Black Christmas (all three versions)

Black Christmas is a 1974 classic slasher film that has been remade twice. These three movies could not be more different. They share a location and a title, and that’s about it. We’re going to compare all three in this old vs new vs… newer.

We’ll take them each one at a time then do a thorough comparison followed by a deep dive into spoiler territory.

The original Black Christmas was released in 1974 and was directed by Bob Clark. Bob Clark has an extremely eclectic filmography, but he’s probably best known for directing A Christmas Story. Yes, the movie with the BB gun that plays for 24 hours every year. The man who made that nice little Christmas movie also made this long walk into murder, suspicion, and terror. The story follows a sorority during the last days before Christmas break. They keep receiving obscene phone calls from an unknown caller. Meanwhile, Jess, played by Olivia Hussey, is having problems with her boyfriend Peter, played by Keir Dullea. Back at the sorority house the sisters are getting killed off one at a time by an unseen assailant.

The camera takes on the perspective of the assailant. This point of view shot serves to make the horror more intense as we the viewer seem to be the perpetrator. It also obscures the identity of the killer. Anyone could be this madman. He has no mask, and no modus operandi. This is Jason with his hockey mask and machete. He is an anonymous evil force that could be anyone. At various points in the movie it appears as though different characters could be the killer chief among the suspects is Peter who has a short temper and is clearly wound tight. There’s a deeply unsettling scene where he smashes a piano in a fit of rage. The film also does a nice job of building tension before the kills. It’s not about the murders it’s about the anticipation. The whole film is permeated by a sense of unease as anyone could be the killer and anyone could be next.

The first remake was released in 2006. This movie begins with the story of Billy Lenz a boy with a severely traumatizing backstory involving abuse, murder, and cannibalism. He was locked up for 15 years, until one Christmas he breaks out of the asylum and heads back to his old family house which is now a sorority house. The girls in the sorority are preparing for Christmas break when they begin receiving obscene messages and phone calls, and begin getting killed off one by one in extremely gruesome fashion.

The first difference is obvious. The killer’s identity is known from the beginning. His horrid backstory is laid out in excruciating detail. His motivations are clear. This is an interesting decision. It takes away the mystery and suspense the first film generated. It also doubles or even triples the body count of the first film. More backstory, more blood. Less build up. Less tension. The film is highly stylized. It has over saturated colors and is shot in the kind of style most early 200’s films were shot in here every frame is played for maximum impact. It feels at times like the director is a first timer and is throwing everything at the wall in the hopes that he’ll get noticed. The kills here are played for splatter entertainment and as such are over the top in the blood and guts department.

The final version was released in 2019 and stars Imogen Poots as Riley, a sorority sister who is trying to get her life back to normal after a sexual assault that occurred the previous year by the head of a fraternity. No one believed her except her sorority sisters and this year they get a little payback in the form of a Christmas talent show performance calling out the accused rapist. That night, they begin receiving obscene texts and messages from an unknown person. They are then attacked by multiple assailants dressed in matching black outfits. The sorority sisters must band together to fight back.

This one has some serious potential, not in the least because it stars Imogen Poots. She is an incredibly talented English actress who has been turning in wonderful performances under the radar for years now. She imbues her character with the shaky uncertainty of someone barely holding themselves together. She has these big eyes that communicate so much with every look. She’s great. The movie’s subject matter is also a very interesting topic that fits in with the setting of the story. A sorority attacked by a murderer is a prime metaphor for what is happening on college campuses all over the country. It is also a nice change up for the slasher genre. Young women have always been the target of slashers, but here that attack is extrapolated upon and made a broader theme. The problem is with the execution. Aside from one or two good jumps, this one is lacking the tension and fear of the first film, and due to its PG-13 rating it lacks the gore and splatter fun of the remake. There is also a twist at the end that neuters its theme and any potential message.

Now, let’s get into the spoilers. The identity of the killer is never revealed. Jess believes that it is Peter when he shows up at the house. He is killed, and everything seems to be okay. Then the phone rings again and the killer is still out there. The terror isn’t over. This film has such a well developed sense of dread and unease. It instills that sense of mistrust and suspicion in the viewer through its story telling and camera work. It’s a film that will stay with you long after the credits roll.

Compare that to the 2006 film in which all ambiguity is replaced by hard facts and specific details. It followed he trend of the early 2000’s which was to over explain icons. This information however, just makes the villain cartoonish and makes him less scary. He isn’t an evil voice on the phone who could attack anyone anywhere. He is a specific guy with a specific backstory. This film also falls prey to the greatest error of slasher films. As soon as the tiny teenage girl knocks him down he is no longer scary. Jason gets pushed over. Freddy trips and falls. As soon as these monsters can be taken out by an untied shoe or a good hard shove, they lose all creditability as agents of fear. How could I be afraid of someone who can be defeated so easily? This killer is just a killer. This movie is just a generic slasher with the name Black Christmas attached.

The most modern remake really could have been something special. The subject matter makes for a really compelling first half. As Riley deals with her trauma and begins coming out of her shell the movie takes its time and gives us a compelling human story which the first two versions don’t have. The movie is definitely the least scary. It opens with a stalking sequence that works really well. A girl is stalked on her way home. She prepares her keys to fight back. There is a false attacker. She relaxes and that’s when things go wrong. It’s a pretty good segment. It’s the only good one though. For the most part this movie plays like an action movie not a horror movie. These girls fight back and there are a lot of sort of forced girl power moments that don’t exactly ring true. The biggest problem I have is the ending.

The girls are being attacked by a fraternity. This fraternity uses black magic to drink a black goo that transforms them into killing machines. It also possesses anyone who drinks with the spirit of an ancient evil dude who hated women. This takes the blame away from the guys. They weren’t bad guys. They were just possessed by an evil spirit. There aren’t real problems with sexual assault on campus. These guys were just mind controlled. It diminishes the message the movie is trying to send. It also makes it way less scary. There is a whole fraternity of guys to get killed by the super sorority. One killer is scary, a bunch of killers is just canon fodder. It’s really unfortunate that they went this route. Don’t include the supernatural. If the movie is about men attacking women, depict men attacking women. Don’t let them off the hook with supernatural silliness.

The first Black Christmas is the best overall. It has the strongest impact. It is the most frightening and unsettling. It makes classic Christmas carols feel scary. The second has a really strong stylistic quality, and lots of blood. If that’s your thing, the 2006 version is the one for you. The third has the strongest lead performance and the beginnings of a really great story, but it falls apart in the finale. It’s also the least scary of them all.

Each one brings something to the table. These movies don’t have the same problem as the Omen and its remake where they just made the same movie but worse. These films try new things and take the set up in a variety of directions. They don’t necessarily work, but they are interesting to watch.

The original is my cup of tea. The 2006 isn’t really my cup of tea. The 2019 also isn’t really my cup of tea although I wish it was. I wish it was better. Original – A-, 2006 – C+, 2019 – B-

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