Collins’ Crypt: Will *Any* BLACK CHRISTMAS Find Box Office Glory?

The characters and plot points change, but these films never catch a break at the box office.

The people at Blumhouse and the cast and crew of Black Christmas (2019) should be pretty thankful for the existence of Cats. With all eyes on that across the board disaster (bad reviews, worse box office, and whatever the hell THIS is), everyone's already kind of forgotten that the slasher remake (also distributed by Universal) flopped the week before. Despite a seeming perfect storm of good timing - the lack of a new horror film in over a month, the seasonal setting, and the #MeToo-themed approach - the film only earned a paltry $4m on its opening weekend, and thanks to Star Wars (plus Jumanji and the continued success of Frozen II) it had precisely zero chance of catching on and becoming a sleeper hit - if it even hits $10m, it won't be by much more. But in a very weird, probably not all that comforting to them way, that's kind of a positive sign, because it puts them in good company with the other two versions. They flopped as well but have gone on to be so popular that different people thought it'd be a good idea to remake them.

I saw both Black Christmas remakes on their opening days (December 25th, 2006 and December 13th, 2019, respectively), but I didn't get to see the 1974 one during its original theatrical run, because alas I was not born yet. When they finally figure out time travel it'll probably be on my list of things to do, and maybe I can help change its history, but let's assume they never DO figure out how to travel into the past and Bob Clark's film will, like its remakes, be a box office dud. Warner Bros handled the Canadian film's US distribution, and they bungled it in December of 1974 by changing the title to "Silent Night, Evil Night" (they apparently thought the real title would suggest the film was a Blaxploitation flick), where it didn't make much of a splash. They tried again the following year, restoring the title and putting it out on 70 screens for Halloween after a fairly successful Los Angeles run, but it once again didn't catch on with the masses, and they quickly pulled it from theaters again, never to return save for repertory programming.

These re-releases ultimately allowed the film to break even and maybe even make a few bucks, but when compared to the success of later slasher royalty like Halloween and Friday the 13th, it's hard not to see the film as anything other than a financial disappointment. But thanks to its eventual cult following and numerous releases on VHS and DVD, it seemed just as viable a remake property as those two and other horror classics from the '70s and '80s (i.e. Dawn of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Fright Night), which is why Dimension opted to snap up the rights - no easy feat given how many times the independently-made Canadian film had changed hands - and release a remake for the holiday in 2006. With a "good for this sort of thing" budget, a cast of up and comers like Mary Elizabeth Winstead (pre-Grindhouse and Die Hard 4) and Katie Cassidy (who had a bit part in the same year's very profitable When A Stranger Calls update), and the creative team behind two of the (then) three successful Final Destination films, it seemed like a pretty surefire hit.

There was just one problem: Dimension released it on Christmas Day itself, as opposed to a week or two before, if not even earlier. If you look at the top twenty highest-grossing Christmas themed films of all time, you'll notice all but two of them were released in November (the exceptions: Nightmare Before Christmas, released in October because it's also a Halloween movie, and Christmas Vacation, which hit on December 1st). Christmas Day itself is not a particularly great time to put out a Christmas movie, since the folks going to the movies on that day tend to want more general entertainment (the top movie that day in 2006 was Night of the Museum, followed by Dreamgirls and Pursuit of Happyness, i.e. mainstream stuff), and then we go back to work, curb (or disassemble) the tree, take down the lights - so when exactly did Dimension think people would be lining up to see this movie? Even if it had no other competition and strong reviews, it would have always been a tough sell to get lots of folks into a Christmas movie any time after December 25th; indeed, it sunk from its already poor opening on the 25th down to 11th place on the 26th, the biggest drop by far across all films playing at the time.

To be fair, it wasn't exactly wowing the people who did bother to see it, so it wasn't just the awkward timing sending it into dudsville. Fans of the original - at the time, still somewhat on the obscure side of things - were angry it even existed, and the taboo elements it brought to the table, namely incest and cannibalism, weren't exactly embraced by those who didn't even realize it was a remake anyway. I was an instant fan, but it was hard to get people on board when I had so many caveats - in addition to bungling the release date, Dimension also reshuffled the first act of the film so that we'd meet the girls before getting Billy's backstory, which created some plot holes (it's supposed to be a surprise that there are two killers - doesn't quite work when we see someone die at the house before the assumed sole killer even escapes from the asylum) and led to awkward lengthy bouts of exposition later. Also, the big moments from the trailer, like a snow blower chewing up strands of Christmas lights and dragging a victim into its "mouth", weren't even in the movie, as they were specifically shot for marketing, in another classic Dimension move. 

