Cinema Psycho

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Archive for December, 2006

Black Christmas

Posted by CinemaPsycho on December 29, 2006

Directed and written by Glen Morgan/based on the original screenplay by Roy Moore/starring Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lacey Chabert, Kristen Cloke, Andrea Martin/MGM – Dimension Films – 2929 Productions

“On the first day of Christmas, the Weinsteins gave to me/a lump of coal in my stocking…”

Oh, when will I learn to stay away from Dimension films that aren’t directed by Tarantino or Rodriguez? Am I just a glutton for punishment? Is there something seriously wrong with me (don’t answer that) that I haven’t resolved to give up on the Weinsteins by now? It’s bad enough that Harvey Scissorhands has to buy up every good foreign film and cut the shit out of them. His brother Bob also has to make tons of crappy horror films, hack them to pieces and sell them to people with no taste (like myself, apparently). I can count off the few genuinely excellent Dimension horror films on one hand: From Dusk Till Dawn, The Crow, Scream, The Others, Darkness. Beyond that, their output is mostly low-budget, retarded crap. On the rare occasion that they make something decent, like Below or Equilibrium, they make every effort to bury it completely, I guess so that stupid people won’t be exposed to quality genre filmmaking. We wouldn’t want the masses to expect these films to be consistently good, now would we?

As much as people slammed Dimension’s Pulse remake, at least it tried to do something different from the studio’s usual crap. My God, if you thought that was bad, wait until you see this piece of shit! If The Hills Have Eyes remake represents the best of what a ‘70’s horror remake can be in the right hands (at least in my opinion), Black Christmas is the exact opposite: this is a remake that takes the low road at every opportunity, makes every single mistake humanly possible, and manages to defecate all over everything that made the original great. It is a worthless piece of garbage, and I honestly hated myself for paying to sit through it. If you have any taste whatsoever, so will you.

But let’s start at the beginning: there once was a jolly old elf named Bob Clark. He’s now best known by ‘80’s film lovers for bringing us the beloved “classic” Porky’s (the film that apparently introduced a whole generation of kids to the concept of sex, or so the hype at the time would have you believe) as well as its unnecessary sequel, Porky’s II: The Next Day. He’s also the man who gave us a genuinely beloved classic, A Christmas Story, which introduced a whole generation of kids to Red Ryder BB guns and leg lamps. Since then, he’s mostly made a lot of really bad films that aren’t worth discussion, culminating in the hideously terrible Karate Dog. The less said about that the better, except that it’s a film about a dog that knows karate. How did they manage to screw up such a brilliant concept? I’ll never understand it.

Anyway, this very same Bob Clark started out in Canada making low-budget horror films in the early ‘70’s. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know this. In 1974, he made his third and final horror film, the original Black Christmas. It was only a few years ago that I saw it for the first time, and it quickly became one of my favorite horror films. It’s a remarkably subtle, tense piece of work that gets under your skin and messes with your head, which is something that most horror films have forgotten how to do. It was also the very first real slasher film (aside from the Italian giallo films, of course), coming a good four years before Halloween, which most people credit with starting the slasher craze of the late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s. It’s kind of incredible that this was made by the same person who went on to do Porky’s II, Baby Geniuses 2 and Karate Dog, but there you have it. I don’t know why he never made another horror film, but it’s possible that Clark decided that he couldn’t improve on perfection.

The plot of the original Black Christmas is deceptively simple: a group of sorority sisters are terrorized and murdered by a psychopath. Yeah, we’ve seen that a billion times, but Clark was the first to do it. And it’s the way he did it that was so interesting. Most of these films pretty much followed the same formulas, but when this was made there was no formula to follow. The killer, “Billy” is never really properly identified by anyone, he’s never given a backstory and never even caught! At the end of the film, Billy is still in the house, and another person is taking the rap for his crimes. This has been known to frustrate some people, who are used to having everything neatly wrapped up at the end of a movie, but to me the fact that he’s still there just makes it all the more disturbing. BC was also the first movie to do the “crank phone calls coming from inside the house” thing (later ripped off by When a Stranger Calls) and Billy’s bizarre phone calls to the girls are genuinely fucking creepy. Half the time you can’t even make out what he’s saying, and when you can, you wish you couldn’t. The movie isn’t exactly a gorefest, but it’s just edgy enough to be really jarring and nerve-jangling. It still holds up, ‘cause it works.

