17 December 2011

MERRY DEATHMAS: MAY YOUR DAYS BE SCARY AND BRIGHT

Black Christmas (2006, USA/Canada)

The creators: Writer/director Glen Morgan, who was in his day one-half of the writing team responsible for some of the finest episodes of the early seasons of The X-Files. 2006 was not his day. (His writing partner, James Wong, is on hand as producer).

The plot: First, that viewer which looks for more of the groundbreaking 1974 original than its title, some of the character names, and the setting of a sorority house just before the inhabitants leave for Christmas break, looks in vain. Also, I don't want to get too far before I point out that there are at least three versions of this movie: the theatrical US/Canada cut, the theatrical UK cut, and the unrated US cut, all of which have apparently significant differences, if what I've read online is to correct.

Things start off pretty big: in a brightly-lit building, a young woman (Leela Savasta), making a tag out to "Leigh" for a freshly-wrapped Christmas present, is smothered with a plastic bag and stabbed in the head. BOOM! we're in an insane asylum, where a couple of employees (Ron Selmour and Peter New) have an unconvincingly expository conversation with a Santa Claus (Michael Adamthwaite) who took the wrong turn looking for the children's wing. Nosir, this is the psychotic insane killers (and Jesus impersonators) wing. Ohmigosh, is that the Billy Lenz (Robert Mann) over there? Yes it is, and let's talk about how he killed his family on Christmas and cannibalised his mother, and also some of the details about what let up to this spree, in the least-natural way possible! This would be somewhat valuable information if it wasn't all repeated in a far more compelling way later, still before we need to know it.

Back at the sorority, we start to piece things together: the building is the old Lenz house. Meanwhile, Billy manages to escape from the asylum - with a profound lack of either wit or self-awareness, I am not sure which, Morgan has him first kill the black man (with a candy cane) - doubtlessly to go back to his home, given that he scrawled "I'll be home for Christmas" on a message to the now-dead guard. But, if Billy is just now escaping, who killed that first girl? And who just killed this new girl, Megan (Jessica Harmon), just as she was looking at a porn video? Mysteries all, and not very compelling ones, so much so that even Morgan appears to forget about it until the resolution comes more than an hour from now.

While passing out presents, house mother Ms. Mac (Andrea Martin, who played one of the girls in the original) starts telling her charges the story of Billy, who was born in 1970 with a congenital case of jaundice - because Sin City, that's why - to a mother (Karin Konoval) who hated her husband and thus the malechild he gave her. Eventually, Mama Lenz and her lover killed Billy's dad, and buried him in the house, and then took to locking the boy in the attic; and that is how you turn a sullen, angry youth into a psycho killer. But it takes a while before we learn that, and when we do, it's from Kyle (Oliver Hudson), the boyfriend of one of the girls, and the star, as it happens, of that amateur porn Megan had on.

The first 32 minutes of Black Christmas '06, I should mention, are completely insane: we have five sorority girls dumped in our laps with no real way to differentiate them, except by being able to recognise marginally famous mid-'00s young actresses like Lacey Chabert, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Kristen Cloke pops in to play an older sister to one of the dead girls, and is thankfully easy to keep track of for that reason; Katie Cassidy (who?) ends up playing our Final Girl, though there is absolutely no reason to assume that this is the case when we meet her, for she is just as bitchy and superficial as the rest, though not explicitly defined as rich or alcoholic, which is maybe the reason, I guess. As peculiar as the film's introduction of its Expendable Meat undeniably is, the presentation of the backstory in several clumps of flashbacks doled out hither and thither, is even weirder.

Things calm down, eventually, and the girls wander around the powerless sorority house, while basically nothing happens, wondering where their missing sisters are; eventually, one girl (Kathleen Kole), introduced in phenomenally strange way and then never seen again, pops up dead, and now they all know that things are very, very bad, and this is apparently Billy and Mysterious Accomplice's cue to act, because in a seventeen-minute span, more than half of the named characters in the movie end up dead (except for the first, in fact, it's all in an eight-minute span), in spectacularly bloody sequences, one involving ice skates, many involving the glass unicorn so memorably applied in the original, all of them involving a shitload of blood, and it's like Morgan had started out by writing an adaptation of Titus Andronicus that only turned into a slasher remake by drift, or something.

The third act has about five twists, but after the geyser of violence that preceded it, nothing could keep it from seeming boring and pointless.

Christmas cheer: All-encompassing. The first shot is of a house lit up like a landing strip; there are decorations every which where (even in the asylum!), and of course Santa and gift-giving 'round the tree are both significant plot points. The soundtrack is crammed with carols in every way: reorchestrated as incidental music, digitised as cellphone ringtones, and piped in as diegetic background music. Not only does it blow the not-so-very-merry original out of the water, there's a real possibility it's the most overwhelmingly Christmassy Christmas horror picture I've ever seen, which I take to be a symptom of the Ironic Aughts, and the filmmakers' delight in dragging the trappings of the season through the mud and blood as a way of proving their hip detachment.

One of the asylum workers greets the insane man who thinks he's Jesus by wishing him a happy birthday; I am 100% sure that this is not actually as clever as I found it in the moment.

Style of horror: Frankly, it's rather difficult to say. Viewed from one angle, it's just a routine slasher film, albeit from a decade when "routine" slasher films were rare as hen's teeth. But the structural oddities are impossible to ignore, not least of which is the complete recasting of what we would normally want to call the Final Girl sequence. And the almost fractal way that the deaths start to pile up in just a few short minutes is more like Grand Guignol than a slasher film.

