It’d be easy to file Black X-Mas (2006) as yet another tasteless, forgettable entry in the slasher remake genre that has little to do with the original. Where Black Christmas (1974) is a poultry dish delicately seasoned and served with whipped mashed potatoes and oven-roasted haricot verts, Black X-Mas is deep-fried and smothered in gravy. But both, mind you, are tasty as hell. Allow me to enlighten you.
Drenched in candy-colored neons and over-the-top gore, Black X-Mas is a stylish, cheeky departure that expands upon the original’s mythology and explores interesting subplots in hyper-focused detail. It’s packaged in a sleek 90-minute (give or take depending on the cut) runtime, making this absurd, ultraviolent abbreviation of its predecessor easy to digest and heaps more palatable than your average 2000s remake. Like a Popeye’s eight-piece family combo to go, Black X-Mas is a fast-paced, greasy spin on the original that’s actually pretty damn fun to eat, er...watch.
The last script to date penned and directed by Glen Morgan (notable for his work on The X-Files, Final Destination series and the remake of Willard), Black X-Mas was received poorly and generally regarded as an unimaginative failure. Despite a seal of approval from Bob Clark himself, the film never managed to carve its own path in the slasher genre amongst its peers. It was released during an era dripping with superficial, Hot Topic-bound properties and notoriously bad remakes (*cough* The Wicker Man *cough*), each hoping to piggyback off the success of the modern-slasher genius of the Scream franchise. Add to that some religious controversy over its release date (on actual Christmas Day) and some studio altercations and there wasn’t much hope for it to achieve any kind of critical success or cult following. Yet that it did - if say, you’re an [age not listed]-year-old gore-loving genre enthusiast like me. Who likes fun.
The remake follows the premise of the original very loosely: it’s set in a sorority house during the holidays, there’s a Billy, some creepy phone calls, and obviously some MurderDeathKills. But that’s where the similarities end. Instead of a scene-for-scene drive-by of the original, Black X-Mas takes its bare bones and diverges into unexplored, supremely wacked-out territory through the villains’ (yes, this time there’s two) backstories and the villains themselves. And it works.
The original Black Christmas boasts a nameless, faceless figure stalking and slashing his (or her) way through the sorority’s roster without ever being revealed or explained--the only piece of information we’re left with is a caller who refers to himself as “Billy” in its closing scene. This ambiguity cranks the film’s slow-burn up to an eleven and is straight up one of the most terrifying things about it: this killer’s nothing more than a shadow in the dark. Indefinitely.
By contrast, this “Billy” (aptly named Billy from the get-go) is not only a fully-fleshed out sympathetic villain with a screwed-up backstory, but he’s also….very yellow. That’s right--our main killer dude is bright freakin’ yellow...and that’s actually the least interesting thing about him.
Subject to emotional abuse from his disapproving, hateful mother, Billy was born with a rare liver disease that caused his precious baby skin to jaundice. Said mother was clearly displeased with his abnormal pigmentation and proceeds to torture Billy over the years with life-ruining insults and exclamations (“yo, Santa is dead, son!”), locking him up in the attic, and then murdering his poor, loving father. But the real kicker? When she finds her new beau is unable to rise to the occasion, Billy’s mother decides to get it on with someone who can: BILLY (ick!). Worst Mother of the Year Award, and then some. Nine months later, Billy’s SisterDaughter Agnes is born and he’s once again relegated to the attic. Needless to say, he eventually goes crazy and offs both his mother and her lover while brutally maiming Agnes in the first of many eyeball-poppin’ extractions. Revenge, as they say, is a dish best served with Christmas cookies made out of your mama’s flesh.
What’s especially interesting about this extended flashback into the killer’s motives is the fact that it serves to garner sympathy from us--and it does. By the time the previously mentioned murders of his mother et al. take place, we are heartily rooting for Billy and his thoroughly gratifying killing spree. We’re even kinda glad that he wounds his SisterDaughter--after all, why does she get to be the cookie his mother wants to gobble up? I mean, come on--he could easily have been a lemon tart. The injustices done to Billy are just too much to bear.
The film then quickly picks back up 35 years later to a shadowed killer terrorizing and killing the hot sorority girls with menacing calls, presents, and elaborate deaths. A few surprise twists (the SisterDaughter is actually a killer, too!) and some action-packed chase scenes in-between walls and hospital beds, and it’s over before you know it. There’s even a fun moment where the killer props up all the dead sorority girls against the Christmas tree (complete with plucked eyeballs as ornaments, of course) Happy Birthday To Me-style. What a ride!
Whether intentionally campy or not, Morgan’s remake brandishes a highly-stylized visual spectacle chock full of Americana (Holiday Edition) and fiendish amounts of gore. A dizzying array of twinkling, garish Christmas lights and familiar holiday jingles makes this film as colorful and flashy as you’d expect a Christmas movie to be--and it’s funny to boot. In fact, Black X-Mas almost feels like the straight-to-comics prequel or spinoff found in an old issue of Vault of Horror. And I, for one, am here for it.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention how terrific some of the casting choices are here--besides the OG Black Christmas legend Andrea Martin as the housemother, we’ve got a young, pre-cult status Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a slightly gothy Michelle Trachtenberg straight off her stint on Buffy, and a sassy Gretchen Weiners posing as a few of the Hot Sorority Girls. Even the film’s red herring, the boyfriend Kyle, is none other than Scream Queens’ Oliver Hudson. In other words, revisiting this film today is a heck of a lotta fun.
Featuring an inventive, ridiculous backstory and eye-poppingly (heh) stylish ultraviolence, Black X-Mas delivers the goods as a breezy, enjoyable remake that can be finished in the time it takes to top off a bucket of KFC. We’re all family now.