And yes, there’s the whole Christmas backdrop to the murders, as the entire film takes place over Christmas break, when the campus is mostly abandoned. But Clark doesn’t really abuse that concept too heinously, unlike later Xmas-themed horror films that had guys in Santa Claus suits running around chopping people up with axes. That’s not cool in my book, Santa’s a children’s icon for fuck’s sake. But there’s no reason to be offended by the original film on those grounds. It’s not that kind of movie.

The remake, brought to us by the splatter-happy Final Destination guys, pretty much throws the subtlety and style of the original out the window. That doesn’t surprise me – I pretty much expected that. Comes with the territory. What I wasn’t prepared for was how artless and sloppy their approach turned out to be. At every point, Morgan and producer James Wong go for the most obvious, ridiculous, boneheaded choices – almost as if they never even saw the original movie at all and just decided to make a stupid movie based on the concept. Where Clark was apparently inspired by the classy likes of Mario Bava, Morgan and Wong seem content to simply ape the countless cheap knockoffs that came years after the original film. The result is just like every other bad slasher movie you’ve ever seen, but worse, because these guys should be smart enough to know better.

Let’s put it this way: if your idea of great one-liners includes the likes of “Fuck you, Santa Claus” and “Merry Christmas, motherfucker” then you just might be retarded enough to enjoy this movie.

The basic setup is pretty much the same: sorority sisters stranded over Xmas break get terrorized and murdered by a psychotic killer. The house even looks similar to the one used in the original. But the film is different, and worse, in just about every way possible. The worst decision was not only to give Billy a backstory, but also to explain that backstory in seemingly endless flashbacks that are horribly acted and directed. This is symptomatic of what’s wrong with horror in general these days: let’s explain everything, even stuff that doesn’t really need to be explained, in excruciating detail to make sure every idiot in the audience gets it. Forget about giving the villain a sense of mystery in order to, I don’t know, make him scary to the audience. Morgan and Wong want to make sure you know exactly how disturbed and fucked-up Billy is, which results in us not finding him the least bit scary once he finally appears. Scenes of Billy in the sanitarium are apparently meant to build up a sense of fear, but instead they help to dissipate any tension the film might have. We know who the killer is, we know where he is, where he’s going and what he’s capable of doing. Where the original film left some doubt as to who the killer actually was until the end (is it Billy? Is it the unstable pianist Peter? Maybe it’s one of the girls?), the remake removes any mystery by turning Billy into a second-rate Michael Myers and setting him loose.

That’s another thing: why the fucking hell would anyone turn a serial killer’s house into a sorority house anyway? Especially when the killer’s still alive! Why didn’t they just raze the place and build a shopping center on the land? Just once I’d like to see an escaped killer come back to his old house and find out it’s been turned into a Jiffy Lube.

Anyway, Billy comes back to do his thing, and he starts off with the prank phone calls, which aren’t disturbing at all and are actually kind of silly. It’s no wonder the girls don’t take the guy seriously. The housemother (Andrea Martin, who played the shy Phyllis in the original) tells them the story of Billy and how she leaves a present for him under the tree every year. Why anyone in their right mind would leave a present for an imprisoned psycho killer is beyond me, but I guess this is supposed to show us that she’s eccentric. One of the girls’ boyfriends is a townie who also knows and tells the story of Billy, but there are some glaring inconsistencies in the two different versions. They can’t even be bothered to keep the fucking backstory straight, for as much time as they spend on it.

So, needless to say, the girls start getting picked off one by one. Not that we particularly care, because this group of young hotties must be the most spoiled, rotten, annoying bunch of little bitches ever assembled in one film. OK, the girls in the original weren’t always the most sympathetic (particularly the Margot Kidder character), but at least they were interesting and believable people. These chicks are just evil little cunts, and we don’t have any vested interest in whether they live or die. If this is Morgan’s idea of a joke, it’s one that leaves us not caring about anything that happens. Since the film is more interested in killing off its characters left and right in gruesome ways than in actual character development, we don’t really get to know any of them in anything but the most superficial ways, and we just wait for them to get knocked off so we can go home. And in case you’re wondering, we only get to see one of them naked (apparently the only one who’s not famous enough to have a no-nudity clause) and it’s the same girl who spends most of her screen time drunk and vomiting. Enjoy?

