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'Black Christmas' Butchers the Slasher Genre

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Surely some deep lesson arises from watching "Black Christmas," some life-changing revelation for having sloshed through the Christmas rain and into the warm dankness of a movie theater to watch this exploitation horror flick. Or did we -- to paraphrase the late Gene Siskel -- just lose two hours of our life that we can never get back again?

Can something mystically significant be made of the freak occurrence in which your faithful reviewer, right after watching the film, closed an umbrella on his hand and caused a small geyser of blood to jet from one finger -- on the very hand that would soon be panning this disappointing bloodfest? Was this profound irony? Or can we concoct a heartwarming, Christmasy anecdote about the Indian cashier at the CVS who was nice enough to lead us to the Band-Aids, which we referred to as "plasters," knowing she'd understand the British reference?

Sadly, no silk purse can be made of this sow's ear. The fact is, we sat through a drab, unimaginative remake of the 1974 film of the same name, and there's your verdict. Incidentally, the Canadian original, directed by Bob Clark, is credited as the first scare-flick to use such now-cliched devices as the heavy breather on the phone who threatens his victims with sadistic humor ("I've come to bury the hatchet" -- pause -- "in your head"). It was the first to employ a ski mask way before Jason Voorhees slapped on his "Friday 13th" death mask, and to turn the season of Christmas into an exploitation fest. It starred Olivia Hussey, she of 1968's "Romeo and Juliet," as the girl being pursued by a killer, and featured Margot Kidder as drunken comic relief. And it also triggered the mass outpouring of teenage slasher flicks for a generation.

But the remake neither pays perceptive tribute to the original nor updates it in anything but hackneyed form. Writer-director Glen Morgan, a producer and writer of the "X-Files" TV show and creator of the "Final Destination" horror films, tries and fails at both.

Thus, we learn in cheesy 1970s and 1980s flashbacks how psychotic killer William Edward Lenz, or "Billy," came to be his evil self. Confined to the attic by his evil mother (Karin Konoval), the angry child eventually made Christmas angel "cookies" out of -- her. These little golden moments from Billy's past are intercut with the contemporary story in which Billy (Robert Mann) escapes from a prison for the criminally insane and stalks a half-dozen or so sorority sisters. Their house is located on the same site where Billy and his family used to live. It's Christmas Eve -- Billy's favorite killin' time -- and this boy can't wait to get home again.

Horror movie audiences, their sensibilities sharpened by such box office hits as "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer," in which horror and postmodern irony are equal partners, will be roundly disappointed by this movie's conventional tactics. The flashbacks are hokey -- the kind with grainy footage and overacting. And the characters are dull even by the pass-fail standards of cheap horror flicks.

The performers, including Michelle Trachtenberg, Katie Cassidy and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, aren't spirited enough to give their one-dimensional personas any oomph to whet the appetite for a gruesome killing. And Morgan's ideas for killing his victims -- about the only thing that passes for creativity in this genre -- is to think of new weapons, not new ways. The victims (almost all of them, naturally, are women) die by ice skate, garden trowel and seasonal weaponry (Christmas ornaments, icicles, candy canes sucked down to a dagger point). But they all die in the same manner: Billy sneaks up on them, covers them in a trash bag and -- wham! -- applies weapon of choice. Talk about hack work.

Can we mention one last groaner? Morgan does not seem to have noticed that filmmakers like Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson have exhausted all possible ways to use a cellphone for murder, suspense and humor. His one use of the ubiquitous communicator -- the killer likes to make calls from his dead victims' phones -- is almost insulting to watch. And he sets himself and his movie up for the ultimate irony: an entire audience so bored with "Black Christmas," they're checking their own phones.

Black Christmas (84 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, nudity and profanity.

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