by Steve Habrat
Bob Clark’s original Black Christmas is a freaky, freaky movie. Seriously, watch it all by yourself and try not to get creeped out as a slew of sorority sisters are stalked and murdered by an unseen killer all while ethereal Christmas carols play faintly in the background. It is no surprise that Hollywood would get the idea that the film was in desperate need of a redo and then proceed to screw it up royally. Enter director Glen Morgan’s cheap and tasteless 2006 pulp explosion that completely misses what made the original Black Christmas such a spooky little title. Sure, the original Black Christmas contained a little gore here and there, but it relied on atmosphere, getting under our skin with the idea that evil could be lurking anywhere and strike at any moment. Plus, it also featured some pretty good acting (Margot Kidder!), which was another positive. Black Christmas 2006 opts for outrageous shocks, glaringly fake gore, and some truly awful acting (Seriously, what the hell is Mary Elizabeth Winstead doing here?!). Morgan’s monstrosity should really be viewed as an insult considering that Clark’s Black Christmas predated John Carpenter’s legendary 1978 slasher Halloween and deserves credit for shaping the slasher subgenre. These kids just don’t get it!
On a snowy Christmas Eve night, the girls of the Alpha Kappa Gamma sorority house are all preparing themselves for Christmas day. Apparently, most of them don’t have any family to go home to. It turns out that the Alpha Kappa Gamma house used to be the home of Billy Lenz (Played by Robert Mann), a boy who suffered from a liver disorder that caused his skin to be yellow. Billy was loved by his father but despised by his mother and one night, Billy catches his mother and her boyfriend killing his loving father. If this wasn’t traumatizing enough, they then lock Billy away in the attic and his mother proceeds to sexually abuse him. She ends up getting pregnant and giving birth to a girl, Agnes (Played by Dean Friss), who is the apple of her eye. One day, Billy snaps and finds a way to get out of the attic. He then proceeds to murder his mother and eat her. In present day, Billy executes a daring escape from the mental institution he is locked away in and he returns to his childhood home to massacre the sorority sisters staying there. As the girls mysteriously disappear and perverted phone calls terrorize the girls, it is up to Kelli (Played by Katie Cassidy), her suspicious local boyfriend Kyle (Played by Oliver Hudson), and Leigh (Played by Kristen Cloke), the half-sister of one of the missing girls, to get the bottom of the mysterious disappearances and gruesome murders.
With subtly and the sinister slow build long gone, Black Christmas 2006 dives head first into a comic book aesthetic that is bathed in flashing multicolored lights and relentless self-aware violence. Morgan is all about being gross and graphic without ever paying tribute to the restraint of the original film. About the only thing he gets right is the plastic bag used to suffocate the victims but even that gets worn out about twenty minutes in. If suffocating his victims wasn’t enough, he then has his yellow skinned Billy, who looks like he belongs in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, chop off the heads of his victims and remove their eyeballs, which he then uses as ornaments on his Christmas tree. And we can’t forget the cannibalism that has been worked into just to make things more sick and twisted. There are only a few moments where Morgan applies the voyeuristic camera work that Clark used but when Morgan does it, it seems like it is just a laughable excuse to show one of his pretty actresses nude. He also can’t seem to leave the gratuitous sex scenes alone and he shoves one after another on us. One character watches a porn video on her computer while a flashback sequence shows Billy’s hideous mother and her boyfriend going to town on each other only to follow that up with her molesting Billy moments after. After a while, I just wanted it all to stop.
Then we have the atrocious acting, which unsurprisingly never rises about very average. Cassidy’s Kelli is absolutely awful as the main heroine, mostly because there is very little development with her character, which makes it very hard to root for her. She is just suddenly being terrorized and that is all there is to it. Hudson is a joke as Kyle, the meathead boyfriend of Kelli who walks around with an ominous smile plastered across his face for most of the movie. It’s like he is begging to be a suspect even though we know he isn’t the killer (He has yellow skin, you morons!). Cloke’s Leigh arrives late to this stabbathon looking for her half-sister, who bites the dust earlier in the film. She teams up with Kelli but both just run around screaming and making one stupid decision after another. The rest of the girls all blend in to the background, cliché characters designed to be hacked up in the most brutal ways possible. The only one that really stands out is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Heather. She’s the only scream queen here who really knows what she is doing and even she seems a little embarassed. As far as Mann’s Billy is concerned, he just darts around in the shadows and stares bug-eyed at his victims. He certainly doesn’t anything new or exciting with his character.
