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Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #645

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Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Andy Williams It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

[2] Carl Zittrer Silent Night

[3] Shirley Walker Black Christmas

 

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Before we commence, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for being so dreadfully tardy taking down the decorations this year. That said, with the January blues now mercifully in our slipstream, I’ve decided a double dose of Christmas cheer is in order. Let’s not tangle the tinsel here, when I say cheer, I may be blowing a little smoke up your chimney stack as the two gifts I’m about to unwrap aren’t so much about sleigh bells ringing as soon-to-be-slain girls screaming and thus not quite the ideal fodder to show little Timmy before tucking him in tight on Christmas Eve if you are to stand any hope of grabbing yourself that silent night.

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Both Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and Glen Morgan’s 2006 remake of the same title are worthy of reconsideration and for reasons that couldn’t be more different. You see, one is cited by many as the film that inspired the eighties slasher craze, predating John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween by four years, and the other, widely regarded as one of a number of sub-par slasher reboots shat out thirty years down the line with precious little to add to the legacy. Thus I shall tackle them in chronological order and suss out whether either deserve their decidedly altering reputations and that means returning to the year of my birth, to that lowly cattle shed in Jerusalem, and trying to work out what the fuck Myrrh is or what its street value amounts to. Come sit on my knee and I’ll see what I have in my sack for you.

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Also known as Silent Night, Evil Night/Stranger in the House
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: December 20, 1974
Sub-Genre: Suspense/Slasher
Country of Origin: Canada
Budget: $620,000
Box-Office: $4,000,000
Running Time: 98 minutes
Director: Bob Clark
Producer: Bob Clark
Screenplay: A. Roy Moore
Cinematography: Reginald H. Morris
Score: Carl Zittrer
Editing: Stan Cole
Studios: Film Funding Limited of Canada, Ambassador Films
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Stars: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, Andrea Martin, James Edmond, Doug McGrath, Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin, Michael Rapport, Les Carlson, Martha Gibson

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We’re off to a good start as Steve Martin has long since been my go-to funny guy and Clark’s original just so happens to be his all-time favorite movie and one he watches religiously even now. It has also amassed a huge cult following over the years and is used as a weapon by smarmy intellectuals whenever Halloween is mentioned in close proximity to the birth of slasher. I shall call a spade a spade at this point, as whether or not it deserves such lofty recognition, it never achieves the same level of overall quality in my opinion. That is to say that the stars weren’t quite as aligned back in ’74 as they were for Carpenter once steadicam was brought into the mix.

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It’s hard to argue that American-Canadian actor, director, screenwriter and producer Clark didn’t have his pulse on or around the pulse, particularly in the seventies and eighties. Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things was a quirky little number deserving of merit and one of the first films to take a darkly comic stab at zombie cinema, Porky’s got those panties all in a knot when Paulie The Penis poked through the shower wall in 1982, and Clark also directed and co-wrote goodwill hunting festive fave A Christmas Story in 1983, likely as an apology for all the childhoods he’d wrecked thanks to midnight matinées of Black Christmas. This may not be his premier work but it’s one helluva creepy little number that counts on creeping dread to affect its audience and does so with a fair quota of aplomb.

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Does your house boast an attic? If so then the original Black Christmas may well make you wish it didn’t. For the sisters of this particular snow-laden campus sorority house, festive cheer is about to be cut short, as we go point-of-view with “The Moaner”, a heavy breathing prowler with designs on upgrading to loft dweller. Using a rose trellis to gain entry to the uppermost level of this large converted mansion, he camps out while keeping his beady eye on any movements of interest below. Reconnaissance is encouraging as a quick crank call introduces him to Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her fellow pledges Barb (Margot Kidder), Phyllis (Andrea Martin), and Clare (Lynne Griffin), are also feeling fanciful and flighty this night. To test the water, he suffocates one of the aforementioned and bubble wraps her cold corpse to a rocking chair in the attic, just to keep him company while figuring out when and whom to strike next.

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When the girl’s father arrives the following morning to transport her home for the holidays and she is nowhere to be seen, House-mother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) naturally assumes that she took off without informing her sisters. Not wishing to leave anything to chance, they head down to the local police station to log the disappearance with Lt. Kenneth Fuller (John Saxon), and it transpires that another young girl has also been reported as missing. All the while, the unknown threat is lurking within their very own bricks and mortar, leaning increasingly towards engaging in a little “all through the house” time.

