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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Bob Clark’s ‘Black Christmas’ vs. Glen Morgan and Sophia Takal’s ‘Black Christmas’ Remakes [Revenge of the Remakes]

Welcome to Revenge of the Remakes, where columnist Matt Donato takes us on a journey through the world of horror remakes. We all complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality whenever studios announce new remakes, reboots, and reimaginings, but the reality? Far more positive examples of refurbished classics and updated legacies exist than you’re willing to remember (or admit). The good, the bad, the unnecessary – Matt’s recounting them all.

It’s important to remember that my mission with “Revenge Of The Remakes” is not to re-review selections like you’re hearing about them for the first time. From inception, I’ve always seen this column as a microscopic investigation into remake culture. Relying on the best of my abilities, I yearn to answer the omnipresent echo every time a new remake is announced: “Why?” We’re here with a purpose, and we’re staying faithful to the column’s aim once more as we venture into this month’s holiday special (including two polarizing remakes argued endlessly by diehards).

In 1974, director Bob Clark and writer Roy Moore predated Halloween with their Canuxploitation classic Black Christmas, which helped shape 70s-80s slasher trends that would become a banner era referenced throughout horror history. In 2006, Glen Morgan, for better or worse, brought Black Christmas (or Black X-Mas if we’re reading off the promo art’s present tag) into the sticky, kills-come-first era of slashers influenced by torture porn squeamishness. In 2019, director Sophia Takal and writer April Wolfe reimagined Black Christmas as a takedown of toxic masculinity by adding rival fraternities, supernatural elements, the works. Each has its naysayers (some more vocal), and each has its defenders (again, some more vocal). A rare horror remake trifecta, outside Universal Monsters who have been rehashed and resurrected for decades upon generations or those that attempt television versions in addition to theatrical experiences.

The Approach(es)

To confirm, I’m comparing 1974 vs. 2006 vs. 2019. Typically, remakes only contend against an original. Black Christmas is more complicated. Justification and validation are even tougher challenges, with more comparison points in play.

Black Christmas, against all odds, is a triumphant triumvirate in that both Morgan’s and Takal’s iterations plow their snowfall-treacherous paths without crossing lanes. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas is the peppermint-pointed pinnacle of slasher tension, iconic as a Christmas Horror masterpiece that boasts influential frameworks studied by Michael, Freddy, Jason, and later icons. Glen Morgan and Sophia Takal, both separately and years apart in release dates, make a clear case for their Black Christmas existences by emphasizing modern cinematic themes. One rooted more in “helpless” victimization, the other armed to the teeth and looking for a fiercer fight against the patriarchy.

In Black Christmas (2006), Morgan decides that Roy Moore’s script lacks ample backstory concerning Billy (Robert Mann), the coed-fixated attic psychopath. Morgan’s film introduces a jaundiced Billy who witnesses his father’s murder. Billy’s mother rapes him because her replacement lover is impotent, leading to Billy eating his daughter-sister Agnes’ eye, then murdering both mommy and her seedless partner. It’s a newfound context for a butcher who escapes asylum imprisonment and returns home, now inhabited by Clemson University’s Delta Alpha Kappa girls (Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a knockout cast). Under the oversight of house mother Ms. Mac (Andrea Martin), an unknown figure starts viciously eliminating Deltas one-by-one. All signs point towards yellow-skinned Billy, reclaiming his territory, but Morgan’s finale unites scarred siblings while adhering to all Clark’s mainstay beats like limited police involvement because of the weather, loser boyfriends, and relative participation.

Surge ahead to Black Christmas (2019), and Takal scorches everything we know about both previous harbingers of holiday sorrow. Riley (Imogen Poots), a Hawthorne College student and Mu Kappa Epsilon sister, demands justice after being raped by Delta Kappa Omicron’s fraternity president. The ladies of MKE aren’t restricted to their house’s boundaries and interact with other sororities, along with fraternity minions under the tutelage of uber-misogynist Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes). It turns out Gelson is spreading his venomous brand of sexism and gender-bias through a black goo that controls brothers, turning them into machismo machines that start targeting sororities all across Hawthorne. Suffice it to say, Mr. Clark himself wouldn’t be able to match the movie to its title.

