Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sometimes They Come Back: Black Christmas

On as much of a regular basis as can be expected, I'll look at genre films, primarily horror, that have been remade in a reoccurring segment called "Somtimes They Come Back." Discerning horror fans will recognize the title from the mildly amusing short story in Stephen King's Night Shift, which was turned into a film in its own right and spawned two very ill-advised sequels.

Anyway, in this first installement I want to look at Black Christmas, which opened on Christmas day to some small hoopla by religiously minded folks.

Knowing I'd be venturing out to see the new film, I purchased the original version a couple of months back. I was only vaguely familiar with it at the time, but learned a couple of surprising bits of trivia. First, it was directed by Bob Clark, who helmed another, slightly less terrifying holiday film: A Christmas Story. Amazingly, Clark was also behind Porky's 1 and 2, and more recently, Baby Geniuses 1 and 2. What a career!

The original film, made in 1974, also carries the mantle of progenitor of the slasher sub-genre. I realize that choosing any film as the first is silly (sure there's half a dozen films that could lay claim to the lineage, and Peeping Tom and Psycho are both significantly older), but I, like a lot of people I would guess, took for granted that Halloween was the first slasher, and Black Christmas, which predates Carpenter's film by four whole years, clearly demonstrates that that is just not the case. Let's just call Halloween the classic slasher and move on.

So, while not tremendously highly regarded, the original film had a lot going for it. What I found particularly interesting when watching the film were is all the elements, both syntactic and semantic, that were intact by 1974. I won't waste time listing each here, this isn't an academic paper, but it is important to note that Clark at least appeared to know what he was doing from a genre standpoint. Just as interesting were the elements that didn't function as well. Black Christmas doesn't operate with the same sexual politics as later films, and thus the whole "final girl" convention is sort of wasted. It should be noted that Jess does survive to the film's conclusion, but she certainly does little if anything to thwart the killer, and in fact, mistakenly suspects her boyfriend and adds him to the body count herself. We never see her confront the killer, revealed only in the film's cryptic ending to be named Billy.

Thirty-two years separate this original from this season's remake, and what the 1974 film does with sublety, the 2006 edition does balls out and with tongue thoroughly planted in cheek. The basic elements of setting remain virtually untouched: giant sorority house; day before Christmas; suburban, wooded surroundings. Many of the plot elements remain as well. The characters in the 2006 version are influenced heavily by the original (the sassy, drunk sister; the naive Southern belle; the goofy house mother; etc.), and their order of demise holds relatively true to the source.

It should be noted that Black Christmas represents the sophomore effort for director Glen Morgan, whose previous feature work was itself a remake, the 2003 version of Willard starring Crispin Glover. Morgan's no rookie though, having cut his teeth primarily in TV, on two cult programs, The X-Files and Millenium, as a writer and producer.

In most of the ways that count however, the 2006 film looks and feels nothing like its predecessor. The most omnipresent of the changes stem from Morgan's decision (he also penned the film) to flesh out the character of "the killer." As mentioned above, Clark's original gives us virtually no information about the entity perpetrating the slayings. We get a first person shot of his ascent into the attic, one we see repeated in this year's version, but otherwise Clark tells us nothing of the killer's character or motive.

Morgan, however, puts the villian front and center, even going so far as to treat us to a genesis story that intertwines with our own narrative. This has been a strong trend in many of these remakes, opting for more explanation rather than less. Quint mentions this in his discussion of Rob Zombie's Halloween remake over at Ain't It Cool, but Black Christmas really might be the most egregious offender.

Billy, the film's Michael Myers stand in, grew up locked in an attic, unloved and virtually uncared for. There's some incest (of a particularly nasty variety I might add), there's some matricide, and finally Billy is taken away to the hospital for the criminally insane. Here's the shocker though, the house where Billy grew up, is the same house occupied by the delicious ladies of Delta Alpha Kappa! The sorority even embraces the killer's legend by wrapping a gift for him under the tree.

Horror, as a genre, is not usually about story. That is to say, that when we're watching a horror flick we're not asking questions like, "Hey, wasn't that the guy who said that thing about the other guy?" or even "Why is he stabbing all those people?" Horror is about a lot of things, but it's not usually about story. That being said, there's obviously a bare minumum of story that is necessary to carry the action, and more importantly, highlight the themes. We can't just have random murder and mayhem, well, we could, but that's a whole different argument.

What I'm trying to get at here is that the two Black Christmases are really at two ends of a spectrum within the genre of slasher horror. On one end we have the original, which is so bare bones that we are given next to no information about the killer. He likes the attic, and seems pretty indescriminate in his task, but, unless I'm mistaken, he's never even revealed to us as anything other than a disembodied hand or perhaps a lurking shadow.

On the other end of our spectrum is Morgan's film, which by comparison would seem a hulking mess of a film. We're literally treated to so much information about Billy, our psychotic antagonist, that we really don't know what to make of all the details. His mother hated him. She killed his father. He fathered his own sister, Agnes (who is mentioned in the original's cryptic ending). All this is before he digs out his sister's eye and eats it, chops up his mother and step-father and makes cookies out of them. I hope I'm making myself clear. This is all backstory. Backstory: that which comes before the story. While amusing and mildly entertaining, this amount of plot pulls the whole film into a swirling vat of molasses.

To be fair, Morgan's direction is adequate enough that my attention never really waned, but Jesus, he was challenging me. My point is that while the original left a lot on the table in terms of plot, leaving the viewer feeling somewhat shafted in the genre pleasure department, the new film tried to give us so much of this genre pleasure that we just felt full and sort of bloated.

This is where films like Halloween, Friday the 13th and even Scream work on a level unto themselves. The plot is nothing more than a dressing that the filmmaker can use to play through the slasher's conventions. We, the film viewers, know and expect this (well, they probably didn't expect it with the first Black Christmas as audiences probably weren't that versed in the genre themselves).

We don't need to know every slight and every wrong that turned Billy into the mess of human he has become. If anything, this information only serves to demystify the monster, to pull the curtain back on the proverbial Wizard. Looking back, Clark really didn't give us enough to work with. On the other hand, Morgan gave us enough for a whole slew of films. The sad part is that somewhere in between the two Black Christmases is a really terrific movie.

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