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Sometimes They Come Back is here to take a look at the horror genre and its love for remakes! We’ll be discussing both the original movie and its remake (sometimes multiple remakes) in detail before deciding who comes out on top! Are the originals always the best? Let’s find out!
‘Black Christmas’ (1974)
Black Christmas (1974) does the impressive task of managing to be a Christmas horror film that doesn’t feature a murderous killer dressed in some festive garb (which is something the remake sadly cannot boast). I am very over watching Santa Claus going on a serial killer style rampage. In fact, Black Christmas is very impressive in the fact it shows us the villain’s face as little as possible, even though he appears on screen quite regularly.
Starring Olivia Hussey as Jess and the wonderful Margot Kidder, who we sadly lost earlier in the month, as the enigmatic party girl Barb, Black Christmas follows a group of sorority girls as they are terrorised by a man credited as ‘The Prowler’, but commonly known as Billy due to his telephone persona.
We open on the outside of a sorority house which is hosting a party, with a point-of-view style camera swaying up to the door, complete with heavy breathing. The intruder is disturbed by Barb, who finds the door open, and we see our intruder retreat and instead climb a trellis into the house’s attic.
Our first introduction to Billy is as ‘The Moaner’ as the sorority girls call him when he calls the house with one of his impressively vulgar phone calls, which have been happening for months. After listening to Billy spew expletives for a lot longer than I would have, Barb tells him where to go, which leads to Billy upping his threats, saying he’s going to kill the girls. Clare, another sorority girl, is understandably worried about the fact Barb just insulted someone who is clearly unhinged, and storms off to pack her bags and leave for Christmas break.
Upstairs with Claude, the house mother Mrs MacHenry’s cat, who if you ask me is up there on the villain scale of this film, Clare begins to pack when she hears some rustling in her wardrobe. At first, she thinks it’s just Claude but soon starts to ask who is lurking behind her clothes as she advances. If you ask me, someone who repeatedly asks who might be hiding in their wardrobe rather than getting the hell out of there probably deserves to die in a horror movie, and right on cue Billy leaps at her with a clothing bag and suffocates her. Poor Clare then spends the rest of the movie sitting in a rocking chair up in the attic, with the plastic bag still wrapped over her face, and Claude sniffing around her like he wasn’t wholly complicit in her death.
As the party downstairs winds down, Jess receives a phone call from her boyfriend Peter, who along with Claude cements himself as one of the worst characters in the movie. He tells Jess he was too busy to come to her Christmas party tonight, which seems like a recurring problem between them judging by Jess’ face. They arrange to meet up to talk the next day as Jess has something important to tell him, and everyone goes to bed with one sorority sister rocking a plastic sheet mask in the attic.
The next morning Clare’s dad arrives to collect her and take her home for Christmas, and the girls are finally alerted to the fact that something may be wrong. Barb and Phyl accompany Clare’s dad to the police station to report Clare missing, and Jess heads out to meet Peter and give him her news that she’s pregnant. Even though she drops the news wearing what is quite possibly the best pink beret I have ever seen, Peter is worried it will ruin his concert piano recital (legitimate storyline) and tells her she can’t get an abortion.
As if the men in her life weren’t bad enough, Jess receives another phone call from Billy. Now the content of his phone calls isn’t sexual, but just plain terrifying. He manages to speak in a number of different voices, screams, and utters his iconic line, “Where did you put Agnes, Billy?” His phone calls feature a lot of raving about both Billy and Agnes, and whether the caller is Billy himself is never entirely clear, which only adds to his terrifying nature.
While at the police station looking for Clare, the group find out a young girl has also disappeared on her way home from school after her mother has reported her missing. They decide the most effective course of action to look for both girls would be to conduct a search of the local area, where they sadly find the young girl’s body, but there’s still no sign of Clare.
In the meantime, Mrs MacHenry packs her bags to leave and spend the holidays with her sister, but when the taxi arrives to pick her up, she hears Claude meowing in the attic. Honestly Claude! You are the worst! Understandably, not wanting to leave her beloved pet locked in the attic over the festive break, she tries to rescue him, but unfortunately spots Clare’s dead body in the process. Billy is lurking in the shadows waiting to see how the situation plays out, and promptly murders her when she starts screaming.
After yet another phone call, which Jess yet again answers, Peter appears from the upstairs of the house. His excuse is he had to take a little rage nap after blowing his piano recital and wrecking his piano afterwards. Honestly, Peter, people are dying – no one cares that you trashed your piano. In a move that probably should have been made months ago, Jess calls the police to report the problem phone calls, and they come over to investigate.