Does It Work? I Mean, Do They Work?

As remakes, across the board, unquestionably.

While this marks only my ninth “Revenge of the Remakes,” I’ve already exposed two instances where motivations to differentiate are nearly nonexistent (A Nightmare On Elm Street, Cabin Fever). Black Christmas defies the odds since Glen Morgan’s remake champions an outrageously vile vision, unlike Bob Clark’s stone-cold suspense. Then, on another planet, Sophia Takal veers from both slippery paths to entice a whole new class of pledges, maybe some who might never show interest in Clark’s or Morgan’s more rigid “women in peril” archetypes. Played in marathon order, you’d nary hear complaints of blatant recycling or redundant overlaps hissed from the audience. The plum-rotten spirit of Black Christmas is alive and well in both adaptations, which, as a remake franchise, displays how retooling movies is not immediately a task devoid of creativity or originality.

Morgan has Clark’s Black Christmas in focus often, whether that’s casting Andrea Martin as Ms. Mac (there’s only one Marian Waldman) or repeated callbacks (glass unicorn, for example). Despite homages, Morgan’s roadmap of Billy’s lineage never suggests 2006’s Black Christmas intends to use the same cookie cutters by tracing Clark’s outlines. In terms of 2000s slashers, Morgan’s command over practical effects and Billy’s fixation on eye-gouging separates from Clark’s atmospheric, skin-crawling chills. Morgan’s production design ups Christmas spirits with overdressed (and appreciated) decoration gaudiness or blinking lights that define red-and-green tinted cinematography, but the spotlight takeaway is a compilation of death sequences that sell severed repugnance. The gruesome yin to Clark’s more psyche-toying yang (Morgan’s phone calls are…fine).

Takal and April Wolfe, on the other hand, couldn’t be more excited to drop familiar tropes and caricatures like bad senior-year habits.

After two slasher nightmares where victims struggle to escape Billy’s clutches, whichever Billy, 2019’s Black Christmas prides itself on seething experiential frustrations. It’s wintery, features collegiate greek life rituals, but cares more about making a statement against the evils Riley and company broadcast instead of tolerating another Billy vs. final girl scenario. In fact, forget Billy. Forget house mothers. Forget phone calls because who even uses their voice anymore when we have texting? In my opinion, Takal and Wolfe faced even more pressure than Morgan because their remake had to answer louder repetitions of the same questions. “Why does a movie that’s already been remade need another remake?” Fair, which makes this come-out-swinging approach even more appreciated. Not to mention a PG-13 rating ensured no correlation to Morgan’s borderline X-rated content.

These films are time capsules as much as remakes, reflecting audience desires and shifts in Hollywood dynamics. Black Christmas (2006) on the heels of James Wan’s Saw outbreak and studio obsessions with slaughterhouse vibes, Black Christmas (2019) spearheading Blumhouse’s attempts to diversify its directorial/screenwriter pool and create horror geared towards underrepresented audiences. Both start with Clark’s horror royalty, but only as a means to inspire personal or remixed explorations. Three films with the same name, resembling an anthology collection.

The Result(s)

Both remakes have generated heated debates across horror forums and Twitter threads when assessing 2006’s and 2019’s output versus Bob Clark’s. There is, still, only one Black Christmas should there be a gun-to-head single possible selection. That said, Black Christmas (2006) boasts appreciation by B-Movie genre fiends who tout Glen Morgan’s depravity as this unholy grail of traumatizing weirdness. Black Christmas (2019) clearly states in trailers, dialogue, and posturized take-no-shit photoshoots which audience Sophia Takal and April Wolfe care to empower (no derogatory snark or sarcasm intended). Hell, even Black Christmas (1974) singles itself out as a more slow-burn, performance-driven slasher that some of Morgan’s disciples consider inferior, which creates a unique situation. Multiple audiences adore their own Black Christmas. Is that so bad?

