Latest posts by Nat Brehmer (see all)
The early 2000s were an interesting transitional period in Michelle Trachtenberg’s career. After Buffy ended in 2003, she made a quick but conscious decision to shed herself of the character she’d been playing on TV for years—and arguably had more success at that than most of the rest of the cast. She went from Buffy right into Eurotrip and Mysterious Skin, two wildly different films. She then became a quintessential Disney lead with Ice Princess and shed that good girl image almost immediately with Black X-Mas.
It is, of course, a remake of the 1974 Bob Clark masterpiece, Black Christmas. The original film relies solely on suspense, atmosphere and dread. It hinges on the great and unwavering belief that the oldest fear is the fear of the unknown, as Lovecraft said. The less we know about Billy, if that’s even his real name, the better. He could be anyone, he could be anywhere, that’s the feeling we’re left with at the end of the movie.
Black X-Mas does none of these things. And weirdly enough, that’s probably its greatest strength. It’s not the original at all and attempting to recreate such a seminal picture would have led to an even worse reputation than it already has. This isn’t even the kind of slasher that Black Christmas was. Everything in this movie is completely in your face and on the nose. This has much more in common with Sleepaway Camp and Slumber Party Massacre in terms of style and approach.
In the 2000s, when every horror feature under the sun was being remade, we saw a couple of trends start to form. There were the shot-for-shot remakes, like The Omen and Psycho. There were the remakes that took the concept from an entirely new angle or vantage point, like The Hills Have Eyes and Halloween. And then there were the remakes that attempted to take such a new approach that they accidentally remade a different movie. House of Wax, being a nearly beat-for-beat remake of Tourist Trap is a great example of this. Black X-Mas is another.
As much as it takes its basic concept from the original film, the attempt to focus on Billy and expand his backstory, it ultimately begins to feel much more like a remake of Bad Ronald in places. The gist of the plot is that Ronald killed a girl and his mother plans to hide him in the walls of the house until the whole thing blows over, but she dies, so he stays in the walls until a new family moves in. The only real different between that and Black X-Mas is that in Black X-Mas, it’s his mother that he kills. Even then, the twisted, obsessive, incestuous parental relationship is more than apparent.
But let’s talk about the Trachtenberg of it all. For as campy and honestly trashy as the movie is, it takes surprisingly good care of its characters. It knows that as a remake, you’re expecting certain characters to line up with the original. In the opening scenes, we have those parallels immediately. We get the iconic opening kill right out of the gate. We’ve got the sincere, earnest sister with the questionable boyfriend to take the place of Olivia Hussey.
Michelle Trachtenberg, at first glance, seems to have the same sarcastic, drunk attitude of Margot Kidder in the original. This is extremely exciting at first glance, as it’s a great way to shed the good girl image she’s carried throughout so many things. But even when her character actually turns out to be much nicer and kind than one would expect, it’s simply the act of taking part of a film like this that helps her to shed the semi-innocent look of a piece like Ice Princess.
As it goes on, she even starts to take on the voice of reason, pointing out the stupidity of decisions while also balancing out surprisingly sincere moments like helping a drunk sorority sister in and out of the shower. In a movie so heightened and intentionally over-the-top, it’s almost jarring to find scenes like that that speak so accurately to the college experience.
Sadly, Trachtenberg’s character doesn’t evolve enough to transform into our final girl and she does die as gruesomely as the rest of the cast, eye gouging and all. The removal of eyes is a recurring theme for nearly every single kill in the movie. It not only gives the remake an identity separate from the first, but even though the kills are so much gorier than the original, the theme of eye removal doesn’t feel like a far stretch from anything that happened in the first.
Both the original and remake incarnations of Black Christmas hinge on voyeurism. Billy spends much more time watching everyone in the house than he does actually killing them. Almost all of our encounters with Billy are shown through his POV. At first glance, this might seem introspective, but it’s the furthest thing from. We can only see his actions and they tell us virtually nothing about him, even what he looks like. It’s the perfect way to keep the audience in the dark as to who or what the killer might actually be.
In the remake, we get almost nothing from Billy (or, spoiler, Agnes’s) POV, but we dive deep into the backstory. We never even really see what Billy looks like in Bob Clark’s film, but the remake—told partially through flashbacks—gives us so much backstory that it almost feels more like the pilot for a Black Christmas TV series than an actual feature. As a reinterpretation, though, it works. It’s entirely its own thing, for better or worse, and it stands out as a tastelessly disturbing origin story for a slasher classic that never necessarily had a slasher icon tied to it.
Black X-Mas borrows most of the superficial elements of the original without attempting to borrow the major character arcs, which is for the best. Things like the unicorn statue make sense. It’s an iconic image and it gets to be involved in much more carnage than it saw on the first go-round. There’s no attempt to recreate anything like the film’s abortion plot, which only makes sense as it was handled so tactfully the first time around that any attempt to redo that or any other particular character beat would only seem like a hollow rehash.
Whatever fans might think of it, Black X-Mas is definitely not any kind of rehash of the original. It attempts to do its own thing, which is almost always an easier pill to swallow. The argument could be made that it misses the point of the first, but it’s having so much fun being what it is—a tasteless, sleazy throwback to things more in the vein of Toolbox Murders and Blood Rage than Psycho or Peeping Tom—that it’s almost hard to care. This is almost gleefully mean-spirited, wreacking havoc wherever it goes, but always with the intent of ultimately spreading good cheer.