At a skimpy eighty minutes, Black Christmas 2006 feels entirely too long and too short at the same time. It seems to be dragging its feet in places, especially when the girls sit around and complain about Christmas or listen horrified at the story of Billy Lenz. Then there are the flashbacks that build Billy’s backstory, which are more interested in being repulsive than providing a good scare. There is a last act twist that we can see coming a mile away and when it hits, it seems to make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Probably the only thing that one can like in the film is the nifty little nod to Clark’s other holiday classic A Christmas Story. In one scene, we can clearly see the Old Man’s leg lamp glowing proudly in the darkness. Overall, Black Christmas 2006 is another throwaway remake for the MTV generation; the ones who just can’t seem to sit patiently and enjoy a good, clever scare. It has to be a strobe light of senseless gore, loud fake-out scares, and pretty faces to keep them occupied. I hope Santa delivers a lump of coal to Morgan for this rotten remake.
Black Christmas 2006 is available of Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you feel like taking a break from all the holiday cheer of the Christmas season, pop in director Bob Clark’s subtle and ominous Black Christmas. You won’t regret it. Well, maybe you will if you are watching it alone at night with nothing but a Christmas tree lit and no one else at home to keep you company. One of the more muted horror films of the 1970’s, Black Christmas is all about sounds, creaky halls, dimly lit bedrooms, faint holiday tunes emitting from radios, soft cinematography, heavy breathing, and some of the most abhorrent and creepy phone calls ever made. You will also find it hard to believe that the guy who made this also went on to make that other holiday classic A Christmas Story and the teen sex romp Porky’s. Miraculously never conforming to a typical slasher flick, mostly from the addition of the hard-boiled detective striving to solve the baffling disappearances, phone calls, and deaths taking place around a mostly deserted sorority. It’s a left of center choice to watch around the holidays because, lets face it, who really wants to get lost in a horror film during the most wonderful time of the year? Isn’t that what Halloween is for?
During a boozy Christmas party one evening, a strange man wanders around a sorority home, ascends a trellis, and climbs into the attic. Soon, a strange phone call interrupts the party and Barb (Played by Margot Kidder) grabs the phone to provoke the vulgar call. Turns out, this is not the first time this sorority has received an enigmatic call like this. The call is all heavy breaths, strange moans, and graphic threats aimed at the girls. This must all explain why the caller has earned himself the nickname “the moaner” amongst the girls. At first, we are lead to believe that this is one of the girl’s boyfriends pranking the skittish chicks but Clark plays this straight and it’s a little too effective when we learn that it’s for real. Soon, one of the girls, Clare (Played by Lynne Griffin), meets a truly grisly demise while she packs her bags to leave for a trip home. The next day, Clare’s uptight father Mr. Harrison (Played by James Edmond Jr.) arrives to take her home but her absence begins to frighten him. He goes to the sorority housemother Mrs. MacHenry (Played by Marian Waldman), Clare’s boyfriend Chris (Played by Art Hindle), and the pregnant and conflicted Jess (Played by Olivia Hussey) to help him locate his daughter. As they team up with the police and a dead body is discovered in a park near the sorority house, the eerie phone calls grow more disturbing and the body count begins to rise.
It’s really quite a shame that Bob Clark didn’t stay in the horror genre because this man is really on top of what makes a film scary. While Black Christmas has plenty of gore to spare (Not the type you’d find in Saw, mind you), mostly everything is oblique. A hook goes through one person’s head but it’s heard before we get a shadowy glimpse of it; another is stabbed do death with a phallic-looking crystal unicorn head. It’s a symbolic rape sequence that I’m sure impressed Hitchcock. Even the killer, Billy, is rarely shown, only once do we get to briefly see his face, but it is concealed with crafty shadows and one beam of light revealing a lone wild eye. We are consistently put in the killers POV, which is actually even more chilling than just seeing him lurk around the sorority house. I found myself filling in his thoughts, what he looked like, and constructing my own monster in my head. I also painted in the gore with my own imagination, with very little help from Clark. He doesn’t underestimate his audience and kudos for that!
