Yet another in the stream of remakes of horror pictures from the seventies and eighties, Glen Morgan’s “Black Christmas” is a rehash of the 1974 yuletide sorority-house slasher flick from Bob Clark (auteur of not only “Porky’s” but also “A Christmas Story”), which predated John Carpenter’s “Halloween” by four years but didn’t initiate the exploitation-flick explosion the later film would. The original was basically just a simpleminded tale of a passel of college coeds stalked by a psychopath holed up in the attic of their sorority house; their failure to notice the disappearance of their fellows could be explained—insofar as plausibility is required in this sort of picture—by the fact that, since the action is set over the holiday, most of the girls have left on vacation and the rest aren’t on any particular schedule.
The new version actually simplifies what was already a threadbare formula while supposedly modernizing it with the occasional addition of a laptop computer and cell phones. A gaggle of catty sorority sisters and their house matron are gathering around the tree on Christmas Eve to exchange gifts in the midst of a blinding blizzard. The only outsiders to intrude upon their isolation are the older sister of one of them and the unfaithful boyfriend of another. Unfortunately, the girls are already being attacked and slaughtered by a killer on the top floor of the creaking old house by the time these two show up.
The explanation for the mayhem is presented is a series of flashbacks early on, dating between 1970 and the nineties, where we’re shown the unhappy life of a boy who once lived in the house and was institutionalized after killing his mother and stepfather and injuring his younger sister (who also happened to be his daughter, more’s the shame) by stabbing out one of her eyes. We’re also shown that fellow escaping his confinement on Christmas Eve—but only, unless the picture is toying with chronology, after the violence has started up at the house where he’s headed.
As for the sorority girls themselves, some have blonde hair and others dark, but none of them appear, despite their university education, to have brains. They spend most of their time alternately bickering and putting themselves into isolated situations in which to be easily picked off. Writer-director Morgan is unable to generate any suspense via the endless stalking through hallways and snowbound yards, and the periodic would-be shocks—complete with plastic bags over heads, gouging, and ample spurts of blood—fail utterly to be frightening. It’s all incredibly rote and remarkably dull. And the protracted revelation of the perpetrator, as well as a ridiculous series of climaxes both at the house and later in a hospital, seem to go on forever, despite the fact that the whole thing lasts barely eighty minutes.
The only way in which “Black Christmas” succeeds is on the technical level—not because it’s remotely attractive to look at, but because its chintzy production (complete with outdoor scenes featuring obviously phony snow and characters whose breath never shows though the temperature is purportedly sub-freezing) and bland cinematography actually make it feel like a shabby B-movie from the 1970s, which—one hopes—was the intention. The music score is equally nondescript, and if he were alive Tchaikovsky would have grounds of complaint at the overuse of his “Nutcracker” music, which recurs often enough to drive anybody mad.
It’s hard to believe, but this remake is even worse that the recent resurrection of “When a Stranger Calls,” which at least boasted an imaginative—if thoroughly impractical—physical design. It’s dank, stupid and—the most unpardonable of sins—extraordinarily tedious. And the acting is terrible across the board, though Karin Konoval, as the psycho’s evil-tempered mother, surely takes the holiday fruitcake; one would hope that her over-the-top, “Baby Jane”-style shtick was intended to be funny, but such seems not to be the case.
One point of historical interest: Andrea Martin, of “SCTV” fame, was one of the sorority girls in the 1974 version of “Black Christmas,” and she reappears in this one, though she’s graduated to the role of house mother Mrs. Mac (originally played by Marian Waldman). One might once have said that it’s always good to see her again, but after this that’s no longer the case. And although you might be fooled into thinking that Margot Kidder, who was also in the original, plays Leigh, that older sister who shows up in the middle of the night, it’s actually not her, but a lookalike named Kristen Clarke.
At least Margot dodged the bullet. You should, too.