[Discovering] Black Christmas: The Film Series
Christmas may have been and passed but there is still time to consume some iconic Holiday Horror, and with the recent on-demand release of Black Christmas 2019 it just made sense to dive into this Festive Film Series.
The Black Christmas series began in 1974 with the original film being one of the first slasher films that paved the way for many of the amazing franchises that came after it. Inspired by the urban legend ‘The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs’, which also inspired the 1979 film When a Stranger Calls, this was one of the first films to give us the iconic trope of ‘the call is coming from inside the house’. Since then it has had two reimaginings, the 2006 remake Black Xmas (retitled because, you know, it’s the 00’s.) that delves into the background of the mysterious Billy from the original film, and the 2019 remake Black Christmas that focuses more on a supernatural element than a typical slasher plot.
The three films are pretty different overall and some of them feel connected only in name, but each offers their own insight into the context or styles of the time they were created in and adds something (be it good or bad) to the original idea. After a rewatch it felt only right to review the three Black Christmas films and close out December with a creaking slam.
Black Christmas (1974)
A badass group of sorority sisters and their brilliant functioning alcoholic house mother begin to get harassed by seedy phone calls from an unknown male. It’s winter break and they believe that a serial killer is on the loose outside so the best plan is to bunker down inside and keep each other safe. Little do they know that’s the worst place for them to be.
With a stacked cast including Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and John Saxon it’s no wonder that this film manages to bring the drama and the scares with excellent execution. As the night progresses each character is picked off one by one with kills that are intense and beautifully shot, particularly the iconic glass unicorn death that lives on in infamy. The POV shots from the killer and the mysterious phone calls, which are intensely creepy and really set the bar for any other portrayal of phone harassment, keep the tension high whilst not revealing anything about this monster lurking in their midst. Honestly, this is such a well shot film that it surprises me it wasn’t appreciated on release the way that it is now.
Considering the time this film came out it is a groundbreaking horror that introduced a lot of the tropes of modern slasher films and was incredibly forward in its feminist portrayals. The women in this film have agency and deal with real problems in subplots that drive the main plot. In the wake of the Roe vs Wade case the year prior it was very topical for lead character Jess to be dealing with an unwanted pregnancy and discussing abortion with a reluctant partner who is expertly posed as the potential threat in the film. Each of these women is imbued with their own personality and don’t comply with the stereotypes that would be shaped later in the genre of virginal final girls and sex obsessed/drunken first victims. Even the house mother Mrs Mac is her own woman with secret supplies of alcohol hidden around the house and a penchant for hilarious foul language.
When compared to modern slashers this 70’s classic still holds its own with some creative festive kills, well rounded characters and an ominous ending. It’s a chilling cult classic for a reason.
Black Xmas (2006)
It’s Christmas Eve, a time when not even a mouse should be stirring and everyone should be getting ready for a visit from Father Christmas. However, in this horror remake it’s not a jolly fat guy entering the house, it’s an escaped mental asylum patient who returns to his childhood home which now acts as a sorority house for an unsuspecting group of sorority sisters. Hounded with eerie phone calls the girls begin disappearing one by one.
Based loosely on the original story this remake brings the original mysterious killer, Billy, to the forefront of events. We’re back into the sorority house and following a new group of sisters. It’s a little hard to tell if this is a remake or a sequel or some weird thing in between. With a heap of flashbacks it takes away the mystery of the slasher killer and gives us an icky backstory that manages to creep me out and have me shaking my head in equal measure.
The characters are mean throughout with very few being redeemable or sympathetic which makes it hard to care when they are ultimately murdered, usually in a gruesome manner with buckets of blood and some form of eye removal. The subtle tension of the original is replaced with cannibalism, incest and weird editing and colour design. The weirdest choice was having Billy look like That Yellow Bastard from the Sin City film. There are plenty of references to the original, which is actually quite detrimental in reminding us how good the first film was and how messed up this one is. It may not hold a candle to the original, but it has gone down in history for its production issues, controversy and its completely mean spirited style.
I hold a strange and disturbing soft spot for this remake, mostly because it came out as I was discovering, and growing more fond of and less afraid of, the horror genre. On rewatch I worry about my younger self because this is one gory, fucked up and disturbing movie that splashes the original with 00’s Torture Porn vibes and some disgusting family history storylines. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure watch that holds up on nostalgia more than its own merit.
Black Christmas (2019)
At Hawthorne College it’s time for winter break. Riley and her sorority sisters are decking the halls and preparing for their Christmas vacations when they begin receiving ominous and threatening DM’s from a mysterious account and being stalked by a hooded figure. After being attacked the girls must band together and fight for their lives against this cultish group.
There are some strong moments in this remake. Imogen Poots is fantastic as Riley and brings great characterisation to our strong lead who is dealing with her past sexual assault and what that means for her and her ‘responsibility’ to the women around her. The sorority girls are interesting and played differently with unique personalities, all set up nicely in the opening act. The sisters revenge song in the frat house is catchy as hell and has been on loop in my head since watching the film, it’s one of the great moments that hits the message wanted, standing up as women and fighting back against toxic masculinity and rape culture.
Unfortunately, once the attacks and the ‘horror’ kicks in the film descends in quality. The kills are cut away from quickly and it falls into heavy exposition. It also introduces a supernatural element which is messy and, in my opinion, takes away from the agency of the villains of the piece which seems to go against the messages. This is where the film loses me and it just doesn’t manage to pull me back.
I have absolutely no doubts that the best of intentions were behind this film, similar to Blumhouse’s sequel to The Craft released earlier this year, the message is one that needs exploring and aiming at a younger generation of women. Unfortunately, it lacks some of what the original brings, being stifled by its PG-13 rating and it’s fast production time. It lacks scares or suspense and becomes a half-baked social commentary rather than a well created film with socio political and gender messaging. Despite being lost in its own ideas there is a good story, and good intentions underneath this film which, with more support and better marketing, could have been a success.