A Nightmare on Elm Street’s John Saxon is Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller, who is in charge of the case, and decides to have the sorority house phones tapped after realising a house that has been plagued by problem phone calls and missing students is probably worth keeping an eye on. Lieutenant Fuller is sceptical of Peter’s behaviour, and it’s clear he’s lining him up as the prime suspect from the first time he lays eyes on him.
With the phones tapped, and a police car stationed outside, the remaining sorority girls are instructed to try and keep Billy on the line as long as possible, so they have the time to trace the call. Barb is in bed sleeping off the copious amounts of alcohol she has consumed since the movie began, and while some carollers are creating a noise diversion outside the house, Billy stabs her to death with a glass unicorn. Phyl goes to check on Barb and is quickly dispatched of as well.
We then see Billy dialling the sorority house, and screaming down the phone at Jess. She manages to get him raving for long enough for the police to trace the call – it’s coming from inside the house! This is why you never have two phone lines in the one house! A briefly mentioned second line in Mrs MacHenry’s room is where the phone calls have been coming from the entire time. Though Billy was screaming his lungs out for a good few minutes there, so I’m not sure how Jess didn’t hear it echoing through the walls and put it all together herself!
After the police alert Jess to the danger, she decides to try and rescue her friends rather than leave without them. She opens Barb’s door, to find her two remaining friends murdered and hears Billy whispering nearby. She turns to see his eye, watching her through the crack in the bedroom door. Black Christmas does a fantastic job of presenting us with situations that would probably be accompanied by a loud noise and turned into jump scares in modern horror movies, and instead, it simply lets the true horror of the situation seep into you. We see so little of Billy throughout the entire film, the sudden proximity to him when you weren’t expecting it is genuinely chilling.
Jess understandably make a run for it, and Billy chases after her screaming like a rabid animal. I fail to think of other killer chase scenes in horror movies that are this terrifying. You know if Billy catches Jess she is done for! You can imagine him simply ripping her apart with his bare hands.
Jess may be unwise enough to lock herself in the basement in a bid to escape, but she’s not foolish enough to trust Peter when he says he’s there to save her as he smashes his way through a basement window. When Lieutenant Fuller finally shows up, we find Peter dead and Jess clearly in shock and having dispatched of her boyfriend so quickly. Lieutenant Fuller, convinced all along of Peter’s guilt, is happy they’ve got the right man.
The movie ends with Jess tucked up in bed, sedated after the whole incident, as the police discuss getting the additional cops in to search the rest of the house after discovering Barb and Phyl’s bodies. However, as the police leave Jess alone, we hear giggling in the attic, and as we pan to the outside of the house, we see Clare still undisturbed in the attic, as the phone starts to ring.
‘Black Christmas’ (2006)
The remake Black Christmas (2006), sometimes referred to as Black X-Mas (which I’ll be doing from now on to try and avoid confusion between the two titles) falls into the pitfall that most modern remakes seem to, where it thinks we need as much backstory on the killer as possible in order for us to fully understand the story. I remember going to see Black X-Mas when it came out in the cinema, actually around Christmas time, without being aware it was a remake, so at the time I wasn’t aware of how differently they portrayed the main villain. However, on this second watching, and right after I watched the original, it’s impressive how much they ruin the mystique of Billy.
The setup and execution of this film are much speedier than Black Christmas, and it honestly feels like once the murders properly start, the whole thing probably takes place in about an hour real-time. So much of the film’s running time, which is only 84 minutes as it is (depending on which cut you watch), is wasted on an extensive backstory which makes very little sense.
It also features every attractive, popular actress from the early 2000s, with Katie Cassidy (Kelli), Michelle Trachtenberg (Melissa), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Heather), and Lacey Chabert (Dana) all making appearances.
As with the original movie, Clair is the first sorority sister to bite the dust. The movie opens with her wrapping presents in her bedroom, and the camera lingers on a number of household implements which could be used to inflict harm, such as some scissors and a fountain pen. After a mild throwback to the original where Clair thinks she hears someone one lurking in her wardrobe, the killer throws a plastic bag over her head and stabs her in the face with her fountain pen.
When the next scene starts at a sanatorium, you know this movie is going to a bad place. We’re introduced to Billy (yup, no ambiguity this time), who after killing his whole family one year at Christmas has tried to escape from his cell every year, but so far has not been successful.
