For fans of old school horror, "Black Christmas" is a gore-filled present wrapped with a blood-red bow.
Based on a 1974 slasher thriller by Bob Clark ("A Christmas Story"), the movie strands hot girls in a sorority house during a pre-holiday snowstorm. One by one, the girls are picked off in inventive ways while the others make the stupidest possible decisions to ensure that they will be next.
Here the movie elaborates on the story of the killer, Billy (Robert Mann), unloved since birth and locked in the attic by his crazy mother (Karin Konoval). Given a telescope for Christmas, the kid spies on happy families in the neighborhood. Mom only visits the boy when Billy's stepfather nods off during sex.
The writer/director here is Glen Morgan, an "X-Files" vet who delivered a clever "Willard" remake in 2003. "Black Christmas" is only half as good at balancing gore with shivery laughs, though there is that occasional hint at intelligent design.
Since Billy enjoys gouging out the eyes of his victims, an eye motif runs throughout the film, from the winged version on a computer screen saver to the image of Peter Lorre's protruding peepers (from "Mad Love") on a concert poster in one girl's room.
Many of the creepiest scenes happen as Billy digs tiny holes through the floor, ceiling and wall and only a single, jaundiced eye is visible.
As with the best horror films, the scariest things here are those you don't see. The movie's threatening phone calls are updated for cell phone use, especially when a missing girl's phone clearly rings from the attic.
Reported studio meddling has rendered the movie almost incoherent. The girls are so poised as lambs to the slaughter that the story can almost be seen as a deconstruction of slasher archetypes. Or maybe it's just bad writing.
In the acting department, it would be hard to compete with the 1974 original, which featured Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Keir Dullea. The girls here are played by vacuous young Barbies (Katie Cassidy, Michele Trachtenberg, Rocky Mount-native Mary Elizabeth Winstead), many with experience from far lousier Dimension-produced horror fodder.
Though not prescreened for critics, "Black Christmas" opened earlier in England and Europe, which means the Internet is full of reviews, mostly making negative comparisons to the Clark version. For me, this was one of the best horror movies of the year, which sounds glowing until you consider the competition.