So it was a bit of an acquired taste, to put it mildly, but like the original its fanbase grew over the years. Not to the same extent, naturally (and deservedly; I am a fan but only a fool would say it was superior to the original), but every year I find it easier to find someone else in its corner, which allows me some nice vindication as a day one defender of the thing. And when they announced a new version would be coming in 2019, I was actually somewhat annoyed that people seemed to be excited, since that kind of optimism was never given to the 2006 one - and, if anything, shouldn't the masses have even more reason to worry, since it had been "proven" that remaking the film was a bad idea? However, the interesting creative team of Sophia Takal and April Wolfe - the first women to be behind this very female-oriented story - made benefit of the doubt an easy enough offer, and since Blumhouse had done so well with their Halloween revival, it stood to reason that they'd find the same success with its closest relative in the slasher dynasty.

But then the trailer hit. On the surface it looked fine - they weren't steering away from the basic plot of sorority sisters being stalked while staying on campus during Christmas break, and the cast (Imogen Poots, Lily Donoghue, Aleyse Shannon) could easily draw in both men and women. But it also seemed to give away the entire plot, including the reveal of a key villain, while also establishing the lack of "Billy", which annoyed the purists all over again and probably lost them forever. It also clearly showed its feminist side, so (depressingly) it instantly caused a backlash from incel types who saw it as an attack on men who were tired of having to start defenses with "Not all of us are bad!" (a line that more or less made its way into the film itself). And the print campaign didn't do it any favors, as the billboards and posters make the film look like a story about four badass women who go around and beat people up with baseball bats. The PG-13 rating was probably the final nail in the coffin - while I didn't have too much of an issue with it*, whiny hardcore horror "fans" instantly wrote the film off, and presumably spent December 13th watching true horror films like Jaws or The Ring instead (or maybe something more recent like Quiet Place?).

Long story short, like the previous one, it had a lot of obstacles to overcome outside of the film itself, which - as with 2006 - isn't exactly a perfect film by any means. The rushed production (they only started shooting in July) is probably to blame for some abrupt story pivots that could have/should have been threaded through the entire narrative instead of coming out of nowhere in the final 15 minutes, and it's also not particularly scary or suspenseful - the best jump is a direct reference to an iconic moment in Exorcist III. To its credit, they went even further off-book than the previous remake (which changed a lot but kept "Billy" as well as Mrs. Mac, played by one of the original cast members), as only the basic plot was retained and nothing else - even references and homages are hard to find, to the extent that some wonder why it was called Black Christmas at all. But as we've repeatedly seen with bigger franchises (some, perhaps, in theaters right now), folks tend to want to be comforted by their nostalgia and get exactly what they expect when they sit down for a movie. Giving them something different is too scary, I guess. 

Personally I was mixed on the film, but closer to positive than negative, and can see myself adding it to the pile of seasonal slashers that get rewatched every few Decembers. And I know some people have flat out loved it and have gone back to see it again, just as well as I know that I'm a 39-year-old man and not the teenaged girls the creators have said they mainly made the movie for. I know most of the people I've talked to privately about it have not been fans (or simply not been interested in seeing it at all), but I also remember it being the same way for the 2006 one, and I also remember a time when I'd tell horror fans about the Bob Clark movie and they'd say they hadn't seen it or even heard of it yet. Historically, time has been kind to this particular title even though it had trouble finding that appreciation when it seemingly mattered most, and I wouldn't be surprised if this one ended up in the same boat. And in 2035 or whatever, maybe a fourth version can come along and break the tradition, either by being a financially successful theatrical release - or a movie that actually deserves its muted box office fate.

*The film's climax definitely suffered from a lack of R-rated imagery, as the big moment where the women fight back is so vague and quick I'm not even sure if they actually managed to kill or even seriously injure a number of the villains.