Precisely honing in on Morgan’s mangled monstrosity, this thing is repulsive by countless standards. Billy’s fetish for tearing human viewing orbs from sockets, tissues left dangling, is a recurring theme that isn’t even the only cannibalistic treat (flesh cookies). Look no further than Michelle Trachtenberg’s scalped, cracked-open cranium after being bludgeoned by ice skates for the signatures of 2006’s Black Christmas, but there’s another side to its ickiness. Whether it’s Billy’s very-clear rape or other molestation inclusions, there’s a discomfort that wades into exploitation waters more obsessed with extremes than necessity. No bleak message, no real point besides perviness as a rise. It’s an odd-duck (read: off-putting) narrative drenched in cannibalistic leftovers and gunshot-splatter blood mists, yet that hasn’t stopped countless viewers from praising admittedly approved ratchets in the kill department.

As for Takal’s indulgence in ooze, it’s hard to generate any side-by-side score. One ponders why this is even titled Black Christmas beyond being a Christmas Horror tale? Between plastic bags to upstairs corpses to general sorority hierarchies, the ties to Black Christmas are fleeting until they’re erased almost altogether. Takal and Wolfe include outside horror references, along with choice callbacks. Still, instances like Billy’s telephone games transitioning to text bubbles are a noticeable downgrade in grim atmospheres (also a possible result of Blumhouse rushing the hell out of 2019’s Black Christmas, failing to award its female creators the creative incubation period male counterparts are often afforded). It’s hard because while Blumhouse allowed for such a variant on the Black Christmas we know, and that’s the kind of invigoration remakes should embrace, it’s also…barely a remake? As the bust of some tyrannical woman-hater raises an army of proud boys through infectious sludge, any semblance of Black Christmas fades like a fling with that guy who plays “Wonderwall” at every dormitory party. The result is a Black Christmas remake that doesn’t feel like Black Christmas but checks all the boxes of being a Black Christmas remake.

Krampus help me if that makes sense. Let’s just say 2020 is one hell of a year, and that’s the kind of bullshittery I’m choosing to go out on.

The Lesson

Anyone who decries remakes as an artless, futile waste of cinema has not done their Christmas Horror homework. Scholars should study the Black Christmas trilogy in lecture halls as an exercise in interpretive filmmaking. One film is the outlasting tip of an unsettlingly overwhelming iceberg that reveals its grand devastation through minimal details, vulgar receiver chatter, and an unsilent night on campus. The next is a morally abhorrent massacre that decks the halls with angel-carved back meat, carnage chunks galore, and sibling reunions of the utmost unspeakable conditions. The final film, most far-flung, flips the bird to these predatory slashers of olden mindsets and engages in battles between man and woman, society and woman, and just about anything else that dares square off against Mu Kappa Epsilon.

I’d love to facilitate a conversation between Glen Morgan, Sophia Takal, and April Wolfe about their visions of Black Christmas, their approaches to remaking Bob Clark’s quintessential Christmas squealer, plus how they see the three-film run fitting together. The business of remakes is fragile, with audiences giving so little room for error that we don’t often see double-dips let alone even one revival.

So what did we learn?

  • Not all remakes are created equal when creators pursue their unique visions.
  • Remakes that orient themselves with current cinematic movements often find an easier time justifying themselves. Impetus reads beyond needing another [x movie], but instead why [x movie] is the perfect subject to be updated in a new climate.
  • Maybe there’s such a thing as being…too ambitious? Remakes should always resemble their source somehow, and while you want the apple falling far enough from the tree, you still want to know from which tree the apple fell.
  • Remakes, like any movie, come down to execution. There’s nothing lesser about the practice. It’s all about the product.

As the year winds down and December 25th comes swirling in the wake of Santa’s airborne slay, make some time for Christmas Horror. In specific, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. Gremlins will always remain my Christmas Horror favorite, but let’s not allow such a monumental slasher pillar to be frozen-over and ignored for those very appreciators that came afterward. Then, if you’re feeling frisky? Complete the Black Christmas three-way showdown. How does a contextual rapid-fire play transition from Margot Kidder’s drunken damsel to Yan-Kay Crystal Lowe‘s pukey princess to whoever drinks the most in Riley’s crew? Fair warning, the post-2000s reworks play a bit better with booze, so break out your hidden bathroom bottles and take a swig.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and kiss my ass, 2020. Here’s to a new year, new cheer, and hell, maybe another Black Christmas on the horizon?


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