We immediately cut to Kelli and Kyle, who is also the worst boyfriend in the world alongside Peter, getting it on in their car outside Kelli’s sorority house. It just so happens that the sorority house is the one Billy grew up in, and not only are the housemates aware of this fact, they also buy Billy a Secret Santa present every year. Though this doesn’t stop them getting Kyle to explain Billy’s full backstory later on…for our benefit I guess. It’s pointless.
Meanwhile, back at the sanitorium, Billy writes a note to the guard which he slips through his door which reads, “I’ll be home for Christmas”. When the guard opens the door to investigate, it looks as though Billy has knocked a hole in the wall and made his escape. Unfortunately, he’s hiding under the bed and kills the guards with a candy cane he has sucked to a lethal point. I mean, he clearly had a pencil which he wrote the note with, so I’m not sure why he didn’t just stab him with that.
Kelli rounds up the girls for Secret Santa, and we’re introduced to Megan, who happens to have a sex tape featuring Kyle and herself on her computer. Honestly, there are far too many characters in this incredibly short movie, and the sex tape subplot is just there to give Kelli a reason to stop trusting Kyle, as it has no further relevance. Megan makes the mistake which is repeated a lot in this movie – hearing something in the attic and thinking it warrants investigation. She also gets suffocated with a plastic bag and stabbed in the face, and then has her eye pulled out through the bag.
It’s here we’re treated to the first part of Billy’s backstory. Born with a liver problem, he has yellowed skin, which makes his clearly already horrible mother hate him. Though he doesn’t just look jaundice, he looks like a tiny version of the Yellow Bastard from Sin City. His father is the only person that shows him any positive attention, so Billy’s mother promptly murders him with a plastic bag and a hammer. The mother and her lover then bury Billy’s dad under the cellar. Billy has a whole network of tunnels and peepholes all over the house, and he uses them to spy on his mother throughout this entire ordeal, and then makes his escape to the attic, where his mother locks him in.
Unlike the persisting nuisance phone calls the girls have been receiving for months in the original movie, Billy only starts calling the sorority house after he has escaped. Instead of repeatedly calling them from inside the house, he uses each murder victim’s phone to make the next phone call. Billy ends his first call to the house with a simple, “Get out of my house. I’m going to kill you.”
We’re then introduced to yet another sorority sister, Eve, who wears her hair in a ponytail and has glasses, so you know she’s weird, right?! “You guys are like my family now”, she says as she hands Heather a newspaper wrapped crystal unicorn as a present, and then heads for home.
We’re treated to yet another flashback scene now, which shows us Billy’s mother getting it on with her new boyfriend in the middle of the hallway. Despite her best efforts, he falls asleep, and in a fit of frustration she heads up to the attic to have it off with the only other male in the house – Billy – while he sits in his rocking chair.
‘Nine months later’ fills the screen and we see adorable little incest baby Agnes, all snuggled up in her cot. “She’s my family now”, the mother tells the ceiling, and you’re left wondering why she didn’t just murder Billy along with her lover and start her life over, then I wouldn’t be stuck watching this ridiculous excuse for a backstory. The scene immediately cuts back to Eve, looking all weird in her brown clothes, and it’s clear that we’re supposed to think this is baby Agnes.
Kyle has meanwhile broken into the house to try and delete the sex tape, as the film desperately tries to convince us he’s got something to do with the whole thing and isn’t just a misogynistic piece of shit and a waste of screen time. As I mentioned above, he drops the last part of Billy backstory for the girls, which you think they would have been aware of, but they’re not somehow. Yup, welcome to flashback town! Thankfully, this is the last one! Little yellow Billy is still in the attic, while Anges celebrates Christmas downstairs with the family. They try and reference the original by focussing on Billy’s eyes a lot, but they also keep showing us his entire face every chance they get, so it has minimal effect.
For some reason, Billy is really keen on gouging eyes out now. He blinds Agnes’ doll before snatching her and removing one of her own eyes for a Christmas snack. He then murders her mother and her lover and finishes the night off by making Christmas cookies out of his mother’s skin, which is what the police find him eating when they arrive to rescue Anges. This movie has a real misconception about how sharp objects are. First stabbing someone with a candy cane and now skin-cutting cookie cutters. Anything to get a festive murder weapon though I suppose. Billy ends up in the sanitorium and Agnes in a foster home, because who would want a one-eyed inbred? That’s an actual quote from the movie; I’m not that horrible.