Clark also makes glorious use of sound in this film, having the killer call the girls and make gargled sexual threats, perverted groans, and lisping whispers, efficiently making your skin crawl. The effective is enhanced by the juxtaposition of faint Christmas tunes calling in the background. The first time we actually see the girls get a call, the camera never cuts away from the girls. Instead, Clark slowly pans through the group of girls as they huddle around the phone and listen, repulsed by the sounds, their eyes conveying the hope that this is truly just a group of boys playing a prank. In all frankness, I hoped the first call was a prank too, just due the vulgarities uttered to the girls. The big reveal about the phone calls is carefully handled, a demented reveal that would give anyone home alone the willies.
Black Christmas offers up an abundance of rather complex characters for a slasher film. The heroine here, Jess, is pregnant and has decided on an abortion. She seems like a driven gal, one who refuses to be controlled by any dominating and controlling male force, especially her seemingly sophisticated but volatile boyfriend. She is with out a doubt a product of the Feminist Movement. She rejects pleas of marriage and shows more interest in furthering her education and career than dropping out and raising a child. The housemother Mrs. MacHenry is a sneaky alcoholic who apparently never married and the lush Barb seems to be following in her footsteps. She would rather have an independent love affair with a bottle than a man. Barb is also extremely off putting and direct, two traits that make her hard to root for. She has a shocking disinterest for figuring out what happened to her sorority sister and would rather crack open a can of beer than be bothered to really help anyone. The inclusion of Mr. Harrison as the old-fashioned conservative father was also a nice touch to all these empowered women. He is portrayed as a nerdy, timid, and stern man who needs these stronger women to lead him along.
Black Christmas was remade in 2006, but it made the inevitable mistake that all recent horror films do and tried to give everything a longwinded explanation, sucking all the fear out of the premise. In 1974, there is no explanation for why this is all occurring. Perhaps this is the film that inspired John Carpenter to unleash Michael Myers on the horror genre. It applies the same stationary camera shots of empty hallways, darkened bedrooms, and quite snowny neighborhoods where ordinary people live out their lives. Evil can be anywhere and strike at any moment. Even the police can meet grisly ends without a seconds notice. It has the same faceless killer who could very well be the boogieman. I also found myself drawn to the patient storytelling and the way Clark lets the terror unfold almost naturally. Maybe more prominent that we are willing to admit and an overlooked gift to horror, don’t be afraid to unwrap the gift of Black Christmas come the holiday season. It’s a gift that will keep on giving. Fear, that is.
by Steve Habrat
It is damn near impossible to find someone who loathes the idea of watching Bob Clark’s now classic A Christmas Story around Christmas. Unless you’re my mother, everyone else can’t get enough of young cherub-faced Ralphie’s epic quest to make sure there is a Red Ryder BB gun nestled underneath his family’s Christmas tree come the big day. For some odd reason my mother hates this film and I have never been able to figure out why. For me, I love watching it on Christmas Eve, but then again I am someone who falls head over heels for schmaltz. I remember watching this film as a kid and relating to it because who didn’t have that one gift that they were dying to find Christmas morning? The one where you anxiously tear off the paper, hands a bit shaky with anticipation, and then your eyes growing as big as saucers as you see the glorious treasure that was hidden behind Santa Clause stamped wrapping paper! It’s about the gift that makes you forget about every other gift that has your name written on it. But A Christmas Story ends up being about a little more than just getting that special gift. It’s about the trials and tribulations as a kid–swearing in front of your parents (Fudge!), getting beat up by older bullies, not paying attention in class, receiving average grades in school, dealing with siblings, etc. It touches on your father’s passive attitude about Christmas, your mother’s efforts to make sure it’s a cozy holiday with hearty food, the journey to meet Santa, and more! Even if you don’t watch it as a Christmas film, there is still something that can be cherished and reminiscent about your own childhood.
