they weren't involved with). The late release - as opposed to something earlier in December to whet our appetite for the big day itself, or at least on the 22nd (the Friday) like every other new movie that was opening - just seemed to be the studio admitting it wasn't worth our time, as they were effectively dumping it.

But they were wrong to do that, and you haters were wrong to shit on it and/or skip it! Taking a cue from Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, Morgan wisely opted to borrow the original concept (a sorority house on Christmas break, a killer who fancied the attic) and a few shoutouts, but otherwise make his own movie rather than a straight up beat for beat remake. Apart from Billy and Clair (the first victim), the character names were all different, the phone call element was reduced to nearly nothing, and the action was compressed into a single night. Also, there was no police involvement of any sort - no room for a winking cameo from John Saxon as the nearly retired sheriff who had seen this sort of thing before or any of that nonsense (I should note Andrea Martin, one of the girls in the original, plays the house mother this time around). In fact it was miraculously (and thankfully) free of the sort of meta humor that Dimension had more or less created exactly ten years prior with Scream. Apart from a nod to director Bob Clark (Billy was kept at "Clark Sanitarium") and a reference to Punk'd that already felt dated in 2006, it's fairly wink-free and timeless, free of the "time capsule" feel so many modern slashers (and Dimension horror movies in general) suffer from when watching nowadays. Hell, they didn't even put any pop/rock songs on the soundtrack, though one might long for a Creed number after hearing "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" for the twelfth time.

Now, I'm not going to tell you that it's some unheralded classic, or even as good as the original, but I think the film deserves more credit than it's ever been given. For starters, it's a damn enjoyable slasher film on a basic level, doling out a big body count (at least twelve onscreen kills), a fun killer, and the most important ingredient of all - a cast of equals, where you're not sure who will die first, and even the Final Girl takes a little longer to identify than usual (well, like ten minutes after she's introduced, but still). While their filmographies have floundered or flourished since, at the time all of the main girls were at about the same place in their career, juggling TV series and/or the occasional movie, and probably all getting calls from Maxim or whatever. Not to sound like a pig, but rarely has there been a more attractive group of ladies assembled for a single horror movie, and the fact that only one of them seems to have a boyfriend (Oliver Hudson) is perfectly OK by me. And going back to their 2006 levels of fame, one actress HAS gone on to bigger and better things with respect to the others, so a new audience might assume she is the lead, making her death a big shock when it occurs (this is why I've left out their names - not hard to guess who I mean if you look at its credits though).

It's also front-loaded with exposition, which may be annoying at first but is preferable to stopping the movie cold during the climax to explain everything. As this is not a "whodunit" slasher (despite some odd attempts to make it seem like one - why is Hudson's character so damn shifty-eyed?), there's no need to preserve a mystery or anything - they tell us everything we need to know and then get down to business. The first 40 minutes have as many flashbacks as Silent Night Deadly Night 2, as we learn the twisted history of the Lenz family, intercut with scenes of our lovely ladies opening their gifts, drinking and being catty with one another (but never so much that they are hateful or unlikable - it's just good ol' fashioned ball-busting, or whatever the female equivalent of that phrase is). Once the backstory (which includes, among other things, incest and cannibalism - Merry Christmas!) is filled in, we are given a roller coaster sequence of kills, with Billy (OR IS IT?) dispatching another cast member every couple of minutes, usually in gory fashion. And kudos to Morgan for keeping the logic from being strained too much with regards to why they're not hearing the murders or stumbling across bodies - it more or less makes sense (certainly more than all the cops leaving the house in the original without checking the attic).

That said, one thing about the movie always kind of bugged me (SPOILER OF SORTS AHEAD) - the fact that there are two killers is somewhat presented as a reveal, but we know it has to be two from almost the very first scene, as we see Billy still in the institution when Clair is murdered in the house. I guess it could be a split timeline thing like they do in a lot of the Saw movies (which were the big thing at the time), but it never seemed like that to me. Thus, the reveal is a bit anticlimactic, though they still manage to pull off a pretty good red herring surprise involving one of the girls in the house, and like Scream before it, a two killer scenario means more action with less resulting plot holes. Win-win!

Another reason it's worth seeking out - this would be the last time Morgan and Wong worked together. The full story never came out, but apparently there was a lot of tension during production, and rumors were breaking before the film was even released that the two men, partnered together for at least sixteen years at that point, had parted ways. One can see a bit of that unease on the DVD's bonus features (no Blu-ray release in Region 1, but it was put out on HD-DVD!), where Morgan wearily admits that he's putting jump scares in the movie despite detesting them, because his earlier film (Willard, another underrated remake that tanked) didn't have that sort of thing and he was told its failure was because it lacked big scare moments. He also fears that if the movie bombed he'd be placed in director jail, which sadly has seemingly turned out to be true as he hasn't directed a feature since. Sadder still, his post Wong projects haven't exactly panned out - he worked on the Bionic Woman reboot and last year's silly found footage show The River, neither of which lasted a full season. So it's an unusually candid bonus feature to find on a studio DVD for a new release, and the other bonus features are also worth a look - Bob Clark stops by to give the film his blessing on the more traditional making of piece, and the deleted scenes/alternate endings are enjoyable, particularly the "UK version" death for one character and an ending that recalls the original's, with a phone ringing and suggesting that the killer was still out there. Sadly, the film's trailer, which included scenes shot specifically for marketing (one involving an actress who doesn't even appear in the film!), is nowhere to be found on the disc.

I wish I had found the time to watch the movie again and write this up before Christmas, so some of you Amazon Prime-rs would be able to take the dive and watch the movie before the 25th - I basically pulled a Dimension here. But I'm glad that when I did find the time I was able to see that it held up, and if just one of you backs me up in the comments amidst what I'm sure will be a lot of naysayers, it will mean more to me than the pennies I'd get from a few DVD purchases. I've been talking a lot about the Silent Night Deadly Night films lately, and watching Black Xmas again for the first time in five years reminded me that while it may be a remake of Black Christmas in terms of story, tonally it's a spiritual successor to that beautifully trashy series, mixing plenty of bad taste and sleaze, a high body count and a seeming hatred of December 25th to make the sort of "love it or hate it" fare that I usually find myself championing on the side of the former. It won't ever replace the original, but I love that I have two valid options if I'm in the mood to see some housebound sorority girls get taunted by a creepy bastard in the attic on a cold December night. Thanks, Dimension.