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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Remakes: Redux, Or Ridiculous? -- Have a Merry, Scary Christmas

Olivia Hussey discovers there's a STRANGER IN THE HOUSE (US re-release title) in the original BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)


The first call of the evening (BLACK CHRISTMAS '74)

In 1974, Bob Clark, the purveyor of such diverse cult classics as PORKY'S (1982), A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) and the box office disaster, RHINESTONE (1984) delivered one of the most frightening, nerve wracking horror movies of all time. That film was the aptly titled BLACK CHRISTMAS, about a sorority house that finds themselves harassed by increasingly volatile and perverse phone calls from an obviously unhinged psychopath. The police search desperately to locate the stranger as he is also suspected of the murder of a young child. As the night of terror progresses, numerous young girls are brutally butchered by the unseen maniac until one woman remains and must fend for herself during the suspenseful and shocking finale.

The killer paints a mural of murder in BLACK CHRISTMAS '74

At this time, the slasher conventions hadn't been set in stone just yet, but BLACK CHRISTMAS is definitely one of the forebears of the slasher film alongside some other early examples like BAY OF BLOOD and TOWER OF EVIL (both 1972). Clark brilliantly weaves a web of tension and horror even managing to pull off some low key comedic moments that never threaten to derail the picture, but instead hint to things to come in his career nearly a decade later. There are so many wonderful moments in this seminal horror classic, it's a shame that a remake was ever discussed in the first place. Producer, Glen Morgan takes the helm of the remake which, surprisingly, had original director, Bob Clark on board as Executive Producer.

One of the killers decorates her tree of Christmas carnage in BLACK CHRISTMAS '06

As much as I enjoyed the remake for its unabashed obscenities and its flagrant disregard for good taste, the remake of the 70's classic original pales terribly by comparison. Actually, THERE IS NO COMPARISON. Like Rob Zombie's ill conceived and perpetually stupid HALLOWEEN rehash, BLACK CHRISTMAS '06 fails to match the intensity of Clark's film by virtue of its insistence to give us all the gory details of Billy's past and how he came to be what he is (at least in the world of the remake). Just as much as it's hard to fathom Michael Myers coming from trailer park stock where everyone only speaks Rob Zombie's language, ie an alternate universe, it's equally difficult to swallow the details of Billy's sordid background fitting in at all in the original film.

The horrifying phone calls escalate in intensity from Bob Clark's 1974 classic

In the original, the details of Billy and exactly who he was and what he did are clouded in fragmented portions of escalating schizophrenia over the phone when the killer repeatedly calls overtly threatening death on the sorority girls. These phone calls, sounding as if multiple people are on the phone at once, are extremely unsettling; even more effective coupled with the nerve jangling piano score on the soundtrack.

One of many gore scenes from Glen Morgan's modern take on the Clark classic

The remake scuppers any attempt at fright or suspense and settles on showing the audience EVERYTHING and in the most disgusting and spectacular fashion imaginable. This time, the phone calls have none of the terrifying ambiance they did in the '74 classic. And even if they were better conceived, the suspense would be lost amidst a miasma of incest, cannibalism and extreme eyeball trauma.

One of the best shots in the remake that recalls similar shots in John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN. One of the killers sneaks up on one of their victims in BLACK CHRISTMAS '06

Despite having a good time based solely on the new films brazenly nasty atmosphere, I can't help but feel a bit annoyed that it bears relation to Clark's movie. Possibly calling it the 'Bastard child of Bob Clark's BLACK CHRISTMAS' would help? But then, Clark himself gave his blessing for the material. I guess one has to take into consideration as to whether or not a film on the level of the original would be somewhat successful in this day and age.

This is the most you ever see of "Dirty little Billy" from the original BLACK CHRISTMAS. Note the highlighted eye. The remake would contain a plethora of eyeball violence

It would seem most moviegoers today (I'm speaking mostly of the casual fan, and not the passionate or hard core horror hound) want to be shown everything with very little left to the imagination. It's also saddening that many of these same people would never give the original a chance proclaiming it's too old, or boring, or this classic response, "I don't recognize any of these people."

Olivia Hussey encounters Billy during the frightening conclusion from the 1974 film

Another high point in the original movie is the double shocker ending (which I won't spoil here just in case someone reading hasn't seen it, by chance; but you may want to skip the third paragraph from the bottom as I kind of spoil it there). It catches you completely by surprise and leaves you hanging as to the true fate of one of the cast members. Clark himself has stated his dislike of the ending saying it's too depressing and his wish to go back and change it. I wouldn't want it any other way, however.

One of the killers moves about the house via the inside of the walls in the remake

On the flipside, the remake aborts any preconception of a shock ending on the level of the original instead giving you a bizarre SCREAM styled plot twist wherein it's discovered (I'm gonna spoil this one! Well...partly, anyways) there are in fact two killers. Not only that, but whereas the '74 version kept Billy's identity and face clouded in mystery save for the shot of one of his eyes, the remake never shys away from showing off the maniacs visage.

The girls in Glen Morgan's version aren't sure what to think of the recurring obscene phone calls

Outside of vastly different tones, there are scant few similarities. One is actress, Andrea Martin, who played one of the house girls in the original and plays the house mother in the new version. Another similarity is of course, the Christmas setting. That's one of the best aspects of BC 2006.

One of the best aspects of the remake is the look of the production and the attention to certain details in an effort to pay a degree of homage to the classic original

There is truly a sinister atmosphere surrounding the snow capped town and the image of Santa Claus. The original BLACK CHRISTMAS also captures a bleak atmosphere for the holiday season and succeeds in being a bit more unsettling than its '06 counterpart. The remake is so mean spirited and nauseating, it's difficult to take it seriously as little more than an exercise in bad taste.