Set in 1940, in Hohman, Indiana (It was actually filmed in Cleveland, Ohio. My stomping grounds!), A Christmas Story follows young Ralphie Parker (Played by Peter Billingsley) and his adventures during the Christmas season. The film picks up with Ralphie seeing the Red Ryder BB gun in a storefront window and falling in love with rifle. He then launches a massive campaign to convince his parents, his stern mother (Played by Melinda Dillion) and his grumpy Old Man (Played by Darren McGavin) to get the gun for him for Christmas. Each attempt is met with “You’ll shoot your eye out” and disappointment for little old Ralph. But every door closed is another door opened and Ralphie takes advantage of every opportunity. Along with his little brother Randy (Played by Ian Petrella), the two Parker boys also face a terrifying visit with Santa, neighborhood bullies, a tongue getting frozen to a light post, embarrassing winter gear, flat tires, and their father’s prized lamp, all with hysterical results.
Director Clark approaches A Christmas Story with a dreamy haze that lingers through the entire movie, appearing as the flashback it is. The film is enthusiastically narrated and guided along by a much older Ralphie (Voiced by Jean Shepherd) and boy if that voice isn’t iconic now. This film is loaded with unforgettable moments, from the soap shoved into Raphie’s mouth after he drops the F-bomb to the tongue stuck to the light post that is both uproarious and pitiable. Who can forget that notorious lamp being delivered and the jubilant Old Man outside the house basking in the sensual glory? But there is also some beautiful shots in this film, from Ralphie peering out his bedroom window on to a snow covered lawn on Christmas morning, to one of the final shots of the Old Man and the mother sitting together on the couch, tree lit and watching the snow fall on to the front yard. These images look like they are ripped from 40’s Christmas cards. They are both vintage and modern, all in the same breath.
A Christmas Story wouldn’t be as popular if it wasn’t for those performances from all involved. Billingsley’s Ralphie is all starry-eyed innocence. A true product of the time he is growing up in. You can’t help but adore him. His brother Randy is a whiny little runt, one who is always pleading for the sympathy of Ralphie. Their mother is an incandescent woman, bursting with love and affection but stern when the chips are down. The Old Man is a gruff chap, one who comes down hard if the boys step out of line, but he has a heart of gold buried beneath all of his toughness. They all add up to be the face of a true old-fashioned family. There is also the rabid Scut Farcus (Played by Zack Ward) and Grover Dill (Played by Yano Anaya), the two nasties of the neighborhood. There is also the hilarious and creepy Santa Claus who bears down on children with intimidating and booming “HOOO! HOOO! HOOO!”s. He has the red nose and rosy cheeks, appearing almost too real at times.
There is a whimsical side to all the chaos in A Christmas Story, with knee-slapping fantasies that only a kid could come up with. Ralphie fantasizes that he returns to his parent’s home and has been stricken blind. Another fantasy finds him as a gun-toting cowboy picking off stereotypical black and white stripe clad burglars. As they “die” they wear black Xs over their eyes. The Wizard of Oz characters consistently pop up too, adding a much desired and achieved eeriness. Yet A Christmas Story finds the quirks in real life too. Ralphie is forced to wear an atrocious pink rabbit suit. A trio of Chinese waiters sing Christmas carols and mispronounce the “fa-la-la-la-la” parts. A bowling ball is dropped on the Old Man’s groin, sending his voice through the roof. According to Clark, the world itself and everything that happens around us is outlandish with a touch of cartoonish.
If you find yourself as one of the only people on the face of the earth who has never seen A Christmas Story, do yourself a favor and see it immediately. It has become a Holiday tradition for it to play continuously on television networks on Christmas day. My ritual, if I am able to, is to watch it on Christmas Eve, as it always really helps you get into the spirit of Christmas. In my eyes, it stands next to classics like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s A Wonderful Life (One of my all-time favorite films), The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Christmas Vacation. Perhaps my adoration of this film stems from the fact that it was filmed in the area which I hail from. Either way, the film remains a tradition every year, allowing those who see it to take a break from relentless shopping, wrapping, cooking, and decorating to reminisce about what Christmas looked like as a kid. Reminisce about a time when life was so much simpler. I think that many new viewers are not as hip to the film as many older viewers are, but the film still lives on. It lives on and replays just like our fondest Christmas memories.
A Christmas Story is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.