The good: To be completely honest, the absolutely batshit way the story is built kind of appeals to me - in this most predictable of genres, I frequently had no idea where things were going, if only because the movie was so goddamn confusing. It's a gas to watch a movie break apart so thoroughly at such an elemental level as this Black Christmas does, and while massive structural dysfunction is usually not a good element of a movie, in the slasher genre, it can only help.

On more solid ground, Morgan and his collaborators, primarily cinematographer Robert McLachlan and editor Chris G. Willingham, put together some terrifically atmospheric and beautiful kill scenes. A lot of bland, hand-darting-from-the-dark shocking kill scenes, too, but there are a few that are genuinely fantastic, especially one involving a car covered with snow that explodes with blood on the inside, with the crystal white on the windshield contrasting with bright crimson (you've gotta be careful about using too much enthusiasm in reviewing a film like this, but I might cautiously say that it's not unlike Mario Bava), and the very last death in the movie, which in the American cut and not in the UK cut, is staged such that it creates a multi-colored silhouette of a body looking sort of crucified (and here I will not equivocate: it's a fantastic piece of ersatz Bava). The film is not an extraordinary exercise in style, but it's far more beautiful every step of the way than a '70s horror remake from 2006 has any right to be. And I will confess, I am smitten with the appropriation of all that Christmas iconography.

The bad: The fact that the vast bulk of my notes were dedicated just to keeping track of which ill-tempered brunette girl was which speaks to the film's utmost problem: we don't get to know the characters and we don't give a damn about them, even by the exceedingly generous standards of the slasher film. With not so much as a one-word personality trait to distinguish most of them, the girls fade into a uniform mass, and it's hard to keep track of who died when, what it indicates for the rest, or why we care about any of it. Not even Final Girl Kelli has a pesonality, and given that she is one of the least-recognisable "stars" in the cast, it's wildly difficult to keep paying any attention to the movie when it's down to just her.

On the aesthetic front, for every wonderful piece of staging, Morgan comes up with some terrible choice - fisheye lenses here and there, a plethora of intrusively useless insert shots, overly-telegraphed jump scares - that threatens to ruin everything. So much of what he does here makes no sense at all: why does Billy have to be yellow? Why the fragmentary flashbacks? Why oh why oh why the incoherent staging that tries to make us believe that a single-family house could be turned into a sorority, but instead suggests that the building has four stories and twice as many rooms on each as it looks from the outside? The whole thing is a colossal mess, which is not at all as dispiriting as those remakes of classic horror which are just empty, shallow exercises in genre mechanics: you can't get messy without trying to do more than just the barely competent minimum. It is bracing to see how far afield of anything normal for the slasher genre Morgan ends up taking things; but it would be even more bracing if he did all of that and the results were halfway intelligible.

Blood: A considerable amount indeed, as pointed out already - the extended unrated cut is excessive to a degree not released in theaters since the grind house age, and if I understand aright what was present in the theatrical cut, it's still one of the bloodiest American films of its decade. I have not yet mentioned the considerable emphasis on eye violence, with I don't even know how many of the deaths involving sharp objects right through the eye socket, and as many eye-pluckings as I've ever seen in one place. We're talking Fulci levels of eye trauma here, if not more.

Boobs: Once, kind of. It's dim, and from the side, and exists more as the promise of nudity just to fuck with the boys in the audience, than as exploitation - the one way that that the film hews to the relative restraint of the slasher-style horror film from the mid-'90s to the mid-'00s.

Sex=death: Vaguely. There's something not unlike sexual psychosis underpinning the whole plot, but nobody is punished for having sex; other than Kyle, nobody's sex life is really dug into in the first place.

Body count: 18, a number that is positively dumbfounding for the era. Again, this is the unrated cut; it may be down to 17 in other versions. Either way, it is a gigantic leap from the far more effective and subdued original, because, again, Grand Guignol.

Sign it was 2006: Being an in-name-only remake of a classic, and hugely important 1970s horror film is a pretty big tell; Michelle Trachtenberg is more than enough to let us narrow it to the 2004-'06 range.

Pithy wrap-up: Surprisingly non-abysmal, if completely unsuccessful at virtually everything besides creating mood. Its total inability to measure up to the legendary original is, unexpectedly, the very least of its sins.

5 comments:

Chris D said...

You likely know this, but movie-censorship.com is a very handy (if frequently poorly translated) resource for detailed descriptions with pictures comparing different cuts of films without having to actually track down and watch the things.

As for the movie, you've piqued my interest sufficiently that I'll likely track it down. The original is still an embarrassing gap in my horror history though, so it will of course take priority.

Tim said...

I do love that site, but there came a point where I had to decide how much research I wanted to sink into Black Christmas 2006, and the IMDb "Alternate Versions" tab turned out to be the exact amount. After spending 3 hours watching and then reviewing Santa Claws, I felt like I'd earned it.

The.Watcher said...

"One of the asylum workers greets the insane man who thinks he's Jesus by wishing him a happy birthday; I am 100% sure that this is not actually as clever as I found it in the moment. "

Wasn't Jesus born in, like, July, thereby making that whole "Happy B-Day" joke nonsensical?

The.Watcher said...

Oh, wait, no, just checked it out and it says sometime in September, which isn't July, but also most certainly isn't December, either.

I'm an atheist so I can be forgiven these little things. I was still right in principle, though. I'll take it.

Alyson said...

A lot of normal people don't actually know that, and you can't even convince some people that Christmas *isn't* Jesus's actual day of birth... It represents his birth, anyway, and Jesus is never gonna have a specific DOB pinpointed so it's that, still, essentially..

What I'm trying to say is I'm not a Christian but I'd still think that joke is cute. Who cares about the technicality?