Because what we need right now is more characters, Clair’s half-sister Leigh shows up to take her home for Christmas and is worried that no one knows where she has gone. Again, she’s set up as somewhat suspicious as she has a different surname from Clair and she claims to have been part of the sorority, even though the housemother Mrs MacHenry doesn’t remember her. This movie has spent 40 minutes setting up the backstory of Billy and Agnes, as well as showing Billy escaping from the sanitorium; please stop trying to throw us off the scent. The scent is super obvious.
The storm causes the power to cut, which unfortunately for Kelli causes Megan’s computer to reboot, and the sex tape pops up, though not before disturbing an eyeball screensaver. With Kyle finally exposed for the dick he is, the girls kick him out. Dana heads outside on her own, even though there are about 30 people in the house at this point, to fix the power, and is probably one of the only people who die with both their eyes still in their body in this film.
While the girls search for Dana, they find Eve beheaded in her car, so all that time they spent setting her up as Agnes has gone out the window rather quickly. Heather and Mrs MacHenry decide to make a break for it in the car while the rest of the girls wait to make sure the other missing girls are really dead. Sadly for Heather, Billy is waiting in the car for her, and in her grief, Mrs MacHenry is killed by a falling icicle. A tiny icicle that falls from about seven feet and goes right through her head. Seriously, this film does not know how sharp objects are.
Eventually, everyone else is dead (honestly, I’m getting sick of listing them all…there’s too many characters), and all we’re left with is Kelli, Kyle (who has reappeared), and Leigh. The group decide to storm the attic in a last-ditch attack to see if anyone else has been left alive. Kyle gets the old plastic bag plus a sharp object treatment before the killer rips his eyes out to hang on her Christmas tree. That’s right guys, most of the murders have been the work of Agnes, who has been hanging out in the attic the entire time.
Billy finally arrives, crawling out of the floor like a yellow version of The Incredible Hulk, and we’re treated to the only scene I found scary in the whole movie when Kelli and Agnes fall down the gap in a wall. With Kelli wedged halfway down, Agnes starts crawling up towards her and Billy makes his way down at the same time, and it’s quite claustrophobically terrifying. Leigh manages to bash through the wall and rescue Kelli before a flaming Christmas tree falls into the hole and appears to burn the brother/sister/father/daughter duo alive.
We’re then given an unnecessary hospital-based ending, where Billy dies of his burn injuries, but Agnes manages to kill Leigh after pulling a switcheroo with an actual dead body in her body bag. She tries to attack Kelli as well but gets a defibrillator to the face for her troubles.
‘Black Christmas’ (1974) vs. ‘Black X-Mas’ (2006) – The Final Verdict
I feel like you might know how this is going already, but I cannot stress how bad a movie Black X-Mas is compared to the horror masterpiece that is Black Christmas. The original movie is so terrifying because we have no idea who Billy is, or if his name is even Billy. Why does he attack the house? Why does he kill so many people? Who are Billy and Agnes? We don’t get an answer for any of it, and the movie ends with everyone thinking Peter is the killer! They don’t even know Billy exists at this point!
Black X-Mas could not waste more time giving us an explanation of every single point that is touched on in the original movie. It explains the plastic bag, the rocking chair, Billy, Anges, every piece of nonsense he shouts down the phone, the constant peeping with one eye at people, why he picked this house to attack, why Christmas is a triggering time for him – everything! Nothing is left to the imagination.
Black Christmas is also a very tense movie in comparison. While Clare is missing from the outset, it takes the girls quite a while to realise that half of their sorority house has been murdered. Everyone has a good reason why they are missing to begin with, so it takes them quite a while to realise something is really wrong. Black X-Mas crams far too many characters into a very short movie. I honestly lost track of the number of people that died. It probably didn’t help that most people died in exactly the same way as well. How did Agnes get so get at gouging eyes out through a plastic bag anyway? I feel that’s something that requires a lot of practice and is extra impressive because she only has one eye herself. Why is she even on Billy’s side in the first place? He ate her eye in front of her. I feel like the special effects person was really good at making eyes, and they just went with it.
Black Christmas does a great job of being creepy without the use of jumpscares or obvious tactics. Seeing Billy’s shadow carrying Clare’s body to the attic as the party continues downstairs or the attic hatch silently closing after Mrs MacHenry’s murder are incredibly eerie.
I remember coming out of the cinema after watching Black X-Mas and thinking it was truly awful, and then watching the original film years later on late night TV and being straight up terrified. Black X-Mas has had very little lasting effect on me, but Black Christmas has always made me a bit more wary of attic hatches.
Winner: ‘Black Christmas’ (1974)