Black Xmas (UK - DVD R2)
Reviewer Scott McKenzie wants to deck the halls with your guts... Fa la la la la...
After murdering his mother and her lover, Billy Lenz was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane. Every Christmas he tries to escape and return to his childhood home, and this year he succeeds. His old house is now home to a sorority of girls who have to come to terms with their own problems as they are slowly picked off one by one by the killer.
I’d usually wait until the ‘Extras’ section below to sum up the interviews with the cast and crew, but one interview with director Glen Morgan is particularly revealing. Black Christmas is his second movie as director, following the commercially unsuccessful Willard. It’s clear that the performance of his first movie had a huge emotional impact on him and this is his attempt to get ‘back in the game’. However, he doesn’t even attempt to hide his contempt for the subject matter and the people who like teen slasher movies. He complains that the studio wanted ‘more jack-in-the-box moments, which I f***ing hate but which the audience want’, which is surprising coming from the man who wrote Final Destination one and three.
This obvious dislike for his assignment is clear in many aspects of Black Christmas. For a start, the running time is a mercifully brief seventy-nine minutes, but this means that credits aside, there’s not even an hour and a quarter’s worth of action. Now, I’m all for short movies—too many recent movies drag on for over two hours for my liking—but Black Christmas has the distinct air of being made by someone who just wanted to get it done and go home, like a student being told to write a thousand-word essay and handing in eight-hundred words of waffle and saying ‘will this do?’.
There are some decent ideas in the screenplay, most of all the flashbacks to the history of the killer, but they’re not developed far enough and the story switches uncomfortably between a straightforward slasher movie and something more akin to a mystery tale. There are also plenty of moments that I would have thought were clever red herrings in a more accomplished movie, but here I wasn’t sure if they were red herrings or just more dodgy moments in the screenplay. Another thought occurs: if they are red herrings, is Glen Morgan showing off his knowledge of genre conventions, or is he throwing in these moments because of his contempt for the people who enjoy these movies?
As a remake of the 1974 movie of the same name (which I haven’t seen, for your information), it also seems to have suffered from a similar problem that befell the 2006 remake of When a Stranger Calls. Receiving calls from the killer on a landline is scary when you realise the calls are coming from inside the house, but in the age of mobile phones, some suspense is lost when you realise that the call could be coming from anywhere. Another problem is that by establishing mobile phones as a plot device, we have to put up with a scene of girls sitting around tapping away on their phones—not exactly white-knuckle excitement.
The girls all do their jobs adequately, which means looking pretty and screaming at appropriate times, but they’re not really given a lot of material that allows them to show their potential (in particular Mary Elizabeth Winstead who has since gone on to better things with Die Hard 4.0 and Death Proof). Our own DVDActive reader ShareDaddy commented on the news item for this title that there’s not enough action or skin, which is a pretty good summary for a genre title that doesn’t deliver on the audience’s expectations. The story plods along without urgency, occasionally being given a kick up the backside by some plot development but at less than eighty minutes long, there’s just not enough movie here at all to recommend watching it.
In spite of all my complaints above, Black Christmas is a good-looking movie. There’s some interesting framing choices and the lighting is probably the highlight of the whole feature (no pun intended). I may not have enjoyed Morgan’s storytelling abilities but that doesn’t mean he can’t move the camera around and director of photography Phil Linzey had plenty of work to do when the lights get turned out in the house. Needless to say, it’s a movie with a lot of dark scenes, but the quality of the picture doesn’t suffer, with vibrant colours and no obvious problems in the large sections of black on screen.
This release of Black Christmas comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. For a horror movie, there are an awful lot of scenes that involve nothing more than people standing around talking, so there’s not a huge amount to write home about but at least the dialogue is clear. There aren’t many moments that are accompanied by a string section telling you to jump out of your seat, the director instead uses the scares as an opportunity to start the music, which while not exactly defying the standards of horror movie scores, is acceptable enough and is sufficiently loud through the surround speakers.
In addition to the director bemoaning his lot in life, the featurette titled ‘A Filmmaker’s Journey’ also includes interviews with Morgan’s wife (who stars in the movie) and Dean Friss, who plays a major part in the movie but also doesn’t seem to enjoy his job in the movies he’s made in the past. A second featurette focuses on the implications of remaking a movie that helped to define a genre and includes more behind-the-scenes footage and interviews from the same sessions as the previous featurette.
Eight deleted scenes are available, which are either just slightly extended versions of scenes that made the final cut and drawn-out moments that would have slowed the pace of the movie even more. Most interesting of all are the three alternate endings, which I was expecting to be slightly altered cuts of the same ending but in reality they are significantly different. One ends the movie on a more ambiguous note, one ends on a cliff-hanger and the other (which was included in the US theatrical cut) is more action-packed. There is also the option to watch the whole movie with the US theatrical ending, and if you’re going to check out this release you should consider choosing this option.
It was a tough decision to pick the scores I’ve given Black Christmas. It’s a fairly tame and inoffensive slasher movie, but Glen Morgan’s admission of his dislike of this type of movie has the strange effect of allowing the extra features to reduce rather than increase the viewer’s appreciation of the movie. If you’re watching the movie with the US theatrical ending or you’re catching it on TV late one night in the week before Christmas, you can probably add an extra point on for the feature. As it stands, it’s difficult to recommend Black Christmas in its current state on a full-price DVD.
Review by Scott McKenzie
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 19th November 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Extras: A Filmmaker's Journey, Remaking Black Christmas, Alternate Endings, Deleted Scenes
Easter Egg: No
Director: Glen Morgan
Cast: Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lacey Chabert, Kristen Cloke, Crystal Lowe, Oliver Hudson
Genre: Horror and Thriller
Length: 79 minutes
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