This all leads of course to the big finale, where the “Final Girl” faces off against the killer. The one interesting thing about the movie was that the “Final Girl” wasn’t who I expected it to be – but it really doesn’t matter, since they’re all pretty much interchangeable anyway. I didn’t know most of their names, and at one point when someone goes outside looking for someone else and yelling, “Dana? Dana?” I was like, “who the fuck is Dana?” That’s how much the movie cares about these girls, and how much it makes us care in turn. Anyway, there are actually two big finales, and they’re both pretty terrible, overblown and ridiculous. One happens at the sorority house, and the second happens at the hospital where the FG is being treated. They both suck, but the first one would have been more than enough. Of course the killer has to be pretty much indestructible and unkillable, because it just wouldn’t be a horror movie if the psycho killer didn’t seemingly come back from the dead. Sigh… and of course the Final Girl has to somehow turn into an unstoppable heroine, because that’s the way horror movies have to end these days. Whatever, dude. Give me the fragile beauty of Olivia Hussey any day.

I sometimes wonder how well-known young actresses wind up in these movies. Do their agents contact them and say, “there’s an offer for you to appear as a spoiled little bitch in a remake. Get this – the killer slices your face off with an ice skate!” How exactly is that appealing to an actress these days? I can understand an unknown doing it – everybody has to start somewhere. But Jesus man, how do you get girls like Trachtenberg and Chabert to do this stuff? It’s not like they have really interesting characters to play. I mean, it’s not like they’d normally be doing Chekov plays, but come on. Surely they must have something better to do. Even hardcore porn is more dignified than this.

OK, I’m about to get into spoiler territory here. You really shouldn’t see this movie anyway, so you shouldn’t care, but if you do, I’m warning you now:

SPOILERS

OK, so there turns out to be two killers (which I guess is supposed to be novel, except that Scream already did it). There’s Billy, of course, and his long-lost sister/daughter (don’t ask) Agnes, who we are introduced to in flashbacks. Now, we see Billy escape from the sanitarium, so we know where he came from. But where the fuck did Agnes come from? We’re told that no one ever saw her again after the night Billy went psycho 15 years ago. So how exactly did Billy find her? Was she living in the attic the whole time? And if so, why? She wasn’t abused the way Billy was – why didn’t she just get on with her life? Why would she become a psycho killer, except for the fact that she looks like the old lady from Throw Momma From the Train? None of this shit makes any damn sense. I mean, the original doesn’t make sense either (how does someone live in an attic for 30 years and no one knows it? Where do they get their food?) but at least it’s creepy enough that you don’t care. If they bothered to come up with an explanation, that would be one thing, but Agnes just kinda shows up at the end. And then Final Girl says in the hospital, “we’ll never know how long they were in the attic”. Um, excuse me, Billy was in the sanitarium for 15 years. They took great pains to establish that fact. Can’t Morgan and Wong even be bothered to get their story straight? Never mind the fact that Billy and Agnes are the two least frightening killers in the history of horror movies. They look like they couldn’t terrorize an old folks’ home. Give me a break.

Final Girl is Katie Cassidy, who’s apparently making a career out of ‘70’s horror remakes after When a Stranger Calls and now this. And the director’s wife is in it too. I can understand why, ‘cause she’s kinda hot. You gotta lock that up. Or maybe she demanded to be on set so he wouldn’t try to mess around with all the young hotties.

END SPOILERS

I could go on and on about how horribly stupid this movie is. It’s possible that the Weinsteins interfered with the making in some way (as they always do), but I honestly can’t see how this could have been good under any circumstances. It’s not just that the remake doesn’t live up to the original – it doesn’t work according to its own standards either. It’s not outrageous enough to be an enjoyable splatterfest, nor is it interesting enough to work as a serious horror film. It’s just someone’s idea of a sick joke, and one that’s badly told and rather pointless. Worst of all, it’s boring as all hell in addition to being completely retarded. It’s not funny, it’s not fun and it’s certainly not scary or disturbing in any way. It’s just dumb and clichéd and idiotic. When people talk about “what’s wrong with horror movies these days”, this is exactly the kind of movie they’re talking about. Christ, even the Fog remake wasn’t this awful. And coming from someone who absolutely despised that piece of crap, that’s a bold statement.

Having said all that, I can see where an audience full of dumb teenagers who have never seen a horror movie before might possibly find this enjoyable on a purely primal level. But that’s like saying that an audience of 5-year-olds would enjoy Garfield 2. They also enjoy looking at shiny objects. I would hope that’s not the standard we’re going by. For the rest of us, we’ve seen this all before and we’ve seen it done a lot better. If you have any affection at all for the original, you will hate yourself for paying to see this. I honestly can’t think of a worse movie I’ve seen in a theater this year. In fact, I recently had the worst case of the flu I’ve ever had in my entire life, complete with every awful symptom you can imagine. Black Christmas isn’t as bad as that, but it comes in second.

* 12/29/06

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