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Clark positively figure skates on the insular, tense and genuinely unnerving tone he creates and ambiguity is key here, as the less we know about the creaks in the attic, the more we fret and that’s 98 minutes of consternation pulled taut by a largely uncelebrated master of craft. The phone plot device would be used more generously by Fred Walton for When A Stranger Calls in 1979 and it would be correct to name this as both a visual precursor to Halloween courtesy of some wonderfully fluid and lingering POV shots viewed through the eyes of our stranger and not just for the opening either. If you want to talk templates, then Clark would have a fair argument that his picture laid the foundations, while Carpenter’s film concentrated more on setting the house rules.

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Hussey makes for a picture perfect lead and is assisted no end by the equally magnanimous Kidder, years before Lois Lane made her a household name. Every moment of grim realization for them is one for us also as, while we know so little about our psycho, there has been so much time spent up close and personal, giving us a feel for just what he’s capable of. If the girls carry the picture commendably, then the support of Saxon in the kind of role he could phone in from the station house is no less welcome, while the house itself deserves a pat on the back wall as it never once makes us feel welcome and I’d have been upset if it did. A. Roy Moore’s screenplay is tight, Reginald H. Morris’s cinematography suitably constricting, and you may think twice before listening to Silent Night this yuletide after taking midnight mass with Clark’s skin-crawling classic.

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Despite being so far ahead of the game, the thing that truly makes this film such a memorable nightmare maker is the mysterious killer himself. He doesn’t wear a mask, none of his attributes appear to be super-human, and he only poses a threat to the fairer sex which makes his incessant ranting and constantly flitting vocal pitch so fascinating to observe. One moment he’s all low grumbling aggressive alpha male, the next, high-pitched female, and once we’re totally discombobulated, he adopts a civil yet curt persona just to remind us that he’s in complete control of his faculties as he delivers the line “I’m going to kill you”.

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I was ten-years-old on primary introduction to Clark’s suspenseful festive treat and do you want to know the words running through my mind as I laid down to sleep that night? “He’s going to kill me”. I’m just glad I don’t have a rose trellis although I do have an attic and I leave the Christmas tree right beside the trap door for those edgy annual visits thanks in no small part to Black Christmas.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Lest we not forget that 1974 was hardly grue central and Black Christmas is a relatively bloodless affair with most of the kills occurring off-screen, including a vicious dispatch using a crystal unicorn ornament which plays out just as mortifyingly through use of shadow. Forget the lack of splatter as it’s the omnipotent skin-crawling creepiness that will remain with you long after you take those decorations down.

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Also known as Black X-Mas
Number of Views: One
Release Date: December 25, 2006
Sub-Genre: Slasher
Country of Origin: United States/Canada
Budget: $9,000,000
Box-Office: $21,500,000
Running Time: 92 minutes
Director: Glen Morgan
Producers: Marty Adelstein, Steve Hoban, Glen Morgan, Dawn Parouse, Victor Solnicki, James Wong
Screenplay: Glen Morgan
Special Effects: Chris Devitt, Toby Lindala, Geoff Redknap
Visual Effects: James Tichenor, Allan Magled, Michael Kowalski
Cinematography: Robert McLachlan
Score: Shirley Walker
Editing: Chris Willingham
Studios: Dimension Films, 2929 Productions, Adelstein-Parouse Productions, Hard Eight Pictures, Hoban Segal Productions
Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Stars: Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lacey Chabert, Kristen Cloke, Andrea Martin, Crystal Lowe, Oliver Hudson, Karin Konoval, Dean Friss, Christina Cricivi, Robert Mann, Cainan Wiebe, Jessica Harmon, Leela Savasta, Kathleen Kole, Howard Siegel, Peter Wilds

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If Morgan’s loose remake was looking to gain some free publicity, then the backlash it received from religious groups after the studio announced they would release it on Christmas Day certainly helped to spread the festive cheer. Offensive, ill-founded and insensitive are just three of the charges leveled at Dimension Films, and somewhat predictably, it all turned out to be a storm in a snow globe. However, it also came under fire for different reasons, one of which being the fact that most critics dismissed it as a tacky knock-off with little to no redeeming features. Enrage the Christians and they may just end up providing complimentary marketing; whereas pissing off leagues of faithful and long-suffering horror buffs is likely to see the decorations taken down by Boxing Day. Black Christmas claimed its wedge of the Christmas pie to the tune of over twice its original outlay but was forgotten faster than the pair of deeply unsightly slipper socks Aunt Edith bought you as a tree present. Bah, humbug!