Another homage: Above is the disturbing image of the dead girl in the attic. Note the insert pic for the updated version of the same scene

Morgan's movie also recreates some of the creepier aspects of the sorority house in Clark's film such as the look of the hallways and the attic. Also, the gruesome image of the dead girl with the bag over her head is recreated here, too. Some of the characters are ported over from the '74 picture as well. Despite being erratic, the film is far too outrageous as this both helps and hinders the movie. The violence and situations are totally over the top to the point it becomes like a cartoon.

BLACK CHRISTMAS 2006 is the epitome of ocular violence

The new film surely must hold a record for the most scenes of ocular destruction as well as being the most imaginative in terms of how said orbs are violated. These disgusting scenes recall those made most famous in Lucio Fulci's movies particularly ZOMBIE (1979) and THE BEYOND (1980).

Andrea Martin played Phyllis in the original film. She plays the house mother in the remake

It's obvious that by the participation of Clark as Executive Producer and the participation of one of the original cast members, there was a genuine attempt at doing something special with the material. The director, Glen Morgan, is undoubtedly a fan claiming he really wanted to do the film justice by presenting a new version that is respectful of the original, while at the same time, creating something different for a new audience to latch on to. Personally, I think it all blew up in their faces, but I do enjoy the remake for different reasons which I mentioned above. Thankfully, I did meet one person recently who wasn't aware there was an original film (imagine that?) and upon seeing it, said they enjoyed it much better.

The nail biting finale of BLACK CHRISTMAS 1974

Clark's film has been imitated several times over the years with the two most obvious being HALLOWEEN (1978) and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979). When BC (1974) was a hit upon its original release, a sequel script was written in the hopes Clark would return as director. The script picked up where the original left off with the killer being captured and put away in an asylum. Years later he escapes and returns home to begin killing again. He didn't want to do the film and gave the script to a young John Carpenter. Carpenter took the script and changed some aspects of it and it eventually became the classic horror fans know today as HALLOWEEN. The famed shock towards the end when Olivia Hussey learns just where the calls are coming from was reused famously in WHEN A STRANGER CALLS from 1979.

The bird is the word. Note the poster in the background

Clark also manages to infuse his terrifying tale with a shot of humor foreshadowing the type of comedy he would entertain audiences with nearly a decade later in PORKY'S (1982). As gloomy and chilling as the film is, these lighter moments early on lighten the tone momentarily just before Clark assaults your senses with the horror to come. Margot Kidder (Lois Lane from the SUPERMAN films) provides some of this humor playing the young lush, Barbara. Apparently, Kidder was much like her character in real life, a promiscuous and free spirited woman. The film did very good business in its native Canada, but reportedly didn't fare as well in America. In addition to the BLACK CHRISTMAS moniker, it was also released in America as SILENT NIGHT, EVIL NIGHT and again on cable as STRANGER IN THE HOUSE. Only now is the film highly regarded as the classic and milestone it truly is.


While the new version has some wildly grim themes and ideas to recommend it, I still say stick with the somber and goose bump inducing Bob Clark original. The history of the original will always keep it in the horror community's conscious long after fans have forgotten about the remake. If you must see both, it doesn't really matter which one you see first as both are diverse enough it wouldn't be like you were watching the same film over again. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) is truly a one of a kind Canadian horror film and deserves its spot alongside such classics as HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH and THE HOWLING among a catalog of many other distinguished horror movies.


Carl (ILHM) said...

I would have to completely agree here, there is no mistaking that the original is the superior film, and I hold it in high regard, but I absolutely loved the new BLACK XMAS for knowing that it could never top the original and going for an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek gorefest that is only similar in the theme and title. There are so many moments of brilliant dark humor in the new film, particularly in Billy's flashbacks, I cant help but love it. It is by all means a terrible film, but damned if it wasnt one of the most entertaining films I have seen in years. Now I laugh whenever I hear Dance of the Sugar Plum Faeries

venoms5 said...

Right, Carl. I think the fitfully over the top nature is what saves the remake from being a barrel scraper. As you said, it's still pretty bad, but that's what makes it good. The minor odes to the original keep me from hating it outright.

TheReverendDoom said...

Black Christmas is one of the best horror films ever made. I love it a lot and there's no reason for me to waste any time or money on the remake. It is perfect end of story. The casting is great and the atmosphere is down right eerie and claustrophobic. I hate remakes cuz they usually shit all over the original and I've been burned enough with them to learn to quit while I am way behind.

venoms5 said...

You ought to check it out sometime Rev, when you have nothing else to watch. You might derive a little enjoyment out of it. The fact that Clark was involved in the making of it and gave the director his blessing was enough for me to give the flick a chance.

Will Errickson said...

I recall *nothing* of the remake, which I watched On Demand... uh, I have no idea when. The original, which I only saw a few years ago for the first time, instantly became a favorite of the era for me. I'm not usually one for slashers but its conflation of desolation and humor, along with that incredibly tense finale, are brilliantly done. And its refusal to explain more of the killer--good stuff. And who doesn't love retro-hotties like Kidder and Hussey?!

venoms5 said...

Bob Clark was way ahead of the game on BLACK CHRISTMAS. It's one of my all time favorites as well. It's one of those rare older movies that seems to have appeal to today's audience. Clark gave his blessing and oversaw the remake, though. It has its moments, but isn't a patch on the original at all.

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