When it comes to festive fright flicks, there’s one movie that’s usually at the top of everyone’s “Nice” list. Black Christmas has been a go-to for horror fans for decades, and for good reason–it’s still just as creepy, tense and scary as it was back in the seventies, much like its compatriot, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which was released the same year.
Black Christmas utilises the POV shot made famous by Peeping Tom, and later built upon by the masterful Maniac, to ensure we know the killer is in the house before anyone else does, raising the tension before anything remotely frightening even happens. In 2006, Black Xmas, as it was promotionally known for some reason, was released to cries of sacrilege from genre purists.
We tend to hate remakes just by design, but, with the likes of Dawn Of The Dead, and the truly stunning Maniac, we’ve slowly learned to be slightly more open-minded. In contrast to those films, though, Black Xmas is yet another example of how the decision to remake a beloved horror movie is often not just wrong, but downright offensive.
Not content with recreating the brooding tension and shocking frights of the original (because modern audiences won’t sit still for that kind of thing, damn it!), Black Xmas turns everything up to eleven, from the gore to the exposition to the over-the-top acting.
Casting a bevy of young-ish beauties, from Final Destination 3’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead to Buffy’s Michelle Trachtenberg, the flick attacks the simple premise of the original, along with its poor victims, with such unnecessary gusto, the finished product barely even resembles its source material.
The strength of Black Christmas lay in the unknown. We learned virtually nothing about the killer, barely even catching a full glimpse of him over the course of the movie and, as a result, he was completely terrifying. Black Xmas gives him a back-story so fucked up, the killer might as well be a guest on Dr. Phil.
Hokey flashbacks establish that poor lil’ Billy, yellow-skinned due to a liver disease, watched his kindly father being murdered by his mother, who then went on to rape him, leading him to father her child as a result, after which he killed his mother and stepfather and made Christmas cookies with the skin off her back. The child escaped unharmed and is possibly shacked up with the sorority sisters at this very moment!
Any of those elements on its own would be scary, but throwing them all together at once is totally overdoing it, and the weirdly comedic element to the whole thing doesn’t help – the mental institution, in which Billy is imprisoned, has to be the least secure and most jolly place on earth.
Nothing is left to the imagination, although presumably the filmmakers left out a scene involving the mother actually thrusting on top of her son to avoid an NC-17 rating. Funny how that was deemed sicker than the cannibalistic cookies, but hey, that’s an argument for another day.
Suffice to say, Black Xmas is anything but subtle, at one stage choosing to segue from a flashback to a shot of the creepy chick living in the sorority house in spite of the fact she freaks everyone else out. There’s a twist later on, of course, but by that stage it’s hard to care who she is, let alone that she’s dead. The score, in particular, is all over the place, jumping from brooding and creepy to jaunty and comedic depending on the scene. In spite of the relatively high body count, nobody dies for absolutely ages, and the exposition is painful up until which point people begin to die.
Andrea Martin, who played geeky Phyl in the original, returns as Ms. Mac, in an underwritten role for which she mostly has to explain the killer’s origin story to a group of chicks who, considering they’ve been living in the sorority house for at least a year, should already know. Other than Martin, the remake opens with the same shot as the original, giving us a fleeting slice of hope that it may be an updated take on its fantastic predecessor.
Black Xmas is infamous for boasting a trailer that featured precisely none of the scenes included in the final cut of the film, including a chick being twisted up in a strand of lights and a shot of the killer hanging out in the corner of the ceiling before leaping down to attack. There are a variety of reasons why this can happen, of course, but the fact it will live forever on YouTube as a constant reminder of what could’ve been is kind of cruel.
Christmas horror is a comparatively un-tapped subgenre, and with Black Christmas, the festive period is referenced at every turn, with one particularly memorable murder juxtaposed with carolling children, who are distracting another girl at the front door. 2006’s Black Xmas could’ve been set at any stage because, in spite of the many references to the holiday, it never really feels like a festive slasher, just a regular, pretty terrible one.
Black Christmas has aged, of course, because it’s forty years old at this stage, but it’s still atmospheric, tense and creepy, even by modern standards. Utilising the simple, yet terrifying, idea of a cold-blooded killer hiding in a house, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, and picking them off one by one, it juxtaposes Christmas cheer with horrifying murders to brilliant effect. A brave ending, complete with a memorable final shot, ensures it leaves the viewer cold as a winter’s breeze.
The remake, on the other hand, doesn’t even trust its own premise enough to let it speak for itself, over-showing and over-explaining everything to the point of nausea. Where the original favoured suggesting, the remake makes us watch, watch, watch until even a chewed-up eyeball barely registers. The ending beats us over the head with one, final moment of gut-spewing gore that, while commendably gross, isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.
There’s no contest here. If you’re looking for a film to snuggle up under a blanket, with all of the lights off, over the festive period, it’s Black Christmas hands down. If you’re on a particularly bad acid trip and looking for something to push you further over the edge, then maybe give Black Xmas a try. Maybe.