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Having recently returned to the original, I was feeling particularly Ho! Ho! Ho! and decided to brave this modern-day pariah in the hope of unearthing some well hidden treasure that had previously gone unnoticed. However, instantly I found myself up against it, as the very first thing Morgan does is introduce the audience to a certain William Edward Lenz or Billy as we will come to know him in due course. Straight from the get-go, an acute feeling of disappointment couldn’t help but wash over me as the key component to what made its predecessor so spine-tingling was the sense of mystery it upheld right up to its ambiguous finale. To be brutal in my honesty, I don’t care half a hoot whether Billy was born with a dicky liver and severe resulting jaundice. Neither do I wish to learn of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his despicable mother. Granted, the fact that she locked him in the attic after murdering pops in cold blood explains his fixation with dusty crawlspaces but it’s far more information than is necessitated.

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We’re on decidedly shaky rafters barely five minutes in as Morgan goes on to explain how he exacted revenge on mommy dearest and earned himself a fifteen year stint in the local nuthouse as well as an indefinite stay on Santa’s naughty list. Worse still, we have to sit through a cunning escape that is clearly signposted as coming and wait for him to clamber up the rose trellis and assume position before anything worthwhile can happen. It was at this point that I started to fear the worst although, if there’s one thing I won’t be found culpable of, then it’s failing to judge the art and craft of another on its own merits, making any adjustments necessary to expectation. This may have been a country mile off with regards to some pretty major plot elements, but it couldn’t be accused of not nailing a tone, albeit one more darkly comic than outright moody. Once a movie makes me laugh, it is perfectly entitled to a playful nuzzle from the quill’s crimson feathers, and it achieved this during the padded prison break of all places.

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While Billy (Robert Mann) is in transit, we get to hang out at the Delta Alpha Kappa house with our damsels soon to be in distress and there’s plenty of optical confectionary here to get those trap doors swinging. How does Kelli (Katie Cassidy), Megan (Jessica Harmon), Melissa (Michelle Trachtenberg), Heather (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Dana (Lacey Chabert), Lauren (Crystal Lowe) and Clair (Leela Savasta) grab you on the pixies in peril front? Needless to say, in typical Black Christmas fashion, one of the aforementioned has already been gift-wrapped, leaving kindly and fiercely protective house-mother Ms. MacHenry (Andrea Martin) to cluck fretfully over the one that went free range. Morgan also throws a little testosterone into the mix courtesy of Kelli’s boyfriend Kyle (Oliver Hudson) who wears his very best red herring outfit just to confuse matters further.

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Even with all the superfluous back story and additional twists and turns that the convoluted plot presents us, Black Christmas takes its sweet time hitting anything like a sustainable stride and we’re well into the second act before Billy bucks his ideas up and becomes the true menace of the piece. With more chickies in the nest this time, the kills arrive thick and fast when the pace starts to quicken and none of our sorority sisters let the side down, flapping their pretty little wings in all the right places as we hurtle towards the kind of closing act Scooby Doo shenanigans that Wes Craven’s teen friendly Scream franchise did to death almost a decade earlier. I found myself willing it on not to capitulate entirely, and to Morgan and his entire crew’s credit, they just about achieve this. Slapdash it may be, but I didn’t find myself requesting back my 92 minutes once the credits rolled and that’s a distinct upside in my carol book.

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Both Robert McLachlan’s gloriously garish funhouse-style cinematography and Shirley Walker’s dubious now you hear it, now you don’t score lend greatly to the overall atmosphere, while Morgan’s direction is tight and focused, even though the screenplay tries a little too hard to pack our stockings to overflowing. Taken out of context with its way superior forerunner, Black Christmas really isn’t half bad and offers a reasonably evocative and effective slasher with perhaps a few too many bells and whistles than it knows what to do with. That said, should you harbor a soft, squishy spot for Clark’s genre-defining original, then you may wish to skip the festivities as it may push your goodwill to all men a slay ride too far.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: It has to be said, Morgan decks the halls with regards to grue and there are some deliciously grisly dispatches to indulge those mean streaks. Eyes are gouged, heads roll, cellophane stifles, icicles plummet into fleshy spots, gizzards are strewn about for all to see and there’s more than enough here for the seasoned gore-mongers amongst us to rejoice in. Christmas is a time for giving and Morgan does so open-handedly where bloodshed is concerned, it’s just a shame he sees fit to take away with the other hand. Bonus point for the blink and you’ll miss it bare flesh however to assist in filling that stocking.

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Read Silent Night, Deadly Night Appraisal
Read Silent Night Appraisal
Read Christmas Evil Appraisal
Read Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things Appraisal

 

Richard Charles Stevens

aka

Keeper of the Crimson Quill

#CreatorsUnite
Copyright: Grueheads Films 2017

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3 thoughts on “Review: Black Christmas: Past & Present

  1. The original was much better. I love Glen Morgan from the X Files but I still like the 74 version better.
    I also love Steve Martin & didn’t know he was into this film. Now, I am in the mood to see both flicks again. Another fine review, Rich!

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