You have to feel sorry for Glen Morgan. Here’s a director so desperate to bring some manner of meaning to the horror film that he literally takes his fright film’s failures personally. Case in point – 2003’s brilliant update of the killer rat epic from the ‘70s, Willard. Featuring the masterstroke casting of Crispin Glover in the title role, and reconfiguring the standard revenge motivations of the original to expand the psychological landscape of the characters, Morgan tried his darnedest to combine the best of all macabre mannerisms. Indeed, that film was the rare combination of the sinister and the shocking, the up front and the undercurrent. When it failed to find an audience, it devastated Morgan. As his hard earned efforts slowly faded from theaters, he fell into a deep depression. Convinced he would never direct again, he saw his chances at making the kind of creature features he craved slowly diminish.
With this revelation, just part of the insightful bonus features offered on Dimension Films DVD release of Morgan’s 2006 Black Christmas (yes, another remake, this time of the 1976 underground cult classic) we gain a new perspective about what drives an artist like Morgan. Long noted for his work on The X-Files TV series, as well as his writing/producing credits on the Final Destination franchise, this is a man who clearly holds genuine genre credentials. But he takes things so personally, from criticism to complements, that it’s hard to believe he can maintain a successful show business career. Even his wife, actress Kristen Cloke (who co-stars in Christmas and adds her own two cents to the “behind the scenes” material) laments the toll each film takes on her man. His is a concern bordering on the obsessive – meaning every decision, creative or commercial, weighs heavily on his frequently shrugged shoulders.
This makes his continued career choices all the more puzzling. Beyond the initial reaction of “why God, why?”, remakes face several uphill entertainment challenges. Perhaps the most difficult one to overcome remains the lingering legacy of the project being pilfered. When a Michael Bay announces he will produce an update of the classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre masterwork by Tobe Hooper, the various indisputable images associated with the film rise from the genre grave like emblematic zombies and immediately start stalking the artistic landscape. Their presence is palpable, their ability to be ignored almost impossible. Then there is the redux that reduces the original concept to a mere stepping off point. In the case of John Carpenter’s terrific take on The Thing, the notion of a monstrous creature from outer space stalking a group of polar explorers was twisted into a glorious celebration of geek show gore.
As for Bob Clark’s classic seasonal scarefest, Black Christmas, the stakes get raised even higher. Hitting theaters a good four years before John Carpenter would prove that the slice and dice dynamic had real financial teeth, Clark’s ideas were radical and, for the most part, unrealistic. He wanted to make a mad killer movie without ever contextualizing the fiend. His Billy would have no past, no present, no motive and most of all no backstory. He would simply exist as an object of terror for a group of holiday minded sorority sisters. Even worse, the murderer would be made even more enigmatic with the use of POV techniques. Billy would never be seen. Instead, the audience would view the world through his sick, twisted eyes. With an ambiguous ending and the introduction of elements (a dead girl near the lake, the oddball boyfriend played by Keir Dullea) that hinted at horror but never paid off, it was as if Clark had anticipated the formulas and stereotypes that would mar the genre in the decades to come, and subverted them before they even started.
Morgan makes no such aesthetic choices. Instead, he develops discernible visual (eyes) and metaphysical (family) themes. Then he tosses all of his deep rooted musings into a good old fashioned splatter fest, turns the entire enterprise sideways, and sprinkles in a little Scream style self-referential irony to polish off the presentation. This makes his version of Black Christmas simultaneously old school and new jack swinging, a gloriously goopy retread and a brilliant post-modern comment on the sticky state of cinematic terror. Certainly fans will feel cheated if they go in thinking that Morgan is making his own genre-redefining joke. Black Christmas does occasionally feel like a spoof that forgot to be funny, or better yet, a surefire schlock shocker that occasionally meanders over into satire. It’s this uneasy tone that tends to throw your typical fear aficionado. With the recent J-Horror fad, overloaded with tradition and superstition, and the current violence porn paradigm that prioritizes cruelty over cleverness, cinematic terror supposedly must contain a laser-like, singular focus.
But Black Christmas isn’t interested in a mere one note dynamic. Morgan intends for his film to be as much a character study as an extravaganza in evil. By making his Billy – now given the last name of Lenz – a wholly rounded work of perverted parenting, by giving him a disturbing yellow jaundiced pallor and a tendency toward incest and cannibalism, the typical motion picture murder ideal is definitely in place. But Morgan wants to argue that only monsters begat monsters, and he provides his freakish fiend with a mother so heinous that even Norman Bates would holler, “Damn!”. During the flashback portions of the film, Morgan finds the proper balance between disturbing personality tweaking and fudged up familial fright. Once we leave that scenario, our patience rewarded with a wonderful Grand Guignol joke, the slasher material can seem a little underwhelming.
But for anyone alive when names like Voorhees and Myers jammed the pop culture zeitgeist, Black Christmas will be like the return of a slightly insane best friend. Though the girls featured as victim fodder are given a few more post-modern dilemmas vs. their early ‘80s slut and slaughter counterparts, Morgan is more concerned about the stalk and the stab than the starting point. Even adults Andrea Martin (the only member of the original Christmas cast returning here) and Cloke are kept at arms length, reduced to being the bearers of constant warning when things start getting dangerous. There are some sensational kills here – icicles through the eye, glass unicorns through the head (a nice homage to the first film) - and a real sense of atmosphere. As he describes his efforts in the DVD EPKs, production designer Mark Freeborn strove to make the sorority house it’s own creepy character. Thanks to the way it was situated and shot, he managed that near impossible feat rather well.
All of which begs the question of why Black Christmas was met with such harsh condemnation come holiday season 2006. Granted, there were better horror films during the year, landmark movies like Silent Hill and Hostel. In addition, the timing for such a release seemed a bit off. Bob Clark’s version had just been given a stellar new release on the digital format, so many people were just learning about the film, and were perhaps unprepared for it to be so quickly ‘remade’. But the best answer is obviously the simplest. Like Willard, Morgan clearly made a movie that only a certain selective sector of fans could really appreciate. Mainstream reviewers, who more or less avoided the movie because of the clear horror bias that exists within the critical community, would have you believe that Morgan is the second coming of Ed Wood with this effort. They tore it apart in ways that seem too severe to merit real analytic concern.
Of course, this must make Morgan feel twice as bad. For someone who takes every artistic effort he makes as seriously as possible, such sweeping dismissal is hard. And let’s get one thing straight – this Black Christmas is not the original. As one of the actresses says in the DVD bonus material, this is more a movie “based on” Bob Clark’s creepfest, not an exact duplicate. With its jaunty retro vibe, ample arterial spray and aggressive narrative drive, this update acts as a perfect complement to the ambiguous thrills provided by its namesake. It’s not a flawless film, and one could argue that its more fun than frightening, but it is not the full bore flop the rest of the world would have you believe it is. Instead, it’s a statement of one man’s desire to take terror in a decidedly different direction. If he has to suffer for such a stance, so be it. After all, nearly all creative types endure the pain